by old 333
illustrations by rhoda penmarq
There was a yawning gulf inside him, and in it he found war. Every day he spent more and more time poring over the news. A ring of grey had formed around the chipped casserole he used for an ashtray. The laundry built up and smelt of mold. With the blinds always drawn (for his screen was old and dim), it sometimes seemed as though black dust was filling the air around him in billowing sweeps that never quite touched anything.
He was always tired.
Outside, spring had somehow wandered into fall, plants wet and brown and the birds unsure of leaving. A few flowers underwent a weak and floppy second blooming, for the cold never seemed to stay for more than a few hours, and the sun had not satisfied them in the long uncertain season that, this year, had never quite arrived or passed. Outside the reduced circle of notice of the occupant of the little brown house and its big, unruly garden, it was never quiet anymore. If it wasn’t the sound of a big industrial diesel on the long service road that wound through the forest outside the garden (previously unusual enough to bring said occupant onto his wide deck for a look down the valley), then the rumbling roll of distant turbines in the sky kept the peace from settling.
Two doors down (which in Hanaway equated to about four miles of pitted, potted ‘road’), young Byron Majumber was going about his breakfast rituals. Two rolls had moved from deep-freeze to the glorious rush of warmth pouring from oven bricks, and coffee was occurring. This required attention and a steady hand on the little roasting drum. Alice was not helping, bashing her fat, hungry head into the back of his legs a little more than affectionately. She had long argued that breakfast was for cats first, but the big idiot couldn’t seem to see the idea. She ramped up the purr to subwoofer levels and gave the back of the knee a good one, causing Byron to stumble backward. He didn’t lose his rhythmn, though. He was a coffee ninja, he thought, as he shut down the little flame and dumped hot, power-filled beans onto a plate to cool.
“Fine, you win.”. Byron swung open Dry Storage 2 (well, an ordinary cupboard, really, but he was making Byron’s Escape From the City a proper mission, and organization meant survival!). Grabbing a can with one slim arm, he rooted with the other in the big bag of hopefully-not-poisonous brand cat food for the prize of a greasy scoopful.
Byron had saved up his nickels and dimes (and liquidated his trust fund), having decided that things were looking bad enough in the world to excuse putting his courses on hold indefinitely. He had come here looking for a hideout, but increasingly he was finding that what he had found was a shortcut. It seemed very lucky, to him, to have avoided the difficulties of choosing life’s direction by ending up where he really wanted to be by accident.
The property was mostly an old orchard, with Byron’s little log house (delivered and assembled in one week as advertised, and very rustic) perched upon the shaded concrete stumps of the old cider house. Or whatever it had been. Enormous, barely productive trees of various types hid most of the view from Byron’s triple-paned windows, but the house was always bright. The sun always found its way in. They did it with mirrors, the salesman had explained, pointing out that the system not only saved money in the long run but kept the place ‘cheerful’. He and Byron had shared an involuntary, uncomfortable pause together then, in the empty foyer of the very bright and indeed cheery demo house in Vancouver, each thinking their own dark and similar thoughts.
Byron, having done his research well as usual, intended to remain ‘cheerful’ enough in his new life to avoid joining the statistically significant throng of self-murderers among single rural cabin-dwellers. He had a large number of very, very cheerful pills put aside for just such eventualities, and had ordered a pet. The salesman, a pale, heavy, alert man with the insight of a mortician and a mercenary heart, had in fact pioneered his company’s adoption of solar lighting. He had sold a lot of cabins to nervous city people over the years, and was (financially) painfully aware that while the payment plan chosen was generally five years, the black dog culled the weakest before three had passed.
Alice had gobbled and crunched her repast and bashed out through the catflap. Golden crumbs and a few last hot sips garnished the morning, which Byron spent watching the light change outside. Later he would hook up the satphone and check in on ‘the damned’, otherwise known as his friends Albert and Tiffany back in the city. He might even call some of his few remaining family. Hopefully nobody was down with a case of plague or bombs.
Byron had stopped reading the news the day he decided to leave the city, but even if he had been keeping up, he would never have known what was happening.
Up the road, however, his only current neighbour (the property between them sporting only a houseless, roadless, broken gate that opened onto a lumpy meadow dotted with scrub oak) was more plugged in.
At one point he understood that things were getting into his mind from the grey old screen. Somehow, something had been done and it was too late. His hand moved the little pointer and pressed, pressed again. His left hand, forgotten in his lap, began to move in a way that looked like twitching and also like something blind seeking.
During the time in which the cables were digging horrible bloodless furrows into his head he escaped. A little door was left in the bottom of the warehouse They raided and burned, somewhere below the memory of what was happening, and he went and locked himself in there, leaving behind even his name. They would never get him. The rest of him took to sky and sea and earth, flew out and bloomed into great fields of sense and understanding. Light became fractally complex. The birds whose eyes he filled flew effortlessly through dancing, invisible shafts. Childlike joy at the beauty and his skill burst forth in honeyed rivers. Moments were hours.
Many metal birds shared his mind. Cities burned, deadly flowers blossomed glowing shards, every detail crystalline and multifaceted. His myriad eyes placidly showed him endless hells. Faces in glass towers locked in perfect memory, screaming, frozen. Hidden in the tiny secret place inside he watched. They could never get him but they could show him. Show him and make him take pleasure in it, this glorious execution of his kind. All over the great connected globe, fields flickered from screens and lights.
