Nathaniel Glass (A-Men name: D'Alessandro) is a scientist locked in the basements of his father's corporate offices creating a simulated universe based upon a fantasy kingdom. Susannah (A-Men name: Pure) and her transsexual friend Lucille are hairdressers-cum-wannabe actresses hungry to become big movie stars. Benjamin (A-Men name: 23rdxenturyboy) is a young boy with a head full of comic book superheroes who works mucking out genetically engineered military experimental animals. Esther (A-Men name: Sister Midnight) is an ultra-religious army sergeant in a rag-tag unit made up of conscripted criminals. Jack (A-Men name: The Nowhereman) is a man with no memory who awakes after surgery to find that he paid to have his mind erased and is now enrolled in the same peace-keeping unit as Esther. His only link with his past: a book of faerie tales titled Forevermore and a scrawled incomprehensible note...
Once upon a time I was a man with a dream.
A dream to be a god. An undeniable need to possess a name that shall never die beneath the heavens. And a form to go with that name. A body that could transcend the inevitability of death. It was a dream that destroyed everything I am or had or was.
And that is what this story is about. More or less.
The destruction of Nathaniel Raymond Glass and the creation of the Amen.
To be the first. To be the last. To be both creator and Creator.
Yet this is also the story of the A-Men; my followers. Though at the start of this dark and twisted tale they have no idea of the road upon which they travel. A road of violence, sex and death. Of fear, anger, hope, destiny and love also, but mostly of violence, sex and death.
These two stories are a war of attrition; of self against the self. A crossover of lives from which we are afforded mere snapshots. Each has its secrets, each is also a part of the whole. Only by seeing where each of the threads begin can we appreciate the weaving of the tapestry. Only then can we see the whole picture. The complete work.
These stories deal with the fantastical and the mundane. Running on the edge of the knife between myth and faerie tale. Between supreme deities and the everyman. In myths, heroes overcome insurmountable adversities by superhuman feats and the odd dash of deus ex machina; those of folk tales are people just like all the rest of us. Everyday champions who prove to us all that we can win through impossible odds even though, underneath, we are fallible, fragile cretins. Mere mortals who are forced to deal with those first and last questions.
Generally: Who am I? What am I? What must I become?
Specifically: Why would a man erase his own mind? What possible reason would he have? And what would you do if you found out your worst enemy was yourself? Can you really enact revenge on someone you've never met?
For you see, the heroes who inhabit faerie tales are innocent and love justice, while the heroes of myth are wicked and prefer mercy.
What about you?
What do you desire at the end of your stories?
At the end of your night-time rambles across the mindscape of your dreams?
Or just at the end?
Of course, I dream of things other than wielding the power of creation and destruction, of speaking the thirteen words of power, but never are these imaginings so vivid or so often. I sometimes dream of wolves gone rabid on savagery. The thrill of the chase. The hunt for an unseen quarry. I dream of endless nights, a pitch black ocean road, winding into nothingness. A Lamborghini Diablo, myself at the wheel, black hair dancing wild. Open-topped temerity. No limits. Faster than the speed of darkness. Catching up the dawn, moment by moment.
Moment by moment.
Yet these are mere conceits. Tenebrous fabrications. For I know that this world is ending one moment at a time. And I am ending with it. And though we all expect – as a father expects to outlive his son – that the world will outlive us, one can never really be sure.
Nothing lasts. Never comes. The end always manifests. And when it does it is so perfectly, utterly complete.
Yet I'll warn you now, right at the beginning, right from the off, that as you are drawn through this urban Ultima Thule it will not be against a landscape you recognise. These people have yet to be born. This world has yet to be made. This won't be a city you know because for you it has yet to be created. But it will. Oh yes, it will. And we have grand balcony seats in this gaudy theatre, ready to watch the rise of its cement and iron, its walls of ice and basements of stone. All as ephemeral as any stage set. As Jack or Esther or Benjamin or Susannah. As us all. For this cement shall become blood. This iron, shadow. This ice, water. This stone, fire.
This future, nightmare.
All this towering municipal substance shall quickly metamorphose. Changing from city of night to city of death. From megalopolis to necropolis. This show will open on a fallen world wherein each part and person reflected in its dark obsidian mirror is fallen also. These putative realities interwoven with inextricable dreams; indivisible. Each distinguished only by the magnitude of their demons. And before you ask – no, there are none who shall be saved. It's a pity, but there you go. For these human beings carry within themselves the long-nurtured seeds of their own destruction. As do we all.
And so what then is this journey to the end of the night? Where does it head? What is its purpose?
There is none. None, but those headings and purposes which we ourselves invent.
We ourselves invent.
Ah, you are thinking, he's a raving psychopath. Why you're right, of course, but that's not really the point.
