He made a terrible mistake.
Moonlight on scarred thighs. Glints off catheter plastic. Someone so much younger than him. So physically different. A type of body he’d been taught was superior to his, but irreversibly mutilated, suddenly accessible, but you die if you touch it.
He doesn’t remember much. He was drunk and adrenalized. He was someone else in that alienated resort zone. Or he is not himself now, in this unmarked office in a dark floor of the agency, the structure known as XGILEAD. He stares at a blank piece of paper. The click pen in his hand feels like a detonator.
He should have taken Calendula’s advice. If he stays, he dies. But if he runs. He looks like prey.
Because I’m going to break you. Cameras live. Timer running down. Worst six hours of your life.
Something about having a set time attached to it makes it worse.
The paper is still blank. He writes his own name on the paper. LAZUR. That’s me. An extremely cool guy. Note: Fucked. Nooooooo. Note: Find the super ultra hyper-exotic materials.
He writes HYPER EXOTIC MATERIALS in the middle of the paper, followed by a question mark, then another question mark. He stares at it, then adds another. He wants to add a fourth, but restrains himself.
He writes CAL on the paper. Note: Friend of democracy. Linked. Enmeshed. Compromised. Note: Toxic. Deathly fallout collecting in the clothes and hair of friend and enemy. Note: Find evidence. Need leverage before the CEO finds a quiet way to eliminate his complication. With his money and influence, it could happen any day.
He writes AGENCY. Note: Trust? He can’t tell anyone about his investigation. They like Calendula. The CEO is a powerful man. He Plays Ball. There is no moral argument to be made. Only what is good for the agency, or bad for it. A narrative where Cal is selling to another world power. Or funding terrorism, not contras. It’s just a matter of color coding. Catch him red when we’re blue.
He writes RUBICON. Circles the name. Circles it again. Note: Wants to kill me. It seems necessary to circle it once more. Note: Method of killing would be very painful and unpleasant and unnatural. His pen breaks through the paper.
The paper is blue now. The deep cold midnight of Paris Blue. An antidote for heavy metal poisoning, and a ferrous pigment. This blueprint is old enough to be cyanotype, iron salts exposed to UV. The white lines against the dark blue soothe him. Until he thinks about the structure it describes.
The structure has no exit.
This makes sense. It’s a radioactive dump owned by Zhyber Valhalla. An invisible rectangle of desert turned to outer space.
But something is happening inside. A connection was made to that geographic coordinate, where nothing exists on the surface. He used the agency’s database to search unsecured feeds on Zhyber Valhalla property. There was a connection nine months ago, then it disappeared, quickly secured. There are no cameras above ground. What is that secret eye?
No one uses that protocol anymore. A failed VR project from Zhyber Valhalla’s electronics division, briefly hyped, never made it to market due to instability. A haptic sensory suit.
A room with two shadows. Neither belongs to him.
He broke in at night. The hardware looks like an alien engine with a canister built into it. The suits are connected by tubes running from their tailbones. The same kind of suit Calendula uses to enter the secret location. He needs to observe, and he needs to manipulate.
Lazur knows this is a bad idea. He needs someone at his side, watching out for him. But he has no one, and there’s no time.
He takes his clothes off and pulls the suit up, feeling the rubber polymer grip his naked skin. The material prickles at his touch with a sudden heat. By the time he pulls it over his body, the suit is blood-hot. The tube on his tailbone is heavy. It probably routes the signal up to a satellite and back down to the unknown location.
He pulls the mask on and he’s in the dark. A keyboard floats in space. He types on it and his fingertips pulse with simulated feedback.
He hits enter.
His vision fish-eyes, colors sorted along yawing axis, unreadable lines soaring past. The suit tightens, vibrating at every shift of his muscles, a pulsing meat mirror.
The room disappears. He is in the dark, trapped with the sound of his own breathing. He waves his hand and can’t tell if it’s moving. He tries to pull the suit off, warm as blood, he’s tearing his own skin off—
The sky is blue and the floor is grass, blinding green. WELCOME TO
He walks through the text.
He can smell the grass, the field is the field buzzing through his mask. Deep wrong feel of his neurons being manipulated remotely, like a malfunction could fry him or a piece of his brain could be burnt like ants under a magnifying glass. He feels warmer. Has to be psychosomatic.
A single neuron can be targeted.
