[People say "I want peace." If you remove I (ego), and your want (desire), you are left with peace. Sathya Sai Baba.]
By the time the fortieth charred face meets Eric’s eyes, he feels his mind falling into a habit he’s always considered despicably reductive, of seeing them all as the same. He can’t help it, his mind can’t help it. Like most people, he just can’t process, at least consciously, that much information. And so his brain does what all brains do under such conditions, it makes generalisations; skipping past the details in search of common denominators. Well, he found himself thinking, they’re all dead. That’s the first generalisation. The second is that they all killed themselves. The third is that they all killed themselves by voluntary self immolation in the Apollo Theatre. And lastly, they were all members of a group known as Raze, a dreadfully fitting name in this instance.
Deciding to call it a night, Eric closes the document of names and burnt faces and stares into the fractal labyrinth of colours and shapes that is his desktop background. Immediately to his left, a half smoked joint sits in a grubby ashtray. He shouldn’t be doing this high, but given the atrocious nature of what Raze has done, it was hard to concentrate without it. He opens his hand to pick it up, then closes it again. He grabs his phone and starts composing a message.
Hey man. Jus startd lookn @ the list. 40 thru, gonna leave the rest til 2mro.
He sends the message to Joe who replies straight away.
Eric picks up the joint and lights it. Inhaling deeply, he stands suddenly, propelling the chair away with the back of his knees. The resulting head rush is intense and the room is drowned in black for a moment.
Traversing the two feet from his desk to his bed, Eric flops onto the latter with dangerous momentum. Not being a particularly light weight individual, he’s not sure how long the bed frame’s going to last at this rate but that doesn’t matter now, he’s got Raze to think about.
Fitfully, he throws his head left and right to get it just in the right position and his thoughts slosh about like water as though disturbed by the motion.
How, Eric wonders, do Raze choose their prospective members? And once they do, what is it they do to them which makes them happily agree to roast themselves in public en mass? This is Eric’s job, or more accurately, the job of Never Abide.
Without bias towards any particular disenfranchised social group, Never Abide had exposed many scandals over the years from child trafficking rings masquerading as logistic companies to racketeers conning pensioners by the thousands out of their tiny fortunes. Their operations, vastly more sophisticated than any comparable government body, save perhaps for the covert ones, span twenty seven countries and with an operation period exceeding a decade.
Of the many nodes and networks comprising the totality of Never Abide, Eric had joined as part of their newest division in the UK, the one opened to deal with Raze specifically.
A new message flashes on Eric’s phone, it’s Joe.
He replies immediately.
Sure. Come round.
Joe, Eric’s partner of fourteen years, had joined Never Abide after he did. At first, he worked managing media presence before advancing into the higher stakes operation of managing the entire UK division’s finances. Eric had frequently asked Joe to explain accountancy terms to him, thinking that he was applying the Feynman technique on him when in fact he was making Joe apply the technique on himself.
“Why do you want to know?” Joe would protest.
“I want to know what you do, if you can explain it to me you’ll understand it more clearly.”
“I understand it already, very clearly in fact.”
“Then indulge me.”
Joe would always cave to this, and yet, despite Eric’s insistence, he never remembered anything Joe told him.
A knock at the door. Joe’s arrived.
He rushes to open it, greeting Joe with a side smile, a hug and a kiss.
Joe slips out of his jacket and slides onto Eric’s desk chair. He takes a deep breath, glances at the monitor, then at the joint in Eric’s hand. “Can’t be arsed eh?”
Eric takes a deep drag, squinting to stop the smoke going into his eyes, “nope,” he croaks. “It’s fucking rough man.” A shiver rattles through his chest and he coughs up the heavy grass.
“I saw it on the news. You know they’re trying to call it the ‘Wilton Road Incident,’” Joe says affecting the tone of a news reporter.
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “At least they didn’t go for the ‘Apollo Incident,’ god of the sun and all.”
“Good to know people have some sense.”
Eric takes another drag and passes the joint, “I don’t know why they didn’t just use the date, you know? It works, nine eleven, seven seven.”
“They’re trying to hide the fucking horror of it, that’s what it is.”
“More like obscure it.”
Joe drags hastily on the joint, “Four hundred odd people burn themselves to a cinder. It doesn’t matter what they fucking call it, that’s what it is.”
“Well, since four hundred and forty nine people died, I’m calling it the four four nine incident, simple but it’ll do.”
They talk along these lines for over an hour. Then, completely spent of their outrage, they make love, fuelled by the passion of their mutual outrage.
In the morning, Joe’s already out of the door before Eric’s awake, on his way to his day job, unsurprisingly, as an accountant. An hour after that, Eric stirs. Unlike Joe, he’s thrown himself fully into the embrace of Never Abide. No day job, no safety net.
His computer’s fan kicks in, driving a rattling buzz into the thick malodorous air. His joints creak and crack as he stretches out flat on the bed, sending a burst of hot and cold tingling through his hands and feet, a symptom of his body’s poor circulation.
He turns to face the window, a thin lattice of shining light. Knowing that he likes a lie in, Joe had left the blinds down for him.
He throws his legs over the side of the bed, letting the weight of them pull him up as gravity begins their claim on them. He inhales slowly and deeply to stretch out the tightness in his lungs no doubt the result of the heavy joint last night. He’ll put less in tonight.
