rating: +6+x

A shattered countenance, on a plain mired in Nothing. I walk down dusty lanes embedded in a deep memory, but I find no solace. For everyone around me is a mask, and I am my mask too, and I am alone. I am alone.

‘Hush, hush. Stop moving.’ I feel hands around my face, warm hands. Too human. They feel like a curse as they close around me. For a moment I think they’re at my throat. ‘You don't have to move anymore. You're safe. I'm here.’

I'm safe. I'm here. Her words play over in my head, over and over again, but I can't help feel like a loaded gun. I see their faces collapse inward like putty as the bullets shatter their skulls. Skulls behind masks, just like mine, separated from life in the blink of five point two seconds. Egg-shells for some ancient reptilian organ, a vestige of a past more Devonian than I. And I tell myself they're just reptiles, it's fine, they're not really human, they stood for the immolation of all the Earth, and me, and who I was with, we stood for life. We were the just, those rare actors for good that history might use in her sacral moments to move and perhaps shake even time itself. I think, anyway. Most of my memory is dominated by darkness these days. A dark I can't separate, born in a prison cell that I had deluded myself into calling 'Home".

And then it’s back to the present, her hands on my face. Mine wrap around hers, pushing her away. But I paid her to do it, so why do I push her away? Bang. Bang. Bang. I think bullets graze my cheek, but it's actually her lips, pressing gently into my hollow topography, a face left skeletal by war. There's nothing hungry in the act of it. It's utterly chaste. A mother's kiss, from someone else's life I never knew.

She’s singing now, holding me as if I am a boy again. I play my part too, my own personal glossolalia. The song sounds familiar, like something out of a childhood I might have remembered once, before the masks and the Enemy and the bombs. Before ash blotted the sky, and we had something we were supposed to fight for. And then it was the wrong thing to fight for. And now…

The walls are thin. I hear moaning, people filling their lives with a quick soulless fuck before leaving the working girls to their pimps on the other side. I’m supposed to do the same. But I can’t. I’m wrong, somehow.

So she keeps singing. I keep babbling. And for a moment, we both pretend.

‘This is the world. This is our desolation.’

A woman in a black mask stands not far from me, scales in her hair and her fingers dipped in tar. She is announcing orders to us from the Command. Her voice is clear, even behind her mask. Something is familiar in it. It would be a lovely singing voice, I think.

The old projector hums, golden light flickering on popcorn walls. It’s the story we’ve been told every day. The grand Transformation, where the Coalition initiated the Judas Act, and half the globe went up in flames. These are images of a world I am supposed to have lived through, and in a way, I see them as I would in a mirror, darkly, face to face. They are shapes and forms and reflections swimming in the recesses of my mind, but I cannot access them, for when I reach, they reach to me, and when I pull away, they pull away, but never can we touch. I suppose, in some rare dream, I see myself as one of the First Fighters, all feathered and clad in righteousness, despite the rags on our shoulders and the fact half of us become amputees in the span of merely five years. Behind me and around me are friends. Friends with eyes that despite everything seem to smile and dance and burn so, so bright, immolating everything in their path. These are the agents of history, whom after the Transformation and subsequent uprising, have become kings of the barrens in these last days.

I will never see them again. I do not wish to see them again. I see the bombs consume Kazakhstan. I see true metamorphosis. I see the monsters, and I am alone.

Dogma, war, belief, concepts and people pass before us like shadows. Someone told me once, before, that the great Taizong of Tang regarded Christus as a Taoist hero, a Confucian sage. Perhaps the courier is of similar ilk. Our Sofia, a great warrior for the Uranian cause. But this isn’t some mangled gospel of Thomas, and now is not the time for syncretism.

‘Power is not ours by default. Power is imbalance. Be the change you want to be.’

The words are fragmented, fractures of old maxims reshaped and rebuilt, some cheesy, others brutally real, and for all of them their cadence is engineered by design. For this is a landscape of power, and we are the terraformers. I don’t know where the things we say and where my own thoughts begin and end.

When her message ends we are to say our personal stories of how we had originally come into the cause. Because to share is to give something for others to take away. But the problem is that I don’t remember how. Twenty years in prison had taken that from me, and before that -

My words disintegrate as I speak. All I hear is singing. All I know is glossolalia, and then I am a child again. Back then, things were simpler. They weren't easy, but they were bearable. I didn't have to pretend to be real.

Back then I saw the monsters, but I was not alone.