The point is that it would appear I am to play the part of storyteller. So be it. It is as good a part as any. And it affords me some bias in the recounting. Some bias and perhaps a touch of vanity. This is not my tale, but ours. I form but a part of all that is about to be revealed. And I tell you this not to fuel my own overblown ego-alien presence, but instead because when my world ends – when they dredge the incinerator, when they complete the autorestructure on the hostgod sentience, when they come to drag me away for a lifetime of incarceration – then this is how I would like to be remembered.
As a man with a dream.
"And I said so what if I can't cook. Haven't you heard of the Angus SteakOut?"
"Yeah, or Old-Fashioned Fanny's…"
"Wherever. What's she think this is? The dark ages?"
"Exactly. So what if I can't cook. Bet she can't weave cloth or harvest her own root vegetables."
"Y'know, in these days of Jojoba Detangling Hot Oil treatment, people like that just shouldn't happen."
I stand, texturising mousse flexible styling tool in one hand, teasing comb in the other, nodding to Lucille with my 'that's so people' look. Styling, styling, styling. My one-fifteen wriggles annoyingly as the mousse drips sporadically onto the nape of her neck. I can't remember her name. Why can't I ever remember their names? I think it's Hispanic and begins with an 'S', but I wouldn't put money on it. I've worked here at Salon Pizzazz, corner of Sabine and Marr in the shadow of the Expressway, for over a year now and I still haven't got the faintest idea who my clients are. Their faces are just so forgettable. Actually almost all of them is. Their talk, their clothes, their pampered pooches. And once one is gone, me and Lucille talk about them. Not incessantly. Just enough to make sure that the stiff in the chair knows it's her turn once she's upped and left. Just so that when she's slipping into the ivory cushioned seat of her hydrogen-powered Mercedes Twelve-Twenty, her mind's already wandering back to her time spent here. Her mind under her newly teased, tousled and tweaked hair that makes this mirror-floored conservatory the most successful colour hairdressing salon in the city.
Pause and note the USP here, lover. The word 'colour'. If it was just most successful hairdressers, we'd be fifty-third. But it's that little word that does it. That little word that makes us number one. Shit knows what colour hairdressing is. But it's the USP that matters and all the differential we need to be the best.
And the bitches love it.
We have hundreds of clients just like ms one-fifteen. Hundreds of them. Over twenty five each shift. Of course, this means only one thing. On any single day, somebody's always got PMS. My current client's only memorable feature is her dress. The way it bulges. Actually this witch is so padded it looks like someone's forced a waterbed down the front of a frock and belted it. In comparison Lucille's looks like a fucking exhibit. Her whipped moccachino curls every colour of an inner city elementary school. And we're not talking the bricks here, do you understand what I'm saying? She exudes concealer as if it's sap. Bubbling in the heat of the weird autumn weather. Tiered banks of driers do nothing but fight with the air conditioning, forcing the temperature to swing ten degrees in as many seconds. Plants gasp for carbon dioxide overhead, while the blinds try to dissuade the fierce sunlight from burning everything it touches to ash. Also overhead the radio blares. Some unknowable junk. Could be KKIZ. Could be Central 4-50. Could be someone reciting the phone book for all I care.
"And out in the darkness, there rides a goddess. I know she can heal me, reforge me, redeem me. Take the darkness and make it burn bright. One man, one woman, one night."
Just the usual romantic bollocks.
Lucille's has been in since twelve-ten. Adding personality to last week's failing wire frame extensions. No way that shape is anything but underpinned. Not in this gravity. Lucille herself is just applying the finishing spray. Piling it on. Hand pumped dispenser looking teeny in her mammoth hands. It's a pity. The rest of the surgery's been pretty much successful, but there's always the hands and neck.
Always the hands and neck.
Me and Lucille are going to be stars. Straight to the top. I go aqua-boxing on Mondays, trim and tone before work on Tuesdays, Shotokan karate on Wednesdays, circuit before work on Thursdays and progressive dance on Friday. That leaves Tuesday and Thursday evenings for am dram. And the weekend for getting laid. We sing too. And I also do men. More clients. Mainly as a sideline to pay for all those bloody courses. And all the A's I've been popping. Supposed to be studying Astrogations. To keep the parents happy. Spend more time on my knees. Anyhow the lectures mess with my night job. Still I need the cash. Lucille says you can't knock having money and I agree. Of course money can't buy you love, but the rest is pretty much negotiable.
"Whatever I do, whatever I say, I will always be night, you will always be day. You're the only person who could ever tame me. The only single person who could ever blame me."
I cringe at the thought that I'll be here in another year. I have to get out. That's what makes it such a big day. This evening's the tryout for Che Castella. Some new action horror flick. He needs a sidekick for a major major star. My money's ..ie Kuzushi. Lucille thinks it's Vadge Tears. We could both be wrong. But only one of us could be right. Of course I worship street trash turned superstar, Babs O'Neill. Only woman in the world to have ever made the front cover of Eternity magazine twice. She's a real benchmark. And no one, but no one's got better boobs than Babs.
"We were taking it easy, taking it slow. There's a long night ahead and a long, long way to go. And the clocks are running slow and the tension's oh so tight. One man, one woman, one night."