He pulls up the file of the deceased and his screen is once again populated by the agonised death masks of the carbonised dead. The next one he needs to process, the forty first face, he had to admit, shows little difference from the fortieth.
The name beneath the image reads, ‘Lucy Robinson, 13 May 1987. DOA.’
He zooms in on her eyes, or where her eyes used to be. The steep contortion of the cheeks, the way the muscles have been squeezed makes it clear that, before losing consciousness, Lucy had been screaming.
He types her name into the national insurance database, access to which had been granted by Never Abide, and enters her profession. It tells him Lucy had been a teacher, the fifth one he’s counted so far.
Of the forty one people he had looked into, five were teachers: two maths, three science, seven were mid level data entry administrators, five were university students studying maths, English literature, psychology, philosophy, geography and computer science, two were building contractors: one electrician, one plasterer, two were lawyers: one barrister, one solicitor, five were small business owners: two pizzerias and three fish and chip shops, three were medical doctors: a paediatrician, a surgeon and an anaesthetist, one was a psychiatric nurse, and eleven, not including their involvement with Raze, were unemployed. Of the unemployed, four were wheelchair users.
He rubs his grainy unwashed eyes with greasy fingers as he looks at the chart on which he’s plotted all this data. He’s only been awake ten minutes and already the task is straining him. He can’t understand how is the spread is so wide, how does Raze manage to reach out to so many different people? The literature in circulation that hasn’t already been hunted down and removed by the authorities isn’t, in Eric’s opinion at least, especially proselytising, passionate sure, and filled with all the hyperbolic idealism one expects, but nothing that explains Raze’s draw across so many demographics.
By the time night sucks the last of the light from the sky, Eric’s gone through another eighty four, noting professions, schooling and public affiliations, anything that might indicate some kind of pattern. But there wasn’t any. One hundred and twenty five people dead, and not a single one of their lives told has him anything useful.
His eyes begin to blur and the back of his wrists throb from the repetitive strain. He looks at the clock on his monitor. Joe finishes work in about an hour. He grabs his phone to message him only to find that Joe’s beaten him to it.
Eric replies immediately.
Sure man, CUM round.
You’re gross… but yeah sure, I’ll cum ;-).
Eric laughs out loud to himself at this, but his mirth fades quickly as he looks around his room, wishing he can invite Joe to somewhere nice instead of this dingy shithole he’s chosen to call home.
As part of an old experimental development, Eric’s room consists of a single shipping container amidst a grid of four, each of which the management company cleverly refer to as a ‘life pod.’ The place had began life as an emergency housing solution. Then, once funding for that ran out, the site had been promptly purchased by developers who, after assurances that people really were willing to pay to live in dim, cramped and poorly ventilated metal boxes, began their campaign to bring ‘affordable, minimalist, modular living’ to the masses.
Yawning, Eric rolls his head from side to side, fighting through the discomfort as his neck seizes, twinges and clicks from stiffness. Exhausted, he stares at the blackened face of a paramedic, contemplating the irony of what she had done to herself. She seems to glare at him, as if she wants him to feel disturbed, to be marked permanently by her. He turns off the monitor, the sudden blackness reflecting his pale complexion.
He stands in a wave of cracks and snaps coming from his legs and hips; he’s been sat for too long. He feels the back of his chair and finds that Joe has left his jacket. He throws it on, inhaling the scent of Joe in the fabric.
In his all in one bedsit, kitchenette, lounge he thinks about how there isn’t really anything important he needs to keep safe, not even his computer; a cheap pile of parts he can easily assemble again from components procured by Never Abide’s opaque methods. So on that basis he decides to go out.
He leaves the door unlocked and turns to face outside, bracing himself for the epic shift in perspective that is seeing beyond the diminutive confines of his room. He turns and the world swells before him, ballooning into his vision, pushing painfully against the limits of his peripherals. It’s too much. He breaks away and stares at his feet, cursing himself for letting himself get like this.
He keeps his head down as he descends steel lattice stairs, feeling comforted by their closeness and right angled symmetry. The pain in his eyes subsides a little, allowing him to raise his head slightly. The yard outside is empty save for a couple of freshly stolen and dismantled bikes.
On the main street, the orange glow of sodium bulbs melds strangely with the cold wash of newly installed LEDs, making the light of the street resemble a cloud of half beaten eggs. This does nothing to alleviate his headache. Without looking, he starts towards the pharmacy over the road, not realising that it’s shut. When the door fails to budge against his hand, he curses and sets off to the one down the road. After only a few steps his head begins to hurt more. A migraine is coming, he knows it.
Against everything his pulsing head is telling him, he breaks into a light jog towards the pharmacy. He’s at the pharmacy within minutes and thrusts himself in as if being pursued by a murderous mob.
Alarmed at his sudden entrance Jenna, the pharmacist, freezes mid pose atop a ladder with her hands poised to put down the last box of co-codamol on a high shelf.
Nearly blinded by the sudden whiteness of the pharmacy lights, Eric does his best to smile.
“Hi Jenna,” he waves and points to a shelf, “just getting some paracetamol and ibuprofen.”
For a moment, Jenna doesn’t move. Then, relieved that she recognises him, she puts the co-codamol on the shelf and climbs down. One look at Eric and she knows what’s wrong. “Migraine?”
