He was wearing a white windbreaker, his laces dragging in his wake as he wandered up the road. The wind rustled the branches like the arc of inhalation into an opening vault. Inward as he passed alongside the trees, outward as he cleared them. The quiet homestead in a clearing ahead was smeared with horrid earth tones. A cluster of three structures – each one build with ancient lumber dusted with white flecks of pain, along with a grey trailer – stood there encircled by trees and a thin halo of trash. He followed the gravel path that cut through it up to the windows and discovered each one abandoned.
He scanned the lighted squalor like the dawn washing upon abominable ribs. A museum for an entire bloodline; photos and ancestral ornaments and worn furniture. A red truck idled alongside the main house. Imperfect gusts filtered in but the trees stood motionless.
It was quiet. The path ran up to a ramshackle market stand where it collided with the cracked asphalt of the back road.
Right at that transition line he spotted a tall, grey ostrich standing proudly with aristocratic neck curving upward with a pale humanoid hand connected to the top. The fingers moved as if groping produce, and its grimy feathers arced bizarre like smeared calligraphy. Abandoned cars pyloned all along the road ahead.
He followed the bird in a trance as it stalked around the corner towards a forest pathway. Steps smooth and gentile like early CGI. He followed and headed towards the beach, down a rough footpath to where the air was crisp, down where the budding foliage molested his ankles with ambition and rocks somewhere in the distance cracked upon each other. The summer sun backlit the stunned canopy above while the sound of distant waves lapped a beckon call at the bottom of the crooked decline before him.
Act 1: He Lives
The beach was an unending stretch of pebbles smattered with driftwood and trash. He moved past the bird and looked up at the palm as it opened wider while tracking him like a satellite dish. It was tattooed with dirt and dismissible lacerations. Sidewinders of reek slithered into every orifice. He suppressed a cringe and continued on towards the waterline.
Every step landed with a slidingcrunch. His attention was drawn to the two intimidating ships that had run aground to the left of him. The one furthest looked to be constructed of wood and iron, with great masts reaching high into the sky, otherwise buckled at 90 degrees. The ship closest looked like it was constructed of rusted metal and covered in wretched splotches. He approached guided by the compass of a dreamstate.
Out in the surf stood a young boy in blue jeans and a red flannel coat staring back at him. The water frothed around his waist and then eased onto the shore. As the man approached so did the boy, holding a long knife at his side.
As the man approached he collided with a wall of reek: the boat closest to him was curtained in cartoonified gore. The water flowing around it carried blood and pus to stain the stones. What looked like shackles at a distance were warped limbs and clotted reams of flesh expressed vaguely.
Deconstructed peoples were reassembled as an impossibly rendered puzzle, white orb leading into an opened jittering crescent that connected to a zigzag dressed in red velvet. A ray of sunlight slipped through the pinhole of a cracked and spoiled heart shape jutting out from the first mast and blasted him in the eye.
The boy was within shouting distance by the time he noticed the patchwork of mushed masks and skin that covered the hull of the ship. It was a clone of the wooden one at its side. The ground rumbled underfoot, and then paused.
They congressed at the shore with water around his ankles, “who are you?” The man pulled his gaze away from the ship and replied “I came into the houses, and then I followed the bird.”
The boy introduced himself as Xi’Alik, standing there at the average height of an 8 year old and staring up with bright blue eyes. He looked up at the man with the knife held slack in his hand. “Did you parents give you that name?” asked the man. ““Even though I was frozen in ice I would still feel the echoes vibrate close to me. I couldn’t move my legs but I could move my arms, and I grabbed at the scum suckers but they were too fast,” he replied. “I saw his future reflected in the arc of the reflection of the echoes and realized they were above me, not in front of me.
The cracks in the ice allowed me to flow up to them. I left my clones down…” the boy reached into his jacket pocket and flashed a pair of purple lips in his palm. His shoulders tightened. “This one’s parents are dead. They’re over there.” He pointed a chubby red finger at the ship without breaking eye contact. “I’m just using him right now for the work.” He closed his hand around the lips.
“What’s going on here?” asked the man. “I came from hell to sail out to sea, this was the only way I could do it. I had to use this one because I needed hands.” Xi’Alik held his tiny hands up, covered in starched blood and sinew. “This is very important. But you can watch. You’d like to watch, right?”