One-fifteen is done and I get rid of her quick. Swipe her card. Stuff her in her furs and hold open the door. She doesn't tip, so I let it go just as the cow's halfway through. Just so it catches the back of her chopstick heeled strap-ons. Watch through the glass as she staggers forwards and almost into the street.
Eat that, ms name probably starts with an 'S'.
Turn and see my two o'clock easing her withered frame into the still-warm swivel seat. This one looks like some vampire's been feeding on her about a month already. Last few drops to suck out and she's undead for sure. Still blaring, the radio abruptly switches to news on the twos. Terminally ill cancer grandmother raped in hospital toilet. Twenty-five kilometre trailback on northbound Expressway. Talks by blah blah officials with governing corporation break down. Blah blah. Soundbite of fat cat threatening they'll pull out funding if talks not reconvened. Blah blah and more bloody blah. Everyone ignores it. Their reflections are far more important.
With a raised eyebrow as the only warning, ms vamp victim says, "I's fifty-five, y'know."
"Really," I reply through my semi-permanent blonde ringlets, "you don't look it. Look younger."
Yeah, like ten fucking minutes younger.
My two-o'clock wriggles, flattered. And as she smiles I get stuck in. Reach for the slim blue bottle that marketing men the world over have decided should look like an alien's penis.
"What is that?" asks two-o'clock prissily.
"Ah, madame," answers Lucille as she sashays past bound for the transaction booth, "That's liquid dynamite. It's an active balancing complex, containing menthol, satinol and agave for fresh yet conditioned hair and scalp."
"Yeah," I add. Nodding and chewing.
"Faw'sure," the bitch relents, clutching one prune-like hand to her crumpled breast.
Squeezing the tube I slap it on, thinking, God, if I don't make it to the final ten this afternoon and have to come back here tomorrow, they'll be mopping these bitch's brains from the pine cladding.
Way back when I met Elliott, I wasn't really sure if he was a man-dog or a dog-man. So I ask't him.
"Elliott, is you a dog-man or a man-dog." See.
And Elliott said: "A little bit of both."
Bei'n a little bit of both, Elliott has an irregular structure to his mouth. S'like have'n a cleft palate. Like I do. Alsa, his vocal chords and the shape of his lips is all wrong, so he has trouble pronouncing all the letters in the alphabet. Like I do, Got difficulties 'cept with nasal sounds. But I understand him 'n all. Mosta the time I don't hear noth'n wrong. Not a thing. He was way bad. But he's get'n better. Unlike me.
Still, though Elliott can say a whole lot, it's always good to learn a little doggish. This is more about think'n like a dog than bark'n or saying woof a lot. You have to watch their eyes and mouths and bodies and ears and tails. Growl bark means I'm gonna play with you. Bark growl means I'm gonna bite your face off. Then there's gruff, ruff and arff. Them's the difference between whassat, come here and way-hey! Stuff like that's pretty important when you work with pooches. Especially gene-fucked lab mutts like Elliott, Zark and his pack.
Actually Elliott's been mess't up pretty bad, but I guess life's tough when you've been grown in a vat. It's not that he minds or noth'n… Well, OK, so I guess he does mind, but that's not really what I'm get'n at. What I'm get'n at is him's not have'n access to a veeteevee. Veeteevee's cool. Way cool. Cooler than the fridge that he spent most of years one thru five stuff't in. Veeteevee has over four thousand channels and if you press the intra remote fast enough you can go epileptic. Well, for about three seconds. Then your hands slip and you spaz out. Or paws in his case. I had a veeteevee for about six months back when I was younger sometime, but that was only because the slummers had one in the dorm I was slave'n in and I learn't how to slip my manacles. The boss duke always use't to be out fight night and that's when I first got hook't on Phantom the Wonder Dog. He's Elliott's hero. He's who he wants to be. The real Phantom has these rocket skates with little wings on 'em and he beats up bad people and smiles a lot. I likes Phantom too. He's ace. The Wonder Dog's in a comic book as well, but it's not the same. Hector says that before they disappear't comics were the kiddie fables of the last generation. If that's true then veeteevee shows is the ones for this.
When I got caught with the veeteevee they box't me for a month straight. Personally didn't see what all the fuss was about. After all, that's what they fed me for. Break'n in. Break'n out. Duck'n and dive'n. Dodge'n and weave'n. So what can they expect? From then on things were tougher. I was cold turk't. I was bolt't. And now I'm on perimeter.
Haven't seen hide nor hair of a veeteevee from that day to this. No way, no sir. Have miss't every episode of the Wonder Dog since. By my reckon'n that's about eighty-six. At an hour a piece, I'm so far behind I may never live long enough to ever catch up. Unless they gets a repeat slot on Channel Retrox. Instead I read the comics. Phantom when I can, others when I can't. Way-strange shit mostly. My Spastic Friend, Johnny. Captain Cotdeath. That sorta pook. When I'm done read'n 'em so hard the ink's about three microns thinner, I hands 'em to Elliott.