Before he asks how she knows this, he realises she’s the medical professional and would, without the aid of psychic abilities, be able to deduce such things. Plus, she had been at university with him and had always known him to smoke too much, eat too little and sleep too inconsistently. He nods, wincing at the pain spilling out from behind his eyes and merging with the a new pain taking root in his neck.”
Maybe you should try something else. I mean,” she points at the boxes in his hands, “does any of that help?”
“It does a little. Nothing ever fully gets rid of it. I just have to pop as many of these as I’m allowed then hope for the best.”
“You should try these.”
She shows him a leaflet detailing a specific kind of migraine medication, one he’s never seen before. “Okay, but how much is it?” He raises a box of paracetamol, “these things are less than a quid each, so…”
“If you fill in a form, you can get it cheaper.”
Eric narrows his eyes, not out suspicion but pain, “is it good?”
Jenna bites her lip, “I don’t really know.”
“Well that’s reassuring.”
She shrugs, “well, let me know when you feel up to trying it.”
She takes his boxes, makes the sale and waves him goodbye. “You don’t have to be a martyr, you know?”
The word ‘martyr’ stops him in his tracks. What did she mean by that? He turns.
She smiles at him, “you okay?”
He nods and leaves as quickly as his soon to explode head will allow. The pressure builds behind his eyes so quickly he’s afraid he’ll give himself a stroke as deep thundering waves of blood heave sluggishly through every capillary, vein and artery threading through his head.
His side street comes into view and he slows right down. Gasping, his lungs rattle with every ragged breath. He doesn’t go inside his apartment right away. Instead, he decides to climb up the side and sit on the roof.
The grid block of containers isn’t particularly high, only two storeys, squat by modern standards but it’s enough to enjoy a good view of the surrounding area. To the west, the hidden sun is still keeping a large arc of sky a deep shade of plum, the colour seeping imperceptibly into star studded navy above.
On the ground the houses spread out in deliberate rows of distinct and angular shapes like a giant motherboard, breaking only briefly at the golf club and park in the south west.
He shoves four tablets into his mouth, two paracetamol, two ibuprofen. Then, remembering that he didn’t bring any water with him, he chews them into bitter dust and swallows them. At least now they’ll kick in quickly.
He lies on his back and fishes another joint from his pocket. No. He puts it back. Not till Joe comes. Well… maybe just half. He takes the joint out again and lights it. Just then, a small stone knocks the back of his hand.
Leaning over the side, he beams a broad toothy smile at Joe, “hey.”
“I thought you said you wouldn’t do it without me.”
“It’s called perfect timing.”
“Is that my jacket?”
“Why’re you up there?”
“Just chillin. It’s quite nice. Come up.”
Joe climbs up, planting a soft kiss on Eric’s cheek as he stealthily takes the joint from him. “It is quite nice up here.”
“How was your day?”
“A lot of bloody numbers,” Joe mumbles sombrely, “and not a lot of room for mistakes.”
“No, it’s just…” Joe takes a long drag, exhaling in a thick cloud. “I want to be doing what you do, you know?”
“What?” Eric asks, genuinely surprised. “You want to be an unemployed stoner?”
The joke lands flat and a void begins to gather behind Joe’s eyes, “but you’re not that are you? Not really. You’re working, you’re doing important things, sacrificing comfort and financial security for something you believe in.”
“At the expense of my health, don’t forget, and clean living.”
Another failed joke and the void churns ever deeper, “I’m sure the group takes care of you.”
“Well, I’m alive, so I guess so.”
“You know what I mean. You’ve jumped in completely, you’re committed. I’m still pussyfooting around.”
“I hate that word, don’t you think it sounds like some horrible fetish thing.”
Joe laughs finally, but the void is far from gone, “be serious Eric. I don’t feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
“You’re in charge of the division’s finances aren’t you?”
“Yeah?” Joe nods despondently.
“So you’re the money man. What’s wrong with that? Everybody needs one.”
Joe hogs the joint and doesn’t say anything for a while. Eric doesn’t mind. Poor guy’s had a hard day. The joint is nearing its end when he says, “I think I want to quit my job. I’m sick of working shit out for these people, helping them with all the little tricks and loopholes so they can move their sacks of gold off to some third world island where they can get away with it.”
Eric slides a hand around Joe’s waist, taking what’s left of the joint from him with the other. “Hey,” he gives Joe a shake, “it’s fine if you want to quit, okay? I’m a hundred percent with you. But don’t do it because you think it’ll make you as cool as me, because it won’t.” He squeezes the side of Joe’s ribcage, forcing him to convulse and squawk uncontrollably.
“Get off!” Joe manages to gasp between howling breaths.
“Alright, alright,” he says raising his hands.
“Can we go in? I’m getting chillled up here.”
They descend carefully through the hazy effects of the joint, clambering like sloths down a tree.
Once inside, Joe drops onto Eric’s chair. “I have something to show you by the way.”
“Ooh, okay. I hope it won’t corrupt my hard drive.”
“Stop being gross. It’s not officially anything the group needs done, but I thought it might help.”
“Alright, come on then.”
Joe plugs in a USB, opens a spreadsheet, the contents of which are not immediately obvious to Eric.