“What are you holding?” asked the man, gesturing to the lips. The boy lowered his hand with the lips in them and his eyes went white, “I kept his future in my pocket for one hundred years, it couldn’t have happened any other way, not the way I saw it. The probability was too great.” And that was all that was said on how the choice was made.
The man had left his “home” earlier that day, locked the brass latch on the door behind him, walked to his front yard, and stood at the curb for a spell like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. A collected stream of fire snaked along the street with a vein of green illuminating the base. It crawled along like a fumigating centipede investigating the driveways and lawns of the deserted suburban cul-de-sac. He was plainly visible but it paid him no mind. The exposed soil of the neighborhood’s gardens churned as if something was lurching to life beneath, barfing up flowers and tchotchkes. He stood there like a specter.
“What’s hell like?” asked the man to the boy. Xi’Alik grabbed the ankle of a chummed-out torso and dragged it along the bow, the top of the uncertain white cable snagging the weak wave crests like an irregular chain and knocking some along. “It’s different stratospheres that intersect all the colours and tesseracts with the whips. It’s different than up here. You never really embraced the concept of spheres. I suppose that’s why they thought they were smarter than you.”
There are times in life when you don’t notice your shoes are filled. There’s times when the stink in your clothes and the grease on your flesh is just a matter of course. There’s times when you don’t notice how dry your hands are, coated in salt and wind what carries blisters. Your hands are dry but when you look down the floor is heaving in a calm rhythm that switches up as if communicating.
Act 2: He Dies
He was far from his shed and his house, in that order. His feet were burning as he breached the edge of the city on his way towards the ocean, compelled as he was by the flower of carnage unfurling comma devouring his life behind. A sinkhole where a park once sat was coughing up noxious fumes from the broaching of some nightmare cave.
The sound of low chanting beckoned him across the street to a small white bungalow. As he peered through the front window he was stricken by how similar the living room was to his own, where he left his wife and son as their eyes rolled back.
They came at him as the blood percolated through their pores and leapt out in a florid web as if each strand were piloted. Their bodies turned against them and ejected the life inward. It was the same in the white bungalow, with a young couple left like crashed chandeliers as the blood leapt from the flesh, the flesh leapt from the bone, and all the fluid slithered along the floor towards deeper territory. He hadn’t thought much about why he was spared, or why he saw people like him stumbling through the city like him.
When he ran it all over again in his mind, he figured it had something to do with InGrid.
InGrid started out as a government-backed AI project before the source technology was leaked to a select group of marketing startups where it became an aggressively-replicating sentience that could predict human behavior and trends. Within two years it was released as a public-facing platform where each person was treated as a business, with the consumers being increasingly nuanced and unique bots that would interact with them. An advanced content delivery and community generating system.
It ultimately became so warped and uncontrollable it could no longer be relied upon as a business model and was given to the public to sort out. The bots would interact with each other creating a self-contained universe of interactions, all of them contained within the context of that single user. They could even generate digital content for the god they worshipped. They might call it art. The man, and many others, integrated it into their lives. Perhaps him more than some of the others.
The boy walked up to a suckling, abstracted man who had been sewn into the ship by the shoulders and arms, the rest of him swallowed up somewhere in the static churn. Raw and red. “In hell everything is stretched, here everything is collected… We only speak the language of reality and action; we don’t make noise like this…” He put the purple lips back in the pocket of his coat. “I saw a castle as big as a fallow cube as big as a… stretched memory. There was no sound there, is no… I could have pondered the castle and saved seventy worlds from a fog of my own negligent conjuring, and I could hear the culmination of their collective achievements if only…I forget their names. There was no sound.”
He slid a smaller knife out of his back pocket. Stubby little fingers. Dark lines along the edges of his fingernails. He drove the edge of the knife into the skull and began peeling away the scalp, revealing a metal plate beneath. He pointed the knife at the wet steel and raised his effeminate voice; “this should be me. When you cannot absorb the venom the venom absorbs you, which is what happened. I came through ate through the… guts…. the ornaments dangling populated by my pinned ancestors… I saw it. The great sphere splitting open like fruit, revealing a screaming ocean of goo. The obelisks were green and fell. Every time I tell this story it changes.” The boy reached into his pocket and palmed the purple lips in his hand once again.