He must have read that somewhere. Subcon randomly accessed and leaking.
There is a solid black rectangle which doesn’t simulate light. Unregistered node.
He extends his arm and twists his open hand, the gesture that’s supposed to dial him back to reality.
He can’t move. He can’t talk. He’s in a black void. His heart beats, paralyzed.
The room appears, dusty and moonlit, and he sees the machinery which connects to the suit. A door. A window. If he walked closer, he could see outside.
He flexes back and he’s in the dark asensory void again. He tries to move and it’s like concrete. No. Like he doesn’t even have a body. Soul encasement.
He’s in the meadow again. The lag was shorter that time, wasn’t it? Just adjusting to his body. He was overreacting, or particularly susceptible to the sleep paralysis sensation.
The meadow. The field. Electric field. Grass field. A fresh smell, nostalgia fed back to him like regurgitated food, an electric soup of sensememory. It’s not real. There’s a fuzziness, especially if he looks at anything too close or takes a real sniff.
He steps into the black rectangle.
Dark again. The lag is longer this time. It doesn’t end.
He swings his hand. It hits something hard. He can move. But the graphics are deeply corroded and uncanny. No. This is a real place. His suit is connected to another suit. He is deep underground. Walking through the corridor as a shadow.
The signal he found from nine months ago. Calendula must have inserted the suits and anything else at that point. Then sealed it for good.
He looks down at his suit and it’s like time snapping. Same suit, but decayed. The arms are covered in scratches and dents and the hands are stained black. This suit can’t be maintained. Everything down here is locked in.
He looks closer. The traction is worn smooth on the index finger of his left hand. Calendula was left handed, wasn’t he? Another disorienting facet of the fight.
He shivers, ghostly propagating waves inside his hollow. He’s wearing Calendula’s skin.
There’s no tube attached to this suit, but it’s still receiving signal. He wonders what the tube on the other suit is for. He can move so effortlessly without his body, every muscle twitch amplified. The faster he goes, the less he feels his original body.
Light snaps on, deep UV blue. He hopes it was just a sensor. Because if something becomes aware of him, he won’t know until it’s too late.
His empty glove of a hand slaps against the wall. He stops, suddenly claustrophobic, forcing himself to breathe the air a thousand miles away. The corridors are anaerobic. Or unventilated. If he was really here, he’d die badly. He wonders what the radiation levels are. Low enough to permit the suits to function, but the thick metal casing around the entire facility is definitely, deeply radioactive, encased in catacombs of demon war strata. The material is too thick to penetrate with nearly any tool, and there are no doors.
He dials back into the virtual zone until he sees a faint overlay of grass. The effort makes him palpably warmer. He stops. He wonders if he’s straining the processor. He dials back to the UV corridor and takes it slow, trying to use as little energy as possible, precise insectile movements.
He turns the corner and freezes. A shadow watches him from down the hall. He waits, heart thudding in the void. It seems to be watching him. But it hasn’t moved.
He steps to the side. The shadow doesn’t react. He comes closer. The material is slightly slack. This suit is in standby mode, still holding the tension of the body that animated it. He circles around, careful not to touch it. This suit is even more scratched than his own. Down by the ankle, the word ZEBANI is etched, as if by many small strokes.
A rectangular gap in the concrete exposes a room. The walls are lined with rack-mounted tools. Ways of applying pressure and sharpness and making holes and cuts in things. Some are very specialized and seem purely technical, but others are like this serrated knife, the edge encrusted with something dark and sticky. He takes it and goes back to the empty suit, slashing it through the wrists, ankles, elbows, knees. He looks around, then slashes the face open.
The next room is too big. A table crushed into the far corner, and nothing else. He doesn’t want to cross that empty space. He holds his knife in front of him and walks slowly.
Steel table, bolted down. Covered with vintage equipment for recording and reproduction. An instant camera from at least fifty years ago. A mess of decayed photos and documents. This page has grainy scans of what look like large-caliber cartridges. He takes a closer look. Maybe closer to a 7.62×39mm round, but hard to determine scale. The text is tiny all-caps shorthand, jargon, numbers. The word QATRAN pops up a lot. It’s like trying to read underwater, air hazy, deep blue.
The next room has a door. He pulls it open and there’s a long row of industrial equipment and crates, with another door at the back. Everything is tarped down or covered in dust. He leans inside, but he can feel how heavy the door is against his hollow body. He steps back and continues down the corridor, coming to a long row of reinforced doors.