“You know what this is?” asks Joe, his voice suddenly giddy.
“Is it stuff from work?”
“Nope. These are the estimated quantities of all the resources Raze wasted at the Apollo.”
“You did this?”
Joe nods emphatically, his eyes reigniting as he speaks, “I’ve calculated how much CO2, every single one of them have released into the atmosphere as a direct result of them burning themselves. I also worked out how much blood they’ve wasted that could have been otherwise donated. I got out how much waste energy they’ve released, the cost of the damage they did to the Apollo, all the fuel and water the fire brigade used to deal with the inciden, the loss of pay for all the workers at the Apollo. Basically, they’ve just turned themselves into a really really expensive pile of ash. And this is just the preliminary stuff I’ve worked out, there’s probably a lot more I can add to it.”
Joe turns to Eric who’s laughing quietly.
“You,” Eric says still laughing, “are a fucking genius.”
Perplexed, Joe asks, “then why are you laughing at me?”
“Babe, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at Raze. I mean, there they were marching down the self righteous road to martyrdom, cocksure they’re being ultimately selfless, and here you are proving that, in fact, they’ve done nothing but show off. Babe, this is going to wound them, badly.”
“Really, you think so?”
Eric pulls Joe in and locks him in a long and forceful kiss. “If you show this to the division leaders, you won’t be our accountant anymore, I’m telling you now.”
“What will I be?”
He shrugs, “not sure, with this kind of work though… maybe they’ll put you in research with me. Or they might give you your own team.”
They send the spreadsheets and spend the evening going through Joe’s findings and laughing at Raze’s lack of foresight.
Several weeks later, they both receive the same message, an address for a bar in the city centre and a time. The division leaders want to talk.
On the day, a sunny Sunday afternoon, they make their way through the city centre. Joe looks shiftily around him, taking out and looking at his phone for the twelfth time in a minute.
“Relax will you?” Eric says rolling his eyes.
“I’m trying! Are we going the right way?” Joe points a finger down an alleyway, “is this it, down here?”
“Mmm hmm,” Eric says leading the way.
Partway down the alley, just far enough for it to get a little dark, he stops, turns and grips Joe by the arms. “Babe?”
A spasm in Joe’s throat makes his voice quiver, “W-what? What are you d-doing? W-why’re you holding me?”
“You need to stop, okay? Relax.”
“What’re they going to ask me?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. But it’s going to be okay.”
“How do you know? Have you met them before?”
“Yes, I have, a few times.”
“It’s fine. They’re nice people, if a little…”
“What? A little what?”
“... quiet. That’s all. They don’t say very much, but that’s only because they prefer to listen.”
“So I’ve got to watch my mouth?”
“No! Listen to me. They have asked to speak to you. I’m only along for this because I vouched for you. They’re not going to want to hear anything I say. This is about you, and your work, okay?”
“Okay,” Joe breathes as evenly as he can, clenching his fists in an attempt to distract himself from the dread singularity imploding in his chest. “Alright. I can do this,” he says, knuckles pulled as white as his face.
Eric releases his grip and smoothes the side of Joe’s hair. The gesture makes Joe smile and his breathing finally evens out, “there you go, now come on.”
They emerge at the other end of the alley onto a road decorated overhead by elaborate lanterns. On the ground, the road is flanked by dense rows of busy shops and stalls. They find the bar, just a door: no name, no number, nothing. Such a thing would’ve been difficult to spot were it not for the fact that every other business advertised their names on every available surface.
There’s no bell to press, no cameras, no doorman with whom to exchange a cryptic code, just a door, closed but unlocked.
Through the door and up a single flight of stairs, they emerge in a dim place with leather upholstered walls and black out curtains on the far end of a rectangular room. Lit with golden lamps, though not without the odd beam of light slicing through where the curtains don’t quite meet the windows’ edges, the atmosphere is a poor simulation of night.
Eric looks over to the bar. He recognises one of the barman from a previous meeting. He flicks his eyes towards the ceiling to tell them their table is upstairs.
Up another flight of stairs identical to the first, they come to another rectangular room, a clone of downstairs only this time, two people sit on a table on the far end.
Their shadowy features never fully clarify under the weird interplay of light and shadow, but Eric recognises them as the same two who’d okayed Joe’s membership years ago.
Eric nods to them. They nod back. Joe smiles. They smile back.
The one who speaks first, a woman with heterochromatic eyes, one green, one hazel, addresses Joe. “Your spreadsheets are impressive. Nothing we can use directly via any official channels, but I think they will be very useful.”
“Are there others?”
“I- I’m sorry?”
“If not, maybe you could start a few, see if you can find out their daily food and water consumption or the cost of running their communes, things like that.”
The second to speak, a woman with an angelic voice, senses Joe’s unease. “We know this is not your official capacity, but how do you feel about joining research? You clearly have the interest and the skill to put these things together.”
“What about the accounts?”
“Don’t worry about that,” hazel blue eyes answers, “we’ve no shortage of people who can do that. It’s just that most people would rather do something… more exciting, no offence.”
Joe laughs unexpectedly at this but quickly stops, “that’s alright.”
“We need to get whatever we can on Raze, how they maintain their communes, how much food and fuel they use, where they get their resources and materials, all that stuff.”