The Roosevelt Zoological Dome is big, way old and in the sunlight it shines like a rainbow bent into the shape of a big hollow eye. It's alsa home for me and the mutts right now. Takes about a week to go all the way around. Well, OK, so maybe not a whole week. Maybe just a couple of hours, but it's a long way all the same. Stands between Oakcrest and CityPark. Just off the Carrolton Approach.
Shuffle, shuffle, sniff.
Spend the hours look'n for breaks and breaches and anyth'n I didn't see the other nine hundred and ninety-nine times I've beat't this way.
I'm plumb wore out. If only I had some wheels. Like a little bike or a scooter or someth'n.
Long whiles ago the RuZu use't to be a big zoo and game park. It's on the edge of the city. Not far from Forevermore. That's the theme park not the stupid story. Anyway the park's near the bay. The zoo's inland aways. In exurbia. Can still make out the water they say, but only if you get to the top of the Spire of Life. Not that I'm ever gonna get up there. Elliott use't to live in the convert't AquaPark. Pools resurface't and link't with the hydrology system, so that's where they grow the new recruits. He's part wolf, you know. Mostly the head part. The rest of him's sorta human. Hairy but human. Mixture of yellowy-brown with grey 'round the edges. Scruffy. Murder to keep unmatted. But that's him!
This place was close't down ages ago and I don't think what they use it for now is strictly legal. Hence the good reason for keep'n people away. They say they have a government contract, but Xero says that's so much shit. How he knows, I can't really say, but he does.
Now I live near the cages over in Wonders of Nature. Well, I say me, but there's lots of us. Well, me – Benjamin or Little Ben or Benjie – and lots of them. There's Xero. Xero's a mongrel. Bad breed. He's alsa crazy. Not full blown batshit crazy like Zark, but still pretty way out on the wonky limb of the wongo tree. There's alsa my other perimeter pal, Hector. And then there's Elliott. My best mutt buddy. Elliott. That's all there is. Seems a little short, don't it? Not like Phantom the Wonder Dog.
The other mutts call him Dingo.
While I'm just a street brat brought in to shovel dog crap, Elliott's code-name't Anima-626a which is really cool. He has this tattoo't on the back of his left paw. It's like he's a secret agent. Would be even better if the other dog thiefs didn't all have these too. If only Dingo was a secret agent we could blow this pile and zip outta here. Outta here. That sounds cool. No more drills and thumps and no more perimeter patrols.
Same old, same old.
Today the perimeter looks as it has always done.
Except I guess for about a hundred titchy dots that hang in the big blue sky like little black flies.
I can feel the oncoming war like a great weight in my gut. It is inevitable. I pray to the holy mother of God asking all her mercy upon the world, but she just smiles her benign smile. And then I know that the war is coming. It is dark and it is mysterious. Dark like stigmatic blood. Mysterious like a stranger. Like the stranger who sits beside my bunk. Sits and sits and sits. Wired into his terminal. And when he's not sitting he skulks. And he smiles as he skulks. A grinning smile that is not altogether pleasant.
Still the war, the riots and the carnage that will follow give me a feeling of great purpose. It is like a first jihad. A holy battle. Especially for me. I need it. I need it badly. For recently my faith has been worn tissue-thin and I have feared that if forced to test the gossamer surface too strongly it would tear asunder. The rest of the world has forgotten the fervour of the rites. The last feast. The wounded side. Yet not I. I carry the book and the memories, held tight to my breast. Like a mother carries a child. And I will not toss it aside like the rest. For what would take its place but hollowness? It is easy to discard all that displeases us – jobs, lovers, God – yet more difficult to rejuvenate and reinvent. To make work.
The dark green of the hatch shivers before me and I tense. Hidden chains spasm, screaming. I heft the ultra-light belt-fed semi-automatic in my hands. Balance its weight with my pack and helm. Keep my tacticals steady. Just off-centre in my right eye. At the moment only this tiny chamber shows hotly on the v-rad. Yet this will not last for long.
With an agonising grinding of metal on metal the door screeches painfully. Breaking in two, the ever-widening jaws vanish above and below me. Ahead is the emptiness of a rusted hall. Two exits; one left, one right. Way off at the far end. Oil drums crowd the corners. Shadows twitch in the light from my shoulder-mounted torch. My black hands tighten on the polygrips. My brown eyes scan the scene.
Nothing. When the screaming ends, there is silence. Silence like a tomb. Like the silence of the stranger who sits beside my bunk. Sits and sits and sits.
I start running. Running as if by doing so I will never stop. The lo-gravity makes movement easier, makes stopping difficult. Twist toward the righthand path. Spring off the grime-encrusted metal. Land upon the intersection wall and reconfigure my XYZ-coordinates. Now the wall is the floor. The corridor a long hall. To the right, emerging from another hatch, is Sanada. Edwardo Alexander Mohammed Sanada. One of the E-Unit newbies. Good frontman, but lousy in the maze.