He stands at the first, feeling this to be a seal which should not be broken. The fear of his intrusion becoming physical. There’s a small sliding plate on the door and he pulls it to reveal a narrow viewing window.
The room is completely dark.
He shuts the slider, careful to leave everything how it was.
Next door. All the surfaces are stormed with grime, as if from a polluting process he has not yet found the source of. But the interior of this room is severely blackened, he thinks of a blast range, firing range, maybe the bullets are testing in there. But the room is too small, there would be ricochet.
The next room has a man inside it. He lays on the floor wrapped up in plastic ties like a package, a dark smear on his lips. The body has been dead for some time, hideously preserved in the absence of oxygen. The eyes stare wide at the ceiling, mouth open in a rictus. The lips are smeared with shining darkness. Was he fed oil, did he die of it?
Maybe the bullets are a delivery system for a chemical agent. The prisoners are being fed to test its efficacy. But Calendula and Rubicon can easily acquire nerve agents. So this goes beyond mere killing.
The feeling you get when you look at me. That’s my dark art, creep.
Their corpses will be entombed for all time with the toxic waste, separated from earth and sky. Denied even a human face to beg for mercy, these mute shadows, this skin he wears, stained with their agony.
He opens the next slider. A room with harsh green light, a naked body in the void, locked inside a metal frame like a minimalist pillory. An athletic build eaten away by deprivation, ribs sticking out. He can’t tell if it’s alive or dead.
He tries to open the door. Locked. There’s a small hole next to the handle. He looks at his left hand, the worn away index finger. Sticks it in the hole. Something hums and disengages with a heavy chunk. He pulls the door open and steps inside, one hand on the frame, afraid of going past that reinforced weight. He takes his hand off and the door stays still.
The room has a toilet and a panel on the wall, maybe for dispensing food. The opposite wall is dark glass. Observation?
There’s a vent in the ceiling. Finite oxygen, terminal as a space mission, and then there will never be air in this room again. Maybe it already ran out. He moves closer.
Her body is folded in half by the metal frame, knees to face, breasts crushed into her belly, accordion folds of flesh, skin clammy. It must be hot underground with so little ventilation. Or she’s decomposing.
Her skin is a little darker than his. Head shaved unevenly, some parts growing out black, others down to the scalp. She has a hole in her head. He slumps, feeling defeated. Room after room after death. But this is the most well-preserved body.
Her naked back is covered in marker annotations, from the back of her neck down to the base of her spine:
A series of dates down her vertebrae, ranging from nine months back. The time she and the others were inserted and sealed up, then every week or two since then.
She faces the glass wall. From this angle he sees into the other room. Like an empty office room at the bottom of the sea. Only the edges are visible, fading into dark where he can almost make out the stains of something, or just visual noise. He looks up into the center of the dark. He steps away from the glass, out of frame, and glances at her face.
Aquiline nose. Maybe in her thirties. Her lips are a fountain of bubbling, blistered flesh, cracked and scabbed and full of holes, red and chapped all around.
He looks back at the glass. There is something at the very lower edge he missed, a worm stuck to the wall. He can see the grime of its path across the glass now, a scuttling mess wider than the worm itself, smeared with fur. The worm tapers, dirty like a half-washed potato, pale sticking through, and he sees the little chunk attached to the other end. This was a rat.
He looks back and she opens her eyes, deep dark circles around dark irises. Her entire body tenses against him, fists clenched, pupils swallowing his specter.
He puts the knife on the floor and puts out his hands.
She stares at him.
He says something, then remembers she can’t hear him. Her eyes jerk to the side, toward the frame around her. He goes to the lever at her back and examines it carefully. If he turns it incorrectly, it could crush her lungs. Righty tighty. Left loosey. He pushes to the left but it doesn’t move. He pushes harder and it snaps down and he tries to pull it back but the metal is loosening. Her arms flop out and she collapses. After a few seconds, her spine starts to uncurl, limbs pawing stiffly at the floor for traction.
When she speaks, it’s deeper than he expects from her age, as if she was a heavy smoker.
“Are you innocent?”
He considers it. He shrugs.
She follows him, spine still bent, limping weakly, a dark bruise banded around her back and legs. She breathes through the mask but he knows the oxygen won’t last. He found a clear plastic mask and a small can of O2 in the tool room, the last on the rack.