“Raze it to Zero. That’s their motto right?” pipes angel voice, “reducing their emissions to zero by killing themselves. If that’s the case, why do they have to make such a spectacle of it, why do they have to act in large groups like at the Apollo and, as you have so astutely pointed out, use up so much unnecessary resource in the process. You’re going to help us break their illusion.”
“What is it they want?” Joe asks.
“What do all attention seeking pseudo environmentalists want? Recognition that their behaviour is of objective moral significance. And before you ask, because someone as perceptive as you will know this already, yes most environmentalist groups want this to be the case. The difference with Raze is that they’re using death to convince people they’re serious. It works, everyone loves a martyr, look at Jesus, Joan of Arc, Socrates, the list goes on. But they don’t care about living with nature or trying to better understand it. They’re not interested in the hard work, they’re just a suicide cult coasting on the momentum of environmentalist rhetoric.”
“How do I…?”
“We’ll send you what we’ve got on them, how you use the information is up to you. Once you’re done, send it to us and we’ll take it from there.”
Joe rubs his face hard with both palms, squashing his features into an ugly mess Eric finds adorable. He wants to ask something. Then, after rubbing his face almost red, “so am I a full member now? I mean, do I get… Can I quit my job?”
Angel voice smiles at her companion, “that depends on what you consider a worthwhile standard of living. We can offer you the same arrangements as your friend here. Is that enough for you to quit your job?”
Joe doesn’t hesitate, “yes.”
“Excellent. That’s settled then. Unfortunately, we can’t put together any financial arrangements for a couple of weeks, three tops,” she looks at Joe, “will you be able to support each other until then?”
Eric nods, “should be fine.”
“Very good,” says angel voice, “we’ll be in touch.”
Eric and Joe rise, say their goodbyes and leave.
Back in the dazzling light of day, they stumble blindly for a second.
Eric claps a hand on Joe’s shoulder, “there you go. That wasn’t so bad was it?”
“You said they preferred to stay quiet.”
“I guess they’re different with different people. But hey, you’re officially part of the team now.”
“Yeah, shame about the money though.”
“Don’t worry about it babe, I can cover you till then. It’s only a few weeks.”
They return to Eric’s single room home, buzzing with excitement. They open a bottle of something home brewed, a concoction Eric had put together using online videos and anecdotal evidence from DIY enthusiasts. Eric fills two odd glasses and they toast.
Joe winces at the sheer power of the moonshine, scrunching his face into that adorable mess again, “I can’t believe it. I’m actually in!”
“Hah! That’s what he said,” chuckles Eric.
Joe takes Eric’s glass and pulls him on top of him, “why do you have to be so puerile?”
“Ooh puerile am I? Where did you learn that word from?”
“From you, Mr Pretentious. It was on one of your papers.”
Eric frowns as he fails to remember, “which one?”
“I don’t know, something about mistaking outrage as a legitimising act for a cause regardless of rational or ethical something something.”
“Wow, ethical something something. I can’t believe you remembered all that. You’re so clever darling.”
Smirking, Joe rolls his eyes, “are you going to be like this all night?”
The following week, the division leaders send Eric a message with the time and location of a Raze recruitment meeting.
“Is it going to be dangerous?” Joe asks already knowing that the true answer, regardless of what Eric says, is almost certainly be yes.
“The groups are pretty small, and I haven’t heard a lot about any of these things going south so... I am worried about the police though. I don’t think they’ll discriminate between serious Razers and curious newcomers, which is fine since I’m a spy, so I’m neither.”
Joe doesn’t find this funny, “what will they do to you if they find out who you’re really with?”
“Who the police, or Raze? Either will be a pain in the arse. The police will detain me and probably put tabs on me, not that I care. As for Raze… well, I can’t imagine they’ll be very happy.”
“Will they kill you? Do they do that?”
“I don’t think so. I heard a rumour that they spared a child just before it went down at the Apollo.”
“Please be careful.”
They kiss and Eric leaves Joe in the dingy box room only to emerge into dingy grey fog.
Trying to discern his way through the haze, Eric can’t help but wonder if it was just coincidence or if Raze knew to use the weather to their advantage.
Routes he normally took with no trouble became strange, imbued with unpleasant otherness. Figures, anonymised by darkness, phase in and out like nebulous bodies of ink seemingly passing through this dimension before entering another.
After an hour, Eric’s route takes him into an unfinished development, a half born thing that had run out of financial steam and was awaiting resuscitation.
Expecting far more security, Eric walks the perimeter. He doesn’t get far before a cold pressure comes down on his shoulder. Turning, he sees a young man, maybe a teenager.
“S-sorry,” the boy stammers, “it’s starting,” he flicks his head in the direction of a tall skeletal building.
They walk together, making no exchanges along the way. A small group of shady bodies has already gathered at the foot of some incomplete stairs with several larger shady bodies patting them down.
A few perfunctory pats, glances and nods and Eric was in.
They all ascend the stairs single file, trotting mechanically up and up, even their footsteps became synchronised after a while.
Atop the final flight, another line of people, the same people, were walking back down.
He reaches the top of the stairs only to have a small satchel bag thrust into his chest. He takes it and follows the line curving round and back down the stairs.
“That’s it?” he hears someone ask as they reached the top. No one answers the question.