Bleating shells, I hit him seventeen times in the head and breastplate. Spinning, he goes down. Falling backwards into the dark well of the hatch. The jaws of his coffin biting as they swallow him.
One down. Now where's the flag this time?
Heads-up shouts possibilities. Follow my intuition instead.
Leaping I come to the end of the long hall and twist onto the roof. Reconfigure again, then head left. Ceiling strips pulse beneath my boots. Find I'm panting. Gulping air. Check my oxygen flow. All the while running. Seeking. Scanning for hidden foes.
Go easy, my mind tells me. Concentration is the first brick in the wall of the strong. Concentrate. Concentrate. Breathe. Don't think about the stranger. Think about your mission. Kill the creeps. Take the flag. Return to the hatch.
And elementary as this half-baked jingo training course may be – as numerous as the times I have navigated the steel bowels of this rotting labyrinth educating those neophyte newcomers swelling the ranks of Emergency Unit Six in preparation for the inevitable – I am still shocked at the appearance of the a-droids. Six pop up as I trip their sensor-packed threshold. My body is here. My mind is elsewhere.
Ave maria, they've modified this sector. Yet I should have anticipated that. Presumed nothing.
In cases such as these instinct takes over. And in my case instinct is what I live on. That and whatever the good Lord sends.
Dropping to one knee, I feed the belt and spray two hundred rounds in a wide arc. Casings erupting against my flak vest. Dancing upon the many pocketed plating like jumping beans. The a-droids dance too. Flapping like marionettes. Then each one disappears back whence it came.
And I carry on.
Ignoring as I make for the inner door that leads to combat hall seven-g the flashing counter on my tacticals. Ignoring as RIN announces that all but two of those a-droids was a friendly. That I will now have to score maximum points to reach my fulfilment quotient. That my chances for success are eighty-six per cent unlikely.
As the Lord God Eternal is my witness, that's fine.
For this black mutha is ever up for a challenge.
This is about how it started.
I guess it started in deep sleep. Dreaming the dreams of the dead. It is a sleep from which I may never awaken. The place I inhabit is utterly nocturnal. Permeated with chaos, darkness, guilt. It fills me like an ocean of water. Each aspect infinite.
I feel that I am awake, but can't move or see. Can't even breathe. It's like being underwater and you daren't open your mouth or you'll drown. There's drilling. My head vibrating.
I panic. Try to thrash. Just makes the panic worse.
Then I feel it.
Feel the something in my head.
There's something in my head. Moving around. Filling it utterly. A big spider. Crawling. Touching. Feeding.
Feel woozy. Like I've been drinking or on drugs.
Am I dead? I remember a brightness. A flash. The smell of burning air. A black metal tunnel as large as my left eye. It's like my first memory ever. Like it happened to me when I was three. Primal, fuzzy and very long ago.
The spider is feeding still. Engorged, it presses upon the inside of my skull.
I can't even breathe.
There's sudden light in my eye. Then a sting in my neck.
I dimly think that I've been bitten. Dimly think I have lost all my dreams. Think I've dropped them. Dropped them through my trembling fingers.
My mind is emptying. The brain at birth. Tabula rasa. True renascence.
Then I don't think anything.
• • •
I wake to find her standing there. Praying. An ebony rose. Naked. Dressed in her scars and a look that says – however long now she has still to live – that she will never ever care about anything else. She's at the window, enframed by sunlight. Moonlight? Well, light anyway. Unfolding to the unseen morning. The porthole is rimmed with gold, as is her face. Her strong dark face. As are her eyes. But outside the sky is black as pitch.
Her wildness is the first aspect of her that I am aware of noticing. Untamed within, it sensuously radiates through. Though my eyesight twitches between light and dark, in each of these two opposite worlds she rules. The first is chocolate and sunflowers. The second ice and fire. My eyelids sting. They water and itch. And still all I can do is force them open to look again.
The rose woman is wet. Like she's just stepped inside after a light summer shower. Her thorns, the barbs of her breasts, are erect. Full and hard and young. They stand as she stands, gazing through that tiny circle of transparency in the immense wall of grubby green metal. Her flesh is kidskin, glistening. Rounded and vast and brown as bark. Tight across her thighs and hard behind. Her backbone arcs, revealing the feral power of her shoulders. She cries. The tears falling unnoticed onto the slickness of her breast. Her head is shaven. Only the merest hint of ebony flecks show. Yet this only accentuates her savagery. Her animalness. At her side her hands clench and unclench. Like great black birds. Her bitten nails are coloured red. Faint sounds escape her tingling lips. And even though her stance betrays nothing of it, I know that she is praying.
Then I hear it.
"Today, O Lord, make me brave enough to face the things of which I am afraid…"
Yes, she's praying alright. Praying to some unseen divinity outside the window. This strikes me as strange. Never met anyone who prays to God. Thought all that mumbo jumbo died out years ago. Didn't someone prove He was an urban myth?