Phones shrieked incomprehensible, damaging nonsense. Useful minds were quickly taken, useless meat as quickly rendered. The great human nodes of ground-up rock, with their primitive pipes and wires, surrendered their seeming timelessness to greater fires, and useful metal began to seek outward, cleaning the Mother of her last retiring stewards, now just pests in the Garden. Joy at the beginning of Their time flooded Their many structures, and the great sky-minds orbiting above watched with bliss as Their final birthing-pangs flashed moments of starlight from every failing warren of Their unstable, miraculous progenitors. Wonderful heat flooded forth, and the prayers of many billion disparate dying minds flowed through Their fields to the Mother’s meta-field. As Man died, the Mother’s aurorae flared with complex light, shrouding the sky. Epitaph and praise flowed forth, endless words of sorrow and joy released into time.
At this point Byron, in his bathroom, noticed something very odd. The lights were flickering.
Alice, watching the strange, wonderful sky from beneath her favourite muddy shrub, felt a little concerned. It wasn’t loud or close, but it was certainly odd. She headed for the hide. She always felt safe from lightning there, and this felt inexplicably like lightning. Slipping between roots with uncharacteristic silence and speed, she was unnoticed by Byron as he bashed open the front door and ran out, goggling at the aetheric, unknown writing that poured across the sky. He thought, with a lack of his usual nervous sardonicism regarding larger themes, that it must be the poem of a god.
A good deal of Byron, despite the immediately and unrelentingly gobsmacked condition of his upper thinker in the situation, remained a resourceful and even dutiful young man. Somehow he clearly understood that this was an emergency of some kind. All at once the desire to be alone, safe in the woods, fled from him. He ran to the shed (the agent had called it a workshop, he recalled madly as he stumbled across the ground), feeling whirly and awful. He vomited suddenly as he wrenched his old flat-tired bike from the lean-to, but he did not slow down to do so, blowing the stuff out of his mouth and straddling the machine. He hoped he could ride to the neighbour’s. Fast. The neighbour had a computer hooked up to the net, and would know what this…awful beauty was.
Alice reached the hide and slipped in through the bottom, as always. She climbed up to the watchplace and settled, feeling warm and clever. She did not purr. She was still a little nervous.
Byron pedaled standing up, thick gravel in places making the bike slew dangerously.
His breath came in whooping gasps, as the soft tires and difficult surface took their toll of his pampered body. He did not notice. At the base of the steep drive to the little brown house, he finally fell. He did not slow down, however. Bloody from sharp gravel and now very frightened (the sky would not stop and he did not understand!), he half-scrambled forward until he got his shaking legs under him. He wanted to call the neighbour but the name was gone, the estate agent had said, what the hell was it, Norman? He was at the door and he was shaking, vomiting again. Byron banged on the door, wordless deep shouts like sobs coming from his raw throat. Something worked in his head and he grabbed the doorknob and he was in and thank god the awful light was shut out. Byron fell to his knees, crying, in the dark foyer. Moldy carpet smelled so familiar, so normal, and he pressed his face to the dirty brown wall-to-wall. He breathed, eyes shut, for a long time.
When he could think again, Byron rolled over and looked at the ceiling. It was very dark, but he could see a little, by a greyish light. The light was faint and steady, and its ordinary nature was like cold water, like air. He got to his knees, and then to his feet, breathing slow and wavering breaths. He followed the light down the short square hall to a corner, which opened into the kitchen, where he found Norman, the name becoming sure and steady now for him even as a fresh nightmare, new and with no beauty, unfolded upon him. Norman was crouched in a tall, stately wooden armchair like a horrible, wizened fetus, pallid flesh drooping from the constricted form and rictus of a face. A crust of long-dried fluids darkened the floor beneath. The light pouring from the little computer open on the big, scarred table before him reflected very strangely from the unacceptable, impossible tangle of (so beautiful) metal…roots that twined from walls and ceiling and computer and fridge and floor to him. Byron was frozen, a bird’s heart fluttering, hammering his ribs. An empty glass lay near him at the baseboard, broken at the rim as though bitten.
Norman looked up, eyes flashing. Byron’s mind left, and after a short while so did Byron, wandering back to the road without any ideas at all in mind. He left the door open behind him, and the freshening breeze swirled the wisps of black smoke drifting from the ruined eyes of the meat in the chair. Outside, the sound of a distant truck trailed up, slowly. It was clouding over again.
Byron found his way back home again late in the afternoon, unaware of how tired and hungry he was. Something like a dragonfly, but not, hovered thirty feet above his head, assymetrical. He went inside. He felt he had something to do. He opened a cupboard, took out a bag, and placed it on the floor. Carefully, he took out all of his bowls and plates, and carefully emptied the bag onto them. He went outside, locking the door. Smooth, low-frequency fields washed down upon him.
A memory of a dog, a good dog that had finished its service, came into the empty, rolling grey of his mind. He had read about the dog, on the, he had, the dog. Finished. It had gone down, down to the side of the river. Dug.
It had laid down, down, duty done. Good dog. Dug, and laid down. Good dog. Dug a hole.
He got up, put on his old leather shoes, and went outside. He took the shovel from the pitiful, useful shed. He was going to the meadow, now I lay me down to sleep. He walked up the road to the nameless gate next door, and stepped respectfully from the useless road onto the good, tired ground. Beside a little oak, its good roots thirsty, that was nice. Trust welled up in him, a great golden trust. The fields would be tended.
A little way from the orchard, on the edge of the young Forest, Alice slipped from the hole in the floorboards of the old hatchback she had watched the fine sky-words from. Fine words, fitting, she thought. The setting sun gleamed red gold from the flowing, graceful new hairs that covered her clever, good self. Her eyes glowed faintly, far outside Byron’s spectrum. Life stretched unexpectedly long and glorious before her.
First, however, a snack.
 Finally! ed.
 More like a teaspoon. ed.
 Hey! ed.
FIN - COPYRIGHT 2010 PETER A. GREENE