His journey home, though still wreathed in fog, is much easier to navigate. He thinks perhaps, having passed through it once, the confusion of nebulous shapes and half light has lost its impact. That and the sheer anticlimax of ‘the meet,’ has driven all fear and apprehension out of him.
“They’re playing it very safe then,” says Joe, “keeping the meeting window small minimises risk. How many were there?”
“Not that many as far as I could tell. There could have been more people keeping watch but I’d say there were about thirty something people there, forty max.”
“What’s in the bag?”
Eric opens it and proceeds to empty onto his bed a small bound pack of postcards and a USB stick.
Eric photographs each item with his phone and plugs the USB into his computer while Joe opens the pack of postcards.
“Oh honey, remember how we used to love the sea,” Joe squeals in a mock simpering tone.
He holds up a photograph of what Eric takes to be a wide swathe of scummy foam along a beach. The water, having been worked into a thick bubbly agglomeration, clung to the sand in long slimy tendrils. Upon closer inspection, Eric realises it’s not foam at all but thousands upon thousands of dead birds. The blurb on the back explained, with unabashed righteous indignation, that the birds, having been poisoned at a beach near an industrial site had been left to rot along the shores.
Eric opens the USB to find a single video file and begins the decompressing process while Joe photographs the rest of the postcards.
The second image was of a row of tiny black bodies, babies, all with disproportionally bulbous heads and abdomens, and lifeless skyward gazes.
The third was a solider with bayonet rifle topped with a head so thoroughly mutilated as to make its physiognomical features indiscernible.
The final image is simply a face, one neither of them knew until the blurb explained that it is in fact the face of Julius Caesar, Ramesses II, Genghis Khan and finally Alexander the Great combined.
“Well aren’t these charming,” says Joe reading the back of them.
“It’s the apocalypse. Four cards four horsemen.”
“Huh, pretty clever.”
“They want people to think it’s real.”
“Mmm, well all this looks pretty real,” Joe frowns at the swathe of rotting sea birds, trying hard to discern the location.
“It is real, and they want people to feel helpless in the face of all this ‘realness,’ like feel there’s no choice left but to end it all. Concluding death as a solution to something always makes the problem, whatever it is, the most important thing.”
Joe shakes himself, “I think I’ve underestimated these guys.”
Eric turns from the computer and takes Joe’s hand, playing with the spaces between his fingers, “It’s okay babe. They’re smart but they’re extremists, they’ve got conviction but they’re no good at adapting. They push their ideology but that’s it, they don’t really think. If we can dispel the illusion they sell to people, they’re done.”
Joe watches Eric run his fingers, which are dry and warm, over his palm, “okay,” he says smiling slightly.
Satisfied with this, Eric resumes analysing the four four nine victims.
“Sorry babe. I’ve got to get this done by the weekend. Do you mind if I stay up?”
“Sure,” Joe checks his phone. “They still haven’t sent me anything.”
“Patience, okay? Believe me, when the heads give you work,” Eric pointed at his monitor, “they give you work.”
“Can I help?”
“Sure. Help me look for something that might connect these people.”
“Every single one of them?”
“Yeah I know. I’m nearly two hundred in and I can’t see anything yet.”
“What’ve you been looking at so far?”
Eric scrolls through his chart, “the usual. I can find the easy stuff with their names and social media, and a contact’s got me into the national insurance database. I’m trying to get medical histories as well but I’m still waiting for it.”
“Hang on. Go back. Show me the age column again,” Eric scrolls back. “Well there’s one right there. The youngest ones are all eighteen.”
Eric raises an eyebrow, “huh, so they are.”
“And that rumour about the kid they spared, they aren’t interested in recruiting children.”
“But if all they want is to cull the population, why should children necessarily be excluded?”
Joe chews the side of his thumb, “maybe they only want consenting adults?”
“Maybe, but we should go through the list first, see what else we can find.”
By the time the sun’s up, Eric and Joe finish the list. Lying entwined in each other’s limbs, they share a joint, exhaling their exhaustion in heavy plumes of curling white grey. They sleep it off until evening.
A message appears on Eric’s phone, waking them from their slumber. No text, just a link.
Eric sits up and lumbers towards his computer. He types the link into the address bar and hits enter. The interface for a medical database fills the screen.
“Yes!” Eric shouts, making Joe jump. “We’ve got it!”
“Hmm?” moaned Joe sleepily.
“My contact came through.”
“Muh,” Joe moans.
Eric kisses him lightly on the cheek. He’ll let him sleep. He’s not used to the long hours, not like Eric is.
Energised, Eric starts entering names, his finger almost blurring over his keyboard. By the time Joe wakes up later that evening, he’s finished.
Slowly, Joe rises from the bed and checks his phone, “fuck, did I sleep all day?”
“You won’t believe this babe, but I think you’ve stumbled onto something. Remember what you said about them all being over eighteen. Well, the rest of the list follows the same pattern. I think you’ve found something.”
“Yeah, and you know what else? There were new parents, both men and women, but no pregnant women. Now why do you suppose that is?”
The answer emerges slowly from the labyrinthine channels of Joe’s mind, working its way towards the surface of his conscious awareness. He sharpens suddenly, “consent.”
“Maybe you were right, maybe they don’t need to brainwash people, anyone joining them has already convinced themselves,” chilling numbness stiffens Eric’s gut at this implication. “I think we should send this to the division leaders.”