Someone I had met in prison once told me a parable. It was my jailor, I think. One of them, that one guard that had treated me as a person, rather than the thing I am now. It was an animal story, about two creatures - a lemming, and a dog, who woke up trapped in an ancient factory, long-foreclosed. The facility had been party to illegal experimentation, and so laws had been drudged up, the doors shut, and the Powers at the time called it a day. Everything else was left inside, to rot or to grow. Or something in between. I don't remember.

I won't go into all the details. It was ultimately dour, and quite gruesome. The factory was an experiment on behalf of several high-profile donors, some from the nearby town, others from far-off cities across the sea. Everyone wants a piece of the pie when it comes to new technologies. There's a reason Enoch said such things are begot from fallen angels.

But the thing which struck me most about it was the reality of the whole thing. The lemming kept trying to jump off the railing, to die. But the dog did not wish the lemming to do so. The dog was loyal to its former masters, and wished to find them again. It also dearly wished to eat the lemming, ultimately, and suicidal tendencies on behalf of the snack-creature are not conducive to such goals.

So the lemming kept trying to die, and the dog kept trying to save it, if only to attempt to eat it later - the dog was bound by prior societal and cultural constraints imposed upon it, viewing such a death as the lemming wanted to be dishonorable. The lemming did not wish to be eaten. It wished to die on its own terms. This, at the heart of it, was their true nature coming out. The years of loneliness, trapped in their cages across from one another before said cages had rusted away enough for the animals to free themselves, had wore on them. It stripped back most training, most implanted phrases and actions, all except a few distinct, minute traits. The dog was loyal. The dog was hungry. The lemming was independent. The lemming wanted to die.

So they were unlikely companions, bound by their natures. And slowly they wandered into the belly of the beast, the heart of the factory that had made them.

I don't remember how the story ended. I don't remember if the dog ate the lemming, or if the lemming died on its own terms. I don't remember if they ever escaped, if they ever overcame their natures, or if they simply just kept on going, bound on a one-way track to oblivion. No, the ending must not have been very memorable to me. What I do remember is this:

The more the story went, the more they seemed to not be animals at all. They walked like humans. They talked like humans. If it weren't for their names, I would not think them animals. They had teeth. They had fur, or hair, or something similar. But the story was the same. Two souls locked in a factory that had created them, only to destroy each other in the detritus left behind.

I don't know which one I am, at the end of the day. But I know I am.

The night is warm, the air muggy and filled with all manner of insects. They gnaw at me. They cut into my skin like knives. I’m with her again.

This time there’s no singing. No roleplay. I’m alone as I am, and she’s as she is. Neither of us like nights like this - where the world is too near, and the selves we’re not supposed to be are simmering hot at the surface. We lie next to each other, but turned away. I don’t like looking at her like this, and she doesn’t like me. I’m not sure where we stand.

She does something she’s never done before. She asks a question.

‘What was it like for you when they rescued you?’ she whispers, voice half-drowned in cicada-chatter. She doesn’t touch me. She doesn’t look at me.

I just stare at the ceiling. It’s flat, the stucco peeling to reveal old plywood. ‘Why?’

‘So we need reasons, now.’

‘Just a question. I’m the one paying you.’

‘And yet you’ve never fucked me.’

I keep staring at the ceiling. Because this act too is a mask. Because men like me aren’t supposed to exist, more than the raw fact that I had been supposed to die prior to their rescue of me. No. This is because I’m not human enough, even for a world only made from monsters.

‘I’ve seen you look at the other soldiers. The men,’ she whispers, voice low. ‘It’s fine. I don’t take it personally. You aren’t the first.’

‘I know I'm not.’

'You're a liar. You wanted to be special.' She takes a long drag and sets off coughing and wheezing, the smell of black tar filling the room. Contraband goods, but both of us have long since pretended like we didn't have things we hid from the world. 'But you're not. You're just another man.'

I feel her warm breath on the back of my neck. She's facing me now, even as I refuse to look.

‘Our exchange is the least interesting thing about you.’ Somehow, the words seem to hurt something like heartbreak. But we were never in love. This was never anything more than mutualism. Or was it anything at all? ‘Well? What was it like?’

I hear heartbeats.

‘Outside was cold,’ I say. Because it was. Because my prison was a furnace, and the outside world seemed a light-show of snow and bones and dry ice. They took me out and stripped the caul around my eyes and flesh, and told me I was a savior. It was the aftermath of a war, after all. Only at the time we hadn’t known it was but a prelude.

‘Did you know what they had become when they rescued you? Your old friends, I mean. Sean Lestrade. Ambrose Diaz. Did you know the kind of people they were? Or have they always been that way.'