The man looked back towards the tree line, back to where he left the bird which had vanished moments after it served its purpose. His eyes wandered up the trunks and up towards the sky where he meditated on the thick pillars of smoke mixing in with the clouds and dimming the view. Broiling funnel clouds humming dirge, standing sentinel and lording over some chaos hidden from view. A coat of greying skin bobbed along the upper contour of the forest, carried amid the leaves towards them.
“Why are you here?” asked the man, swallowing consistently to maintain his composure. Xi’Alik was gazing off into the distance, out into the ocean. “I’m here to find the God of Music.” The man walked closer, “what’s that?” The boy’s eyes were wide and detached. They dried and welled with tears. He blinked consciously to correct it. “It lives in the ocean, somewhere out there. I know where to look, and it will be easier to find as its power grows. We calculated the end of the world a long time ago. You’ve seen it. You’ve seen how it all turned against you.”
Xi’Alik walked past the man and retrieved the knife he dropped earlier. The handle was wrapped in black electrical tape. As he returned, his blinking was irregular by half-measures. Each finger moved with a purposeful rhythm, every movement surgical. They trudged back through the white peaks of the surf. A maroon ladder lead straight up to the deck and the man followed the boy up, pulling his gaze from the tiny black fingers gripping clutching the torso to the hull and securing it tightly.
“What do you mean, ‘turned against me?’”
“The way to describe it is complicated,” said the boy, rolling the lip around in his hand. “Because you are notoriously stupid. So if you help me I will tell you. And since you have nowhere else to go you can say nothing.” The man stood there and shifted his feet as to not fall through the crevices cauterized by unpredictable alien fire. The boy retrieved a reddened, frayed oval swarming with obscuring cubes, planting it on the ground as an exhibit. He then retrieved a thick-and-ragged leather-bound book from the gaping maw of a nearby pillar and slammed it down on the floor, “this right here is your hell, this is where I am from.” He stacked the head on top of it, “and this is your sun.”
He tapped his finger on the forehead, “this is the devil. He grabbed a severed hand and placed it close to the head, “this is your planet.” He put another hand beside it, “this is your other planet. You don’t have a name for that one yet…” He put another severed head beside the sun head, but made sure to position them further apart than the hands. A childish and corrupt tableau.
Back towards the shore was the distant and meager mountain range marking the boundary of the city he came from. The peaks were bare and bound together like sharpened hilltops. One of the lower peaks was erupting and casting off an umbrella of boulders and dusty punishment upon the civilization below. It smothered the columns of smoke what writhed woven with tribulation and split like wretched tendrils. Spiraled and carrying the embers with them in constellations of pulsating mystery.
“Your planet betrayed you. It turned against you. That’s. Not you personally, because you’re still here. They actually like you. I don’t know why….” The man crouched down and rested upon his knees, his lips cracking as the sun shone heavy on his face. “What do you mean?” The boy stared at him for an uncomfortable stretch. Xi’Alik placed his tiny hand on one of the hands, at this point overlapping the second. “All the elements, the water and the rocks and the air and the plants, all the elements on this thing you call a world… understand? They made a deal…They made a deal with…” he rested his hand upon the head. “That’s where he lives. He lives in…” and he stood up and trotted over to that starboard side of the great pain. He pointed to a silent and howling face sticking out of the mess, “here’s him again.” He scampered like a lad to the other side and pointed to a similar jawless face with another blank stare with drying eyes, “here’s him again.”
He touched his hands to each end of the opened book at the base of the frayed neck. “This only exists… because of… them…” simultaneously trembling his hand on the palm of the hand. “They didn’t mean to make it… but they did, they made a deal with…” he touched a finger to the skull. “He… touches many… Plllllaaaaannnnneeeeetttssssss…”
“I’m not a goddamn idiot, I get it! I-I get it!”
The corners of the boy;s mouth rose up in delight but his jaw was unnaturally slack. “She blamed you when the fluids ejected from her body. I didn’t know why she thought that until now.”