"And help me to live in purity, speak in truth, act in love. Grant me the strength to be true in every hour of my adventure: Amen."
It is then that I notice she's wounded.
Between blinks of pain I see it. The gash. It sits upon her right side. The one facing away from me. The weeping tear dribbles blood like a tiny fountain. I can't quite make myself focus on it for too long. My eyes are still aching and tired. My head hurts. Hurts as if someone had opened it up and quietly slipped in a bowling ball. Like my brain is cramped right up to the front of my skull, while behind it the size 12 sits, just being.
There's something around my head. Hot. Not burning, just hot. I try to lift my fingers up, but my hand never seems to reach it.
I twist where I lay and find that it's a bunk. Green sheets and metal ends. Hung with a huge mesh netting. Each link shaped like a piece of exploded vertebrae. Its surface shimmers above me, while above that gantries cross. Making their own kind of weird mesh.
I am in a hulking cave. A metallic cave. A vast hulking metallic cave. Filled with bunks and low lights. One above each. Some are on. Most are not. Place looks haunted. And of course it is.
It is haunted by me and the black woman. She is like the first woman I have ever seen. But however perfect a solution this would be, however apt, I know that I'm not.
Am I dreaming this? Hallucinating?
Finally feeling my gaze, she turns. One leg lightly lifting. So as to protect her wound I guess. And in that move I see her power and also her sleekness. Her otherworldly beauty. That impossible forged quality of her body. Her skin. Her soul. Yet also I see the other blood. The blood of desire. She whitely bleeds it. Dripping from the dark gash between her muscled thighs. And here I see that her real wound is not the reason she cries. Here is the reason. Or perhaps the reason lies through the window. I can't be sure. My mind's too inchoate to hold any one thought for very long.
I am shocked though. Appalled. Hurt for her hurt. This is fucked. But then everything in this world is so fucked, it's a wonder we notice. Still, here for the first time I feel connected with the woman. We are both victims, her and I. I'm a victim of some terrible violation of my mind. She, a violation of her body. Both of us have lost our dreams. Her, the dreams of victory. Me, the dreams of defeat. Am I imagining all this? Both have lost our selves. Am I tripping? Both are resurrected. Born again. Am I mad?
The huntress' eyes meet mine. Reading every thought.
"Hello, Jack," she whispers.
Unlike every other centimetre, her voice is like crushed ice. And her eyes are pits. Frozen. Glassed like gems. Shining out their message: this is the end.
That look, that perfect torn image of desecration, that utter broken sound that is her voice, all of these things make me shiver. Shiver and squirm. And squirming makes my head hurt again. Involuntarily I let out a little whine and reach for her.
Seeing me seeing her – seeing me reaching – she turns away. Embarrassed? Disoriented? Shivering too perhaps. Perhaps not. It's hard to tell.
Uncaring for her nakedness, she gives the darkness beyond the porthole one last longing look, then sits upon the next bunk. Sits and pulls around her shoulders a grey robe. Then, and only then, does she start to tend her wound. Then to towel herself dry.
And all the time I can see displayed between her legs the bitterly cold murder.
What is happening here? What is going on?
The vision forces me to focus on myself again. And it is then, for the first time, that I realise that my mind is blank. Like an unwritten page. Aching and cold and empty. This unfamiliar cavern into which I have woken is not new because I have never been here. It is new because everything is new. Virgin territory. It's not that I have no recollection of falling asleep here. Or no recollection of waking yesterday. I have no recollection of ever waking anywhere.
Of waking ever.
I get angry.
The anger is an instant thing. Inexplicable. Raw. A sudden welling like a flood. Gripping me in a moment and wrenching me to action. But I can't. I'm restrained. My hands and feet are strapped to the bunk.
"It's for your own safety," sneers the black woman, still towelling. "And, of course, ours."
Now I can see that she's not blushing or confused. Now I can see that she's seething with fury. Every sinew of her body knotted in hatred, yet she finds within herself some shred of restraint. Some way to turn the other cheek.
I try to talk. To articulate the pain and utter terror I feel, but the words are not there. Just hazy clouds that might be words if only I could see through their iridescent fog. Inside I can make out what I believe to be letters. But alphabets and syllables and past imperatives are beyond me. Can I even remember what my voice sounds like? Its speed? The music of its intonation? No, I cannot. Robbed of communication, I try to concentrate on non-verbal skills, but I don't remember the rules. I can't recall how to interact. And it occurs to me then that I was not asleep before, but unconscious. Dead to the world. And now I have risen but as a newly born infant in the body of a man. Reincarnated in this god-awful place.
A thousand questions scream at me to be answered, but I am unable to even curse. It's maddening. And the madness only fuels my infuriation.
I struggle, ripping at the restraints. They gnaw at my skin, but otherwise hold fast. Hold me fast.