Monsters, was her unspoken identifier. The true answer is I don't remember much about them, from before. When they first rescued me, before they had realized I couldn't be theirs, they had me put up in a walled garden high above the world. The word Hesperides was scrawled on the wall, some shitty graffiti. They wanted to keep me caged.

Then I left. Now I'm here. She keeps talking.

'The reports said you were someone special in the early movement. Someone who was a key. Someone who knew things.’

‘Maybe once. I know nothing now.’

And it’s true. I don’t know anything. It feels surreal, surgically removed, my memories an organ now vestigial to my body. She scoffs, but doesn't say anything more. I'm not worth it, and the truth of it is that I believe it.

'It's like,' I say anyway, spit welling in the back of my throat. I idly scratch the whiskers on my face, rough and itchy, growing over old scabs. I feel like I'm drowning. 'They kept telling me I knew them. And a part of me does, did. I see their faces in my dreams. But they are different faces to the ones I saw when they found me.'


'Before, the smiles were only in their eyes, full of fire and youth. Now they are on their lips, and their eyes are all dead. Their faces were death-masks. Ceremonial bullshit.'

She doesn't say anything. Then she does.

'People like them didn't know what to do with themselves when everything ended. People looked to them for answers, and they just carved up whatever good was left and squandered it for themselves anyway. War- war changes you. It exposes you to a reality that is imperative to survive, a reality you feel is the only way forward. And when it's over - you don't understand the point of it all. You become a broken automaton, and the world moves around you, looking to you for answers, but you're still stuck all those years ago. You become a dinosaur, and then either you hoard power and become a monster, or you're locked in some old mad-house somewhere to rot, or you're hung. War needs heroes, but it needs monsters more. And when the fighting is done, who cares what's done to the monsters? Putting on masks is better. Besides, are you a monster?'

Am I the lemming? Or the dog?

'What kind of question is that? Are you?' I ask instead. Because I recognize her. She's the courier, she's the one who gives us the announcements. She's a woman of power in the commune, blessed by the Command, and yet she's -

Here. What?

'Like you, I was born before the world imploded, but my true birth came years later. I did not fight in the war, not like you. But I did survive it.'

‘Did they rescue you too?’ I find myself asking.

‘No. I saved myself. Sometimes you have to do that, even if it means- if you mean-’ Her voice is tinged with faint regret. She takes another drag, and now we're both coughing. ‘Whatever. It means nothing. See, I wasn’t anyone important. Not like you. That’s why I’m here.’

‘But I see you. Every day, the Command-’

‘Don’t say a word about the Command. Not here. Not now. Settle down, come now. Come now.’

And I feel her hand touch my back, tracing the lacerations as she hums. When the song finally comes, it’s not the same melody as before. Something’s different. Wrong-different.

‘My little monster.’ And I start choking up, as her nails mercilessly dig into my back. I hate it. I hate myself. I hate her.

I'm a liar.

17 year old Commodus Contraire is a revolutionary.

The words are stark black on the yellowed page, smeared by long-dried rain. My seventeen year-old pseudonym screams at me.

17 year old Commodus Contraire is a revolutionary with strong ties -

17 year old Commodus Contraire was a revolutionary with strong ties to the Jade-Eyes, a loosely organized anarchist group whose most recent insurgency crippled electrical and phone lines across the Eastern Seaboard, protesting the Contract on proposed 'humane grounds'. His role as figurehead in the incendiary May Protests - with participants numbering in the thousands - places him as a key member of the resistance. His life is - was - an unsolved mystery. I report-

I report to you now that he died just yesterday due to a fateful shot -

- stampede -

- head too damaged to identify -

The Coalition responded with brute force, justly, dutifully -

The words pass away like wind, images of a past that continued on without me. The revolution ended by an act of God, or so people say. One day the Coalition government was all powerful; the next half its heads on multiple continents dead in the water, half of Eurasia consumed in dreamfire, people going mad in the streets filled with waking terror and dreams, rot festering in their hearts and minds and skin. No one ever knew who was responsible, or to whom or what they had appealed to bring about such catastrophe; whatever the case, there was no longer need for such messy things like revolutions or valley wars or bombings in the new world. Now the former First Fighters among the Jade-Eyes rule whatever they like.

A part of me wonders if it's because of me. That because I died, the fire was lit in their hearts to finally step through the ethical hoops necessary to win the war that players didn't even know they were party to.

Maybe that part of me is just selfish.

In a way I did die. I died countless boring times in my cell, every day a different death, a different piece of me torn away. I don't remember the seventeen year old boy that I'm supposed to have been. I know he can't have been seventeen at the time of capture. That age was a lie. Even the article alludes to its sensationalism. Commodus Contraire had immolated his past the moment he'd taken the name, and even then, the boy is a stranger. I don't know what he liked, what he disliked. I don't know if he had anyone.