Act 3: He Lives Again
By the time he snapped out of his fiction he was living in the shed behind the house, out there by the gap-toothed fence separating them from the unending reach of wrecked birch. He set up shop in the basement to start, even moving his computer rig down there as the initial salvo into the unpredictable warmth. He spent all his free time down there in the Goll, an artificial-intelligence superbeing converted by that point into a social network. Nobody knew how it was monetized but it was more popular than the enterprise-driven model. It ultimately proposed a better life apart from the man’s responsibilities, but that was unimportant. His friends’ pity quickly turned to resentment, but he was smarter than them. He was an early adopter.
Out in the Goll, it was a network of evolved mentalities better than his friends. He was the shining sun. It had the best content software and you could see it propagate in real time, across all the networks in Asia and South Africa and everywhere. They taught him about himself. A universe of possibility swirling around a single point of input; he imagined this was how the universe worked. He altered his definition of god once he got a taste of it.
They encouraged him, his Goll. They convinced him of what he needed to be.
When he watched the blood erupt from their pores like poorly rendered spider webs, he saw it through waterstained glass, knee deep in a bush. He couldn’t be sure what he saw at the time. He hadn’t stepped foot in his own house in weeks. Months, maybe. Anything was possible.
He felt heroic about using the Goll because it was the first open-source technology to utilize the theory of the Greenloop. Whether or not it started as a babyheaded trend was irrelevant because for better or worse it kicked off the biomechanical revolution by introducing the idea of nanotechnology not only supported by organic matter, but strengthened because of it. On a microbial level they could use it to sustain itself with minimal energy input. The ultimate green tech, they referred to the custom server farm as a ‘Thought Forest.’ Built in an abandoned subterranean mining facility and a matrix of connecting tramlines, it was staffed by only 5 full-time personnel while everything else was automated.
The AI for Goll lived – and they were certain to use that word, ‘lived’ – in a vast underground complex where they could control the temperature and protect against invading interests. It was his Goll that first told him it was all coming down. His enlightened universe of exile informed him that he had been chosen, and his family needed him to go and see them. They said he could speak their language and so few people could. It told him to go to the beach.
He remembered the end of that life as he watched the sun turn purple behind a thin membrane of hate that slid across the sky to cause society to writhe until evacuated. The grids of civilization made fallow and fertile for the darkness that crept from every orifice. The outline of the sun was thickening black. A rich vascular map rose up from its core like the skin receding via heat into the skull.
A narrow staircase leading into the hull of the wickedly naked gorecraft was not far and the man’s gaze drifted as the boy trailed off staring into the sun. It drew him closer. He made each step vertically on the shimmering knotwork as if walking on ice. The pathway trailing down was dark, an impenetrable aura of rankness repelled him. The darkness at the bottom of the steps was hesitantly licked by light beyond his sight. He crouched down and angled himself to see further into the innards. A ways back in the space he could see a motionless group of flayed persons of various sizes gathered around a bucket shape. They were non-glitched. They were whole. The warmth of the light warmed the flecks of the foundation of their faces what seemed to move in the mirage. The air sucked out of his ears.
‘Who are they?’ asked the man.
‘They’re a family from the woods.”
‘What are they sitting around?’
‘It’s how I found him. It’s like he wanted to be caught.’
“Are they alive?”
“Go ask them…”
He descended towards the lower level. Each step into the inner workings pushed back like a gag. The sound of the surf sucked to a needlepoint behind him as he approached the family. Their flesh was gold and black, crouched there still as statues as he came within reach.
Where they ought to have had faces there were slow motion taupe waterfalls emptying out into the jittering unremarkable slats at their knees. Uncertain black fonts marked the depth of the fluid and informed it was otherworldly, zoomed out. It frothed at their bases. Their palms faced upward. He stood at the shoulders of what may have been the father and saw the cast iron bucket was empty. There was no fire. The walls arrived.
Solid sprints in each direction were the shadowed walls of the ship, which became clear as the shimmering particles emerged. All around him sprung forth from the polygonal seizures a swarm of illuminated spheres. Glowing unintelligible hieroglyphs backgrounded them. Particles pulsating shine skimmed along the walls like dust. His gaze encircled the space and spotted a small smoldering fire towards the bow of the ship, back where the parallel walls of spectral fireflies dimmed and a single smoldering fire sat waylaying the encroaching darkness.