The hallway ends, and at first he thinks he’s missed a turn or door. He spins around, then turns back to the wall and runs his hands across it. Rough concrete fill.
She understands, she’s already hobbling back the other way. He feels a sting of salt where his eyes should be, tears running out or sweat falling in. He can’t even give her the air you give a drowning person. He’s just this shadow, this nothing, a suspension of electricity.
They go back to the room he didn’t enter. Long room full of industrial equipment and crates with faded labels: PALLADIUM, QUICKLIME, NUTRALOAF. He opens the door at the back. Orange steel drums marked with hazard symbols. A loose hair is smeared to one of the lids. All of them are sealed except for the last, gaping open.
She steps around the caustic crust on the floor, bare feet unsteady but careful. He looks for an elevator or staircase or tunnel. His ribs tense.
She points to two cylinders sunk in the wall with hatches at their base. “Samples. For the surface.”
The cylinders look too small for a human body. He looks at her and she says, “I’m used to folding up.” And she’s lost weight. Maybe—
They come closer and he sees the hatches are sealed with caulk. Maybe once there was a way out. A generation or two ago. Then Calendula made a perfect seal. All he needs is experimentation and data. Nothing needs to leave.
She sits on the floor, breathing from the mask. She looks deeply unwell. He wonders if her skin is absorbing contaminants.
He looks back at the hatches. One is thickly encrusted, tumescent as the burns on her lips. The other has a thinner, more uniform layer. He mimes banging on the hatch, then makes a gesture like, hold on.
She nods and puts her hands together and prays, eyes shut, condensation fogging the mask around her burnt lips, the mask which has about five or ten minutes of air left.
He tries to be methodical as he searches the tool racks but there’s no time but if he starts hyperventilating and checking the same racks twice because everything looks the same in this light he’ll just—
Text appears and he jumps back like he forgot this wasn’t his actual body. The text stretches across his entire view.
15 MINUTES ELAPSED SINCE ENTRY
He feels like he’s in a fever dream, trying to accomplish an impossible task. “Password.”
His vision flashes red.
Another siren flash.
“1234. 12345. Password1. Uh. Calendula. Cal.” His lungs are getting away from him. “RED. BLUE. ORANGE. ULTRA. HYPER. EXOTIC. MATERIAL. MATERIALS. FATHER. MOTHER. LEGACY. BOMB. DEATH. KILL. DESPAIR. TERROR. RUBICON—”
The text disappears. He looks around. Starts to finger through the rack again, looking for something that can cut or peel caulk. How fucking hopeless. What if the cylinders are pumped full of caulk? What if the surface is blocked? Probably both. But he has to try.
PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE PHRASE
REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED REJECTED
Numbers leap into his vision.
The UV light turns red. He feels the panic swelling up through his chest, tingling in his brain. But he has ten minutes. He can’t waste them.
His fingers flip through the sharpnesses and serrations, wobbling like piano keys. He finds a scrapey tool with a flat blade and rips it off the rack and crosses the room, banging into another rack. Knives and pliers rattle on the black wire lattice, darkly gunked and hairy.
He turns toward the exit and his hip swivels too hard, turning him nearly all the way around. He drops his chiseler and it hits the floor hard enough to scratch it. He bends over to pick it up, feeling the tight material of his suit stretching, the heaviest clouds of blood in his thighs, no longer agile, like the empty suit is filling with his flesh. His fingers drift across the concrete, the scratch pattern strangely mesmerizing.
He sees a nine in his periphery. The nine is smaller than it was before. It lost most of its children.
He flexes back toward a memory of grass. Nothing happens. The grass wasn’t real. His body is real. Where is it? There was a room. His body is in the room. He flexes in the other direction and everything turns black. He can’t even feel the numb husk of this otherside doll, only sweat burning that he can’t wipe away, tears blinding that he can’t blink, suffocating a world away.
He wakes up. He was having a nightmare. He’s in the nursing home, by his mother’s bed. She’s on her side, facing away from him.
You gave me something.
It’s all I have left.
He checks his wrist. Naked skin. There was bone here. Plastic. Time. It was a way of measuring time. How do you measure time?
Obviously you have to break it down into sub-divisions. Thump thump. Heartbeat. Start with that. It goes by so fast, this blood leaking through our chest. How do people bear it? Have we been bleeding through our own body our entire life?