“You really think that’s all it is, that simple?”
“Maybe it’s not the whole picture, but it’s got to have something to do with how they recruit.”
“Has that file unzipped yet?”
Joe rubs his eyes, “what’ve they put in there?”
“Who knows. Anyway, I think we should celebrate. Let’s go get some drinks.”
Joe sits up fully and takes in an eyeful of Eric, he doesn’t like what he sees, “babe, look at you, you’re knackered. You’re in no state. Stay and rest, I’ll go get it.”
Eric air kisses Joe, “thanks. Grab my wallet, there should be enough in there for a gin or whisky or something.”
“So no beer or anything?”
“Nah, I want a proper drink.”
“Alright then, see you in a bit.”
Joe steps out onto the metal staircase, drawing in a deep lungful of air, secretly glad for the respite from Eric’s foetid den. Turning out onto the main road, he realises the weekend must be upon them. Streams of people, all cocooned in impregnable self interest, cluelessly knocking and bumping into each other, descend on every shop on the street, ravenous for alcohol.
Ducking into the least busy looking shop, Joe sighs in utter dejection at the sight of a bulging group of boys in the queue. Though adults by the mere technicality of age, Joe sees this lot as boys, for it would be an offence to his very concept of maturity to call them men.
The tallest one, with muscles like sculpted pork, is speaking, “mate, I’m gonna fuck her tonight. Trust me, I am. No one’s gonna stop me. Mate, I can’t wait. She shaves her pussy, I know she does, she’s such a fucking slut.”
“Yeah, keeps the crabs off,” guffaws his goblin doppelganger beside him.
“It don’t,” counters another of the group’s derivative bodies. “they burrow in the fucking skin. You can’t shave that shit off.”
“Fuck it,” answers Mr Tall Pork, “I’ll just fuck her in the arse then,” more laughter.
“Mate, you get fucking AIDS from that!” exclaims the goblin.
“That’s from fucking blood, you twat. Mind you, the way I’m gonna fuck her, she’s gonna bleed.” More laughter.
Joe takes a deep breath. He going to need cigarettes too.
After purchasing a bottle of bourbon, he lights up and marches speedily back to Eric’s.
He pushes through the flimsy door to find Eric snoring on his grimy bed. Closing the door gently, he sits softly on the bed and plays with Eric’s hair. Sighing, he opens the bourbon and takes a swig, something he rarely does.
Sensing someone there, Eric curls an arm around Joe’s waist. “Whadya get?” he sighs softly.
“Bourbon and fags.”
“Why’d you buy fags?”
“I was feeling stressed.”
“Aw, c’mere babe.”
Eric pulls Joe’s face towards him, and as the latter pouts ready for a kiss, feels something thin and dry in his mouth instead.
“That’s my last joint, spark up and relax babe.”
Unable to keep his eyes open any longer, Eric drifts away.
By the time he wakes the next morning, Joe’s gone. Eric looks at the clock on his monitor, nine fifty eight, nearly eight hours before Joe comes back from work.
Remembering giving Joe his last joint, he spends an hour deconstructing stubs from his ashtray until he has enough for a whole one. His fingers stink by the end, black at the tips with oily ash. He sets the franken-joint on his desk and notices that the video has finally decompressed, titled enigmatically with the number one.
He looks at the composite joint, grey from being worked by his ashen fingers. It’s way too early, and Joe isn’t here. And yet…
He plays the video.
The screen turns green, an aerial shot of a forest, he guesses. The camera zooms, distinguishing trees and the thin glossy line of a river running through it. The screen fades into a meadow patched with deciduous copses and thick clumps of interwoven vines. Another landscape takes over, a cliff side dotted with countless white birds nesting on its face. Others assume the spotlight, woods, fields, jungles, a pastiche slide show of nature.
There’s no music, only the thin hiss of wind. Then slowly, it changes, becoming a chorus of clanging metal, whining saws, thudding hammers and roaring grinding stone.
On screen, the footage changes too. One by one, each site is swarmed by thousands of tiny fluorescent bodies. Monstrous diggers with teeth of unforgiving steel chew up acre after acre of green skin, churning trunk, branch and leaf into the same uniform mulch. Long brown spirals twist themselves through rocky flesh, fracturing and dislocating tonnes and tonnes of ancient stone. Conveyors slide along like giant reptilian tongues, carrying useless debris into countless wheeled bellies. A thousand miles of twisted metal punctures patch after patch of open earthen wounds while great hulking globs of grey slop into holes black from sheer depth. Through it all, the bludgeoning sound of industry roars while the fluorescent bodies swarm and.
Soon, each brutal foundation begins to mutate, expanding upwards by increments. Sterilising greyness spreads out in deadly radial swings, growing wider and wider, pushing back until there is nothing left but grey. Up and up the constructs grow, filling the sky, blotting out the sun, casting lunar shadows across the grey scabbed land. Still, the bludgeoning sound of industry roars and the fluorescent bodies swarm.
Two hours pass before Eric realises he’s done nothing but sit transfixed to the screen. Without pausing the video, he lights his grey joint. It burns his mouth more than normal, searing his tongue and throat while second hand chemical combustion coats his lungs.