He approached the embers possessed by nihilism, possessed by tension. Step after step the glitter on either side evaporated. The crackling drew him closer. Step after step the stairwell creaked behind him.
He pressed his face against a force field and jolted back. An invisible force held him from the smoldering timber. He pressed as hard as he could against the wall and to no effect. From the darkness beyond the fire emerged a hominid stick-insect. Resembling an android made of yellowed bark with a tall featureless rectangular head, it crept towards the man hunched over.
The man waved his hand and was met by a sharpened stick passing similarly. It jolted back when the man did, and approached in kind. It mimicked his movements for minutes as the glowing particles drifted closer.
The wall suddenly brushed past his shoulder and he stumbled back. The encroaching flecks of flame gathered around the giant wall of glass as it collected itself into long translucent legs. The tall and sprawling legs of a single alien hand gripping the floor bent the image of the lights like Pyrex. Through the light casting through it he could observe its flesh sputtering like the remixed meat above. It flexed and concaved the floor at its wrinkled fingertips, and from its palm came the distant howling of air rushing through a tunnel.
The boy stepped alongside. “He likes you.” The man looked behind him; the walls have dimmed and the family had shifted closer.
“The Music God is moaning, I can tell. Its horns flake away and carry tremors with them. He’ll try to bargain with me probably. It’s made itself known; you know what it sounds like… I….” Xi’Alik slid the knife in his belt adorned with hashed-up cartoon faces, once given as an ornament. He placed the purple lips in the man’s directionless palm and pulled his tiny hand away.
As the boy talked the stick-insect creature moved its arms around behind the fire in some disjointed ritual. As the stars swirled around he could see a vision in glass. Dim flashes showed the expanse of hell, of impossible superstructures stretching off into an infinite horizon. A pointed wooden arm swept along incredible tracks ferrying titans encased in slabs towards an ocean arranged vertically. A jungle of black spires swayed like fabric in the eye of a noxious grey hurricane. A single grotesquely painted man calcified in a white tree in the middle of a flat dusty wasteland. The wooden head craned over the fire and punctured the visage of a bottomless pit lined with black swamps and orchestras of screaming mouths.
The boy said: “I thought about him for one thousand years, what do you think the sum of the life spent contemplating a dead god is? They created a new alphabet to describe the equation would not drive them to caca’heh’xozophizide, and that alphabet was, you see you know parts of it and –“he grabbed the lips back and his countenance flooded bare.
The waterfall faces walked slowly through the glass and gathered around the fire in the same configuration as before. They bowed their heads and extinguished the flames. The particles and flecks lowered their luster and gradually floated back to the walls.
“I want to see it come to life and reveal itself. The fog that wraps around the winding spines, the city of ooze filling the craters, I’ve sketched it out so many times. I want to see it crest and…” The boy walked back to the staircase and the man followed. They returned to the wheel of the ship.
The boy pulled on solid pink glitchmatter punctured with nails and shrapnel, far above hoisting masts of crudely stitched skin. The ship shuddered, quaked.
“They didn’t think I would make it this far.” Xi’Alik walked over to the ship’s wheel and heaved the wheel starboard with his petite hands. The ship lurched forward and groaned.
The boy approached the man while the ship sailed under its own volition. His weathered white sneakers veiled his steps. There were smothered screams carried in the wind but they seemed lightyears away, plucking at the air like weak, stretched embers. Up high, the clouds mingled with the antler-shaped debris trails of exploded airliners. Not far from them, the larval bulges caused by malicious tectonic plate movements would graduate into tidal waves. Two great clouds grew disfigured faces and howled at each other in anger.
They boy removed the knife from his belt and raised it to his side as evidence, saying “I can show you a new world, like I showed them. I’m going to need your help. I’ll need to teach you a new language and the only way to do it is with this knife. This is the same deal the consciousness you created made with the elements of your world. It doesn’t turn out well for you, but it’s the best deal you have right now.”
The boy held the knife out as if molesting fruit upon the vine. The man stood there without breathing. The wind ticked his neck. He nodded.
“See, I knew she was right about you!”