The woman shakes her head a little as I writhe, but apart from this, does nothing. Nothing except dries the water from her legs and arms. The tears from her eyes. And once she is done drying, she tends her pain.
Now that she has moved, I can see that the gash is just a flesh wound. All around it is the dark flower of a bruise. By the skin's withered paleness, my guess is that it's from an impact. Skin's broken against some force. Like the pounding of a hard object. She may have to get her ribs checked out, but it's nothing serious. And she knows this. Just the way she swabs it tells me so.
My eyes flutter as I watch her. Trying to get a grip on the simple things. Everything else can go hang ten. For now I let my anger burn out. Grunt and look despairingly at the straps. Try to punch her into understanding what I want. She gets it immediately.
"Ut-uh, Jack." She uses the name like a scalpel. "Don't go asking me to release you. Doctor's orders." When I spasm my insistence, she loses it a bit. Shrieking suddenly.
"Back off, you crazy bastard! After what you've done tonight it's a wonder you're not lying in the latrine pissing blood through a hole in your throat." Then she catches herself. Forces the fire inside. "Just back off. Why can't you lie there and be cool. You can do that for Esther now, can't you?"
Esther? The name means shit nothing to me. Running it through my head turns up nada. Esther. Esther. Esther.
Beside me, Esther finishes tending her wound by spraying some kind of foul-smelling gunk on it. And when this forms an idiotically-bright pale pink crust, she draws her robe around her and belts it. Then, and only then, does she pull the towel's roughness between her legs. Wiping away the residual cum with three jerking tugs. And all the while she does this her face is a mask of hate. A mask that is turned to me. Scalding me with its boiling sting. The muscles on her face knotted. The rest of her body tense.
There is a distant clanging. Like a bolt cutter dropped in an empty drum. Then echoes resound in the cavern over our heads. Someone – no, two someones – are walking above us. Their boots striking some unseen meshed metal walkway. Drumming it. All else is quiet while they cross the eternal darkness above us. Their departure punctuated by another distant clang. Then silence resumes. Vast, imperious silence.
Esther stands and busies herself doing something at the far end of the bed. Can't see what it is. She seems to have relaxed a little. Resigned herself to whatever it is that has incensed her. In a moment of complete uncentredness, I wonder who did that to her. And was it the same bastard who hit her too? But those kind of questions are so far beyond where I am right now that I trash them as soon as they swim to the surface of my muddled mind. Can't major on her. Got to focus on myself. Where I am. What I am. Where I came from and where I'm going. Try to keep myself from getting frustrated. Try to get my thoughts out of slow motion mode and up to speed. The dreaming moment of waking in this place is beginning to fade, but with it also fades all sense of security. Of ease.
So if I can't talk, what can I do?
I still feel sluggish. Both mind and body. I feel drained of the will to face this right now. About all I can do is watch. So I watch. I watch the woman who calls herself Esther – and who calls me Jack – as she continues to get ready for some unknown event.
Pulling my neck back, I try to ignore the contraption that sits on my head and look toward her. The hat, crown or whatever it is makes this difficult, but I persevere. And as I do, I see her digging in a large metal chest that stands at the foot of her bed. Of every bed in this huge dorm. Out of it she pulls a variety of clothes and objects, piling them beside her on the floor. I see boots. I see khaki pants. I see a belt, wrapped with tiny leather pouches.
Then she pulls out a sword.
Though I have no recollection of arriving here – or of leaving anywhere else to come – I know that I have not seen a blade of this type since I was a child. It is a great thick length of steel. Polished. Its hilt etched in silver. Tightly wrapped in coarse vermillion leather. It has no scabbard. Just a harness that fits across the top and bottom of the blade. A thing of beauty and death, it suits her. A perfect resemblance between item and individual. A match. It is a treasured possession, that much is clear. Just by the way her long fingers touch it. Almost lovingly. Which seems strange for a lump of metal. Perhaps it's a family heirloom. Perhaps it is the last thing which she owns that links her back to her past. Perhaps–
The sword… The sword and the… The sword and the ring. The cross and the circle. The weapon of the warrior. The weapon of the wizard.
But the sight of the sword has given me a hook. A jagged little barb that snares a single droplet of memory from the fathomless deeps upon which I tread water. It bobs up and down for a while, unsure if the air will kill it, then surfaces fully.
It is not a memory that I would have expected.
I am young. Maybe seven or eight. I'm in a room without doors. A panelled room. Somewhere expensive. The sort of room a professor would have. Old and musty. Lots of bookcases. Two chairs. Fancy paintings on the walls. Also on the wall is a sword. I see it for a moment, but that's not really what the memory is about. It's not what the memory is really concerned with. It's concerned with the book. This thick gargantuan book. I hold it in my miniature hands. Each page is an acre of paper. Each letter as tall as a man. I'm looking at the letter O. O is for orange. All juicy and sweet. P is for Papa. Who walks down the street…
This O isn't for orange, though. This O is for…
"Hello, mister Jack. Can you hear me?"