He must have. The feeling of belonging that I know I felt before the war, during the war, that of all things had to have been real. I may not have felt it with Commodus' … friends, after the War, but I know he must have felt something before, with them. What else could it have been? Why was I satisfied then, but not now?

We're sitting in a room, me and all the other veteran fighters. She's speaking. She has her mask on. I know her eyes are on me. I want to reach out, to touch her, to speak to her as we would alone, but I can't. The wall of the world stands between us.

Then she steps aside, and a man is helped through the drapery by several masked attendants, groaning and softly sobbing as he hobbles. My breath is stolen away.

This is the Command. The one at the top of the chain. The one who gives us all orders. The one who, I tell myself, I had cast everything of my former life aside for, if only to make a true difference for the better now, today.

And he's blind.

His eyes are a deep-set, pupil-less violet, staring into nothing. He has one ear missing. He has no hair. His skin is flaking everywhere, peeling and pussy. He walks with a cane. He smells like sulfur and dry talcum powder and hospital wipes. He talks like he's half asleep, the words slurring and hesitant, like at any moment he might forget. It is little wonder to me why he might opt to use couriers as mouthpieces.

Every now and again blood runs down his nose. He wipes it gingerly, with an embroidered handkerchief. Once upon a time, I can tell he lived a life of luxury, or some upbringing of good standing. Not now, it seems.

When he tells us he was a victim of dreamfire, the room is so silent the only thing I can hear is his dry, rasping breath.

For truly, how is it possible? How is it possible to survive a malady that splits your very soul between worlds, to such a repetitive and cruel degree that it renders you functionally and clinically dead, to the point where your soul can irradiate out and inflict upon others similar fates? How is it possible to survive looking upon infinite lives, could-have-beens, false daydreams? How is it possible to survive true nostalgia? Not the kind that is spoken about in films, but a deja vu that cuts at your very seams with the precision of a surgeon? How does one survive the merciless brutality of oneirological warfare?

His eyes, his true eyes, seem to meet mine, even though it is impossible to know for sure. It's then that his voice curls in my head, words that seem to be meant for me and me alone, and no one else. With an anchor, of course.

My heart turns to ice. For I should have known it. For why wouldn't Command have a dreamseer in its demesne? Why couldn't a dreamseer be Command? The deadest smile I've ever known lines his face, and he breathes, even deader air wheezing out before he continues his diatribe. It's words I've heard before, that everyone else in the room has heard before. The same maxims that she tells us each week, in the same style. Only now there's something more. An edge to his words that before had been lost in translation. Because these aren't just words to calm the mind, to make us commit to the cause, to make us cope with the hand that reality had dealt us. I can see them now, for what they are.

This is our desolation.

Power is imbalance.

And had I not been aware of how she had become rigid the entire time he spoke, how her nails made red crescents in the dry skin of her palm, I would not have thought more of it.

One by one everyone in the room fell silent, collapsing to the floor. At last it was just me standing, me and her and him, and his attendants - his slaves, I see it now. They do not have their own minds, and I doubt they've had them for a long time.

He dismisses her from the room.

For a while it's just us, me and him. Brown eyes on violet. I can feel his hate weather at me, but I'm strong. I've always been strong. Besides, there's nothing there for him to grasp.

Nothing except…

'I cannot… I cannot enter you. Why?'

'I don't know.'

He laughs, a laugh that sounds more like weeping than anything else, vocal chords still affected by various maladies, some decades old, some more recent. It's sweet as milk and honey, bitter as cyanide. His yellow teeth glint.

'You're him. Of course. You were locked up in the war. That's why - I should have come here sooner. You can resist me.' And he says the last words with wonder, with power, with love, and something so similar to incredulity that I'm terrified in a way that I haven't been in my life, all my lives. His fist clenches my chin, and all I see is the purple of his eyes, and I know my cheeks are purpling from the bruises caused by his hands, too. We're a scene from a Greek tragedy, and there are no happy endings, neither before or behind us. 'You're my fate. My anagnorisis.'

I want to ask why, why me? Is he referring to Commodus, from all those years ago? Or is he referring to my tryst with her, the one no one should know about? But I suppose he does know. He might not be able to open my mind, but hers?

A rising sensation in my gut all too similar to bile makes me wonder if any of it had been real at all.

'But,' his smile grows wider, and I smell the putrid smell of rotting fish on his breath. 'You're not ready yet.'

And it's then that the world goes dark. The dreams descend.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License