It obviously doesn’t make sense to think at this rate of time. You’ll hyperventilate, your air can’t keep up with your blood, thud thud. We need a big enough section of time to accomplish something in. Accomplish what?
Need a name for big time. Didn’t we invent tools yet for that? Had something blue on our risk. Wrist. What was it called?
It involved the act of seeing. You look at it. Look. See. Watch. We watch it.
Mom, I think, I think I need help with this problem.
He looks up and the bed is empty. He tries to stand up and he’s stuck to the chair. He tries again. He’s standing. He’s at the edge of the room, looking for her.
A shadow on the wall.
Not a shadow. His reflection. His dark wiry shape, tail behind him connecting to another world. Like a cat of death, umbilical to the void.
There was a boy. There was a man. Not a man. A technician. He had a mother. Did she die already? I wake up in the morning and it seems to have happened a long time ago. Is it because there are days I visit her and there is no difference in whether I came or not. I have to believe there’s a difference. But this isn’t a movie. Love isn’t felt by the air. It has no resonance. I am alone with this deafening vibration.
I don’t even sound like myself anymore.
Who am I?
I’m holding wire cutters.
I’m a technician. I give haircuts to reality.
I’m a hero. I’m nobody. I’m a laser. Who said that?
The mission is over. My enemy is subject to infinite time. He’s in a cell. I have captured him. The mission is dead. My enemy is out there. I have failed.
I’m a technician. I have no enemy. My enemy is the bomb.
I reach between my legs and find the bomb. Fuses of spermatic cord. Two soft eggs hanging by red wires. It feels so queasy to touch those rubbery cables.
I can’t take care of someone else.
Wire cutters dig into the soft tissue. Just a few snips. The bomb was always between my legs. Millions of sperm, how many deaths is that? One, at minimum. But so many nightmarishly more, if my child decided to have a child, they could have more children, and on and on, each life exploding into a horrific fractal of death.
Is this why I date men? I’m attracted to mutual barrenness? But you can’t rely on it. Anyone can get pregnant. Even the smallest child. Even a grain of dust. They could steal your semen. Scrub it off a door knob. Biometrics. I have to cut this out so the possibility is eliminated.
Wait a second. I could bleed to death. And these cutters probably aren’t real in the first place. Unless I took them from the invisible world. I used to live there.
I mailed myself to another planet. I never arrived.
Standing in front of my apartment. I was here the entire time. It was a bad dream. I just have to go inside and lock the door.
Autumn leaves scrape along the street. I feel watched. Time is tight around my wrist. I keep to the dark of the alley. We must be on the edge of the city. I thought I heard people talking.
Something changes in the sky. He looks up at a speckled black pit of infinity. The night sky is death. We’re trained to ignore the tomb of dead space surrounding us from all sides dizzying falling in all directions no escape.
He laughs hysterically, a thin film secreted between him and the end of his mind. No one talks about the deeply unpleasant physical sensation of madness. The heavy discomfort worse than mere pain. The itching in his bones. The stagnation of sound in his inner ear. The loss of flavor to the air. The overcooked qualia flattened to a single radiation around his face. The shrinking impoverishment in his gray matter. The feeling of being poisoned. He runs toward the music because it’s the only legible sequence of meaning.
It looked like just a few trees between buildings, but crashing through it felt like wilderness. He meant to go back before he lost track, and he was already away from the thing he knew. How long, how lost? He tries to tell himself something but he’s out of words, mumbling like his mother.
He doesn’t recognize the mansion. Hot leaves cling like flayed salamanders, rattling leather chips. He has the temptation to look at the sky again. But this time there is the feeling that he should not look up. So he goes inside where the sky can’t see him.
This hallway is stripped, nothing but dead wood and flashing red text: MUSIC FOUND IN COPYRIGHT DATABASE
He follows the vibration until the music is warm all around him, still inaudible. This room is a mess but it’s alive. The walls are covered in symbols and drawings crazily flowing between math and stick figures and musical notation and scatology and schematics.
Something moves behind the piano. Lazur walks along the wall cautiously until he sees the lithe body dancing, a young man with blond hair sharp across his face, scything the air with his movements.
His spin slows, catching on Lazur’s gaze. A violent flush of blood across his nose and cheeks, then his hands fling up, covering the flawless skin, eyes shining through, blistering blue.