There's a little light in one of my eyes.
This O is for–
This O is for–
"Jack? How'd you feel, hmm?"
There's a doctor standing by my bunk when I look up again. Have I slept? Wasn't I looking at Esther. Esther and the sword?
Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn't. Whatever I was doing the warrior huntress is gone now. I am all alone in the cavernous hollow of the unknown hall. All alone except for the doctor. Has time passed? Has space warped? Changed? Altered? Is this reality? Was that? Again I cannot be sure.
I look at the man. He's old. Hard to tell how old. Could be forties. Could be fifties. Real groomed look to him. He's wearing the usual things doctors wear. Shirt. White coat. Miscellaneous accoutrements poking from his top pocket. He's a walking doctor cliché. Except that he's not walking. He's checking this square plate. It glows in his hand. He's tapping at it. Half interested in me, half with the plate. And when he's not tapping, he's leaning over and shining a finger-mounted torch in my eyes. First the right, then the left. Then the right again.
Then he's chatting.
He talks quite fast. Yakkety-yak. And I have a tough time keeping up. Flits from topic to topic. Straining my limited level of tolerance. Overloading me with information. Then he seems to realise this and slows right down. Turns his babbling bedside manner into condescending schmaltz. Both are a verbal barrage. I take in none of it.
Then he says, "Well, this is to be expected I suppose."
I look blankly back at him.
Taking this as a good sign, he continues.
"Do you know who I am?" he asks. As if we met once at a party and shot shit all night. Slept with each other's wives. Winked afterwards in the street. Male bonded.
I shake my head. It comes out as a manic series of movements. My personal bowling ball knocks around. Shifting sluggishly in my soup-filled head. Smashing any thoughts it finds flat as pancakes.
Seeing this, the doc disregards his last question. Switches to another tack.
"Can't you speak, sir?"
"Mmm," he mutters and taps at the plate. Now I look better at it, I can see it's an input tablet of some sort. It's strapped to his palm so it can't fall off. Not exactly the most recent development in the medical profession. Strange. But no stranger than where I am right now. Obviously I was under no preconceptions about being in some high-class private hospital. Looks more like the inside of a hydro-electric facility.
"I have just given you a little something to deaden your head for a while. Plus you're getting a feed of steroids, a little librium. You know, chlordiazepoxide…"
He spells it out. Intonating each deft, unintelligible syllable.
Klor. Dye. Az. E. Pox. Ide.
I have awoken a fool. A stupid irascible idiot. And still he continues.
"There's also a hypnotic sedative. Help with any dissociative identity disorder that might develop. All in this IV. Mainly sodium amylobartital…"
Soo. Dee. Um. A. My. Lo. Bar. Bit. Al.
"Anyway, nothing too strong. The effects of all that whiskey should be fading just about now. The drip-tab will take care of the residual hangover. Under optimum circumstances I would normally suggest narcosis, but, well…"
At the mention of a tab, I feel for the first time the slight glassy ache in my groin. Looking down I see a bump in the covers. Something is attached to my dick. Out the end of the bed tubes snake. Channelling piss and shit. The sight of this makes me queasy. Means I must have slept though. They weren't here when I woke with the black woman. With… Esther.
Check my arms and find the restraints are still very much in evidence. The doctor notices me checking them and says, "Ah, yes. Well, do not look too astonished. What did you expect they would do to you?"
Unannounced my ferocity bursts into life again. Spontaneous inhuman combustion. I gag on a stream of curses. Frustrated by my continued inability to speak. I stumble upon sentences. Trip over vowels and consonants. Grapple with grammar. Then:
"Fuck!" I shriek. "Fuck… fuck… shit!"
The doc's eyebrows raise and he stands up really straight.
"Ah, progress at last."
While I find language impossible, eventual coherence comes in curses.
"Shitting, fucking, wanking… fuck! Fuck! FUCK!"
"Good, good," eggs the surgeon general.
"You fucking, pissing, shitting, fucking… CUNT!"
"Now try some other words."
"I… I… Fuck!"
This hurts. It's so difficult it hurts.
"No, go on. Keep trying."
Ouch. S'like pulling teeth. Feel like I'm dragging razors up my skinned throat and pushing them through my gums. Each word, each syllable, is made of an iron ball. Each ball is covered with jagged glass.
"Just let it come," the doctor is urging. "Don't force it. Let it come."
One moment the glass is snagging, tearing, ripping. The next I fall exhausted and let it drop. And without thinking, out the sentence explodes.
"I… I've… I've no fucking clue what you're fucking… no fucking idea what you're talking about!"
I'm sure that by the look on the labman's face, if he hadn't had that tablet strapped to his hand he would have applauded. I'm beyond caring. The effort of getting out even that simple single sentence has wasted me. I'm excessively fatigued.
My mind swirls. Ice cream sundae cold. Bath water draining. Little whirlpools.
Weak as a puppy, tiny as a toenail, I am swept down with it. Down, down, down and away...