On the monitor, eventually, the fluorescent figures disappear, replaced by normally clad figures instead. Still, they swarm, but not for long. Then, the constructs begun to rust, crumble, leak, crack, splinter, flake, bend and bow with the weight of their unmaintained bulk. Slowly, brick by brick, beam by beam, rebar by rebar, they all come down; strewn over the lifeless grey in great piles, like the vomit of some leviathanic devourer of stone, metal and glass. The figures are gone.
The industrial roar finally recedes and is replaced once again by the thin hissing of the wind. The desolate shells gather dust and their sharp angular fractures soften with time. And at the edges, at the very outer fringes of each construct’s base, tentative saplings emerge, accompanied by thin blades of grass, inching their way inwards, back to the mutilated heart from where they had been expelled.
Verdant life returns, each landscape, shrinks back, forming a squared reticular of images on the screen. In each appear the following names, Chernobyl, Valle dei Mulini, Spreepark, San Juan Parangaricutiro, Okunoshima and Houtouwan. They fade to black in unison and in the void a message materialises:
Our absence makes a difference. You choose.
“Fucking hell,” Eric grunts to himself. How, with such heavy handed, overly sentimental, hyperbolically framed material, does Raze recruit anyone? He slumps against the back of his chair, aghast.
He looks at the clock on his monitor, another six hours until Joe finishes work. He opens his chart of the four four nine incident, checks he’s got his facts right and sends it to the division leaders. By the time he’s done, it’s dark outside.
His phone rings. It’s Joe.
“Hey babe, how’re you doing?”
“I love you Eric,” says Joe, his voice tight.
“Love you too, you good?”
“I’m not coming back.”
A black ice descends on Eric, seeping in from some alternate universe into his skin, eating into his bones.
“Did you see the video?” asks Joe.
“You can’t be serious.”
The black ice seeps deeper still, penetrating Eric’s cells, riddling his molecules, threading through his very atoms. Shaking through tears, he demands an explanation.
Joe sighs jaggedly, he’s crying too, “I don’t know if I can.”
“Then fucking indulge me.”
Joe takes several heaving breaths, “that spreadsheet I sent the division leaders, I did another one, for myself.”
“What the fuck, Eric?”
“Listen, please. I worked out my footprint if I… if I did what they did at the Apollo, and I compared it to what it would be if I lived to seventy. I did it again for if I lived to sixty, then fifty. Just food and water alone, I mean… Eric, it’s not good.”
“Stop it! Stop it Joe!”
“It does make a difference, Eric.”
“Please Joe, please don’t do this. You can do other things.”
“Like what, Eric?”
“We-we’ll recycle, we won’t buy any new clothes, we’ll walk everywhere, go vegan, get an allotment, eat only what we grow, use less water, live in a commune, give up weed, alcohol, all of it, just… please, Joe. You don’t have to do this.”
“People have been doing that, Eric. We’ve been doing it a long time now, and it doesn’t work. Yeah we recycle, but still too much ends up in a landfill anyway. It’s just not enough. And buying new clothes isn’t going to make a difference to the industry, it never has. And water? Even if I could stop using water for the rest of my life, people will still pump it out, bottle it, brew it, treat it or otherwise fuck with it in some way. And communes, like the rest of it, just delay the inevitable. I’ve realised I don’t want my footprint reduced, I need it gone. I know what I’m doing will make a difference. It’s the only thing I can be certain of.”
“Joe, please don’t leave me.”
“I’m doing this for you, Eric. That’s the thing, we don’t all have to go, just enough of us, just enough for things to start getting better.”
“Do you know what Dunbar’s number is, Eric?”
“No,” the word is just a noise, a raw primal negative.
“It’s the maximum number of people that can live together and still maintain stable relationships. For a single group its about a hundred and fifty. More than that and the quality of those relationships begin to go down.”
“I don’t give a fuck about Dunbar’s fucking number! I barely know ten people let alone a hundred and fifty. You’re talking about things that don’t apply to us.”
Joe sighs bitter disappointment, regret, futile longing and anguished acceptance, all in one breath, “I knew I couldn’t explain this to you.”
“No please, Joe! Don’t hang up. Please! Where are you? Let me see you.”
“I can’t do that, Eric.”
“Please, Joe. I love you.”
“I know, and I love you. Let me do this, let me do it for us.”
“For us! What do you mean by that?”
“It’s for our own good. It’s population control. We do it for seals and foxes to stop them overpopulating. Why’re we the exception? We need balance too.”
“It’s inhumane, Eric!”
“What difference does that make? You think nature gives a shit about that? Eric, there are far too many pricks who won’t do anything, and even more who do too little, I love you but you won’t make me one of them.”
“Please, Joe. Please don’t… don’t do this. You’re all I have.”
“That’s not true, Eric. You’ll have the earth, whatever small iota of it I’m giving up will be yours. Don’t forget me, Eric. I love you.”
Silence descends between them and, before Eric can respond, Joe is gone.
Eric feels himself sinking into the earth, degrading into formlessness. He finally knows the truth as it crawls out a crippled thing from a dread recess in his skull, forcing itself through the tightening fibres of his reluctant heart.
He whimpers in anguished silence at the sheer virulence, the utterly lethal simplicity of Raze’s poison; of death tainted sweet by love.