Without – Excerpt 4
March 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The moon had taken pride of place in the sky and he was walking along train tracks. They were familiar enough train tracks. A long time before, when he’d been a teenager looking to achieve intoxication without the aid of either money or positive identification, he and friends long since passed out of his life had walked up these same tracks, under cover of night.
He looked to his left and saw the McLaughlin and Moran warehouses. Behind them near the loading docks were new plastic recycling units, but in the distant land that he’d occupied as a child who looked like a man, there had been dumpsters, and in those dumpsters one could find treasure, discarded alcohol thrown out for reasons none of them had been particularly interested in. Usually it seemed to be a defect in the packaging that rendered it un-sellable. Occasionally they would wonder aloud why none of the workers had taken it home, but they never wondered very hard.
Free beer is golden when you’re too young to drink at all.
Cutting past the warehouses, he kept walking until he saw it. A loading dock open and lit, just visible behind the large trucks parked to conceal it from the tracks. The building itself would shield it from the road. There was an eight foot fence between him and the truckyard, but there was an overlapping section of chain link that looked far more impenetrable than it was, and he slid between them with a little effort.
Craning slightly, he saw strobing light from inside. Blue, white, blue, red, blue again… cheap and easy to set up. Smirking, he dropped to his right knee and began drawing in the dirt on the edge of the asphalt. First an oval, then overlapping pentagonal diamonds locking into place, then stumpy limbs and a large head with a gaping mouth crowned by two fangs jutting up from the lower jaw.
He bent his head and imagined his shoulders sliding up around it like armor. Imagined skin like scales, a tough shell around him, and on that shell drifted oceans and continents, swimming titans like dust mites, cities like small blemishes… beneath that he imagined fire lurking in his heart, seething in his lungs.
His eyes flickered in his head as the fire caught inside him. He was stone and metal, water and air, a core of fire, ponderous and unstoppable.
He knelt fully, touched his face to the image, ground his forehead in it. Gave homage, and then stood, feeling his limbs, his body as though it would leave craters when he walked. He felt like screeching, like bellowing and knocking over semis as he moved past semis towards the door and the blue then white then blue then red spill flashing out of it.
There were two men at the door. Both of them were large, one about as tall as he was and one even taller than Bishop, although the shorter one looked like he worked his body more strenuously, with muscle sliding against muscle under his black t-shirt. The taller one was less fit, with a bit of a gut and a long graying beard, a long graying pony-tail and hair crawling back from his forehead, but he had a scar running along his jaw that suggested experience.
Either that, or he doesn’t know how to duck.
Black t-shirt stepped in his way.
“I don’t know you.”
“No, you don’t know me.” His voice echoed, deep like water crashing against rock, overlaid with sounds that pressure and collision create. “I’m looking for Miranda.”
The two of them exchanged looks. He said nothing else and let the wheels grind, watching the shadow that concealed their features ebb with green light in the same pattern as his own rumbling inhalation and exhalation, feeling himself centered at the very pinnacle of creation, the rock all things cling to. Either they would let him in, or he would go in anyway.
“She’s in there somewhere. You a cop?” The ponytail spoke, his voice the sound equivalent of a patch of skin abraded by a motorcycle spill at high speed.
“If I were a cop, why would I bother talking to you?”
Ponytail nodded at that, and gestured. T-shirt moved, but clearly wanted to do otherwise, the reptile sleeping in his brain not quite capable of convincing the rest of him that this was not a good time to fight. He didn’t care. As long as no one impeded him, it was all the same.
The warehouse itself had been thoroughly altered.
Lights were hung from the railing around the catwalk that led to the offices above the floor, source 4’s, parcans, strobes… it looked to him as though a theatre production had broken loose. He noticed that behind the large plate glass window of the big office in the center of the back wall stood a man playing with what appeared to be an old iMac and a light board like the one he himself had run a few times when he’d been desperate to get Jennifer into bed a lifetime before.
An old Beastie Boys song vibrated off of the walls, shaking the smoky air and driving the pulsating masses of men and women riding a wave of hormones and poisons of choice into each other, the frenetic mass of seething flesh. It washed over him and receded, he was immune, he was the rock beneath the ocean, unchanging in the void. His eyes slid over unfamiliar faces, looking for the features that he knew, the face he’d come to see.
The forklifts and pallets had been moved to the side of the enormous room, the glorified storage center which was amazingly empty of anything to store. Instead, it was storing people engaged in the frantic pursuit of sex, or forgetfulness… desperate people trying to forget the lives they lived when the sun was up, toxic in their haste to abandon the lives they couldn’t bear to live.
Ordinarily he would be among them, or at least seeking it in his own way at his own pace, which was more leisurely than this throbbing mass, grinding into each other. An attractive woman with neon-violet hair and black clothing that suggested the Victorian era as filtered through a mall smiled at him as he passed, but while he saw her and noted her, skin pale enough to serve as a canvas to the alternating light from above, eyes an unusual color that seemed red under blue light and violet under red light, she was not who he was looking for.
He moved deeper into them, and they continued to part for him. Most probably didn’t even notice that they did so. He could feel the artifice of the web they had chosen to spin among themselves, the mimic of connection, and it parted and rejoined itself around him as a foreign element.
Towards the center of the cavern that wasn’t he saw the main attraction. Within a hastily constructed cage of chain link fencing and metal pipe, two men were pummeling each other while a mass, almost a clot watched and were made to twitch by the grinding of the music, drinking in the combat, getting off as a violent punch to the side by a bare fist seemed to ripple through the other’s chest, the lines of ribs deforming and failing to find their original shape again.
Stopping, he took in the fight. It was a mismatch, despite the similar size and condition of the two fighters. Both were wiry and built for speed, with little fat, but one of them moved with brutal sureness and economy and his amber skin showed few marks, his shaved head relatively unbruised save for a livid purple welt above his left ear. His opponent was pale and his skin puckered with violet splotches, his face speckled like a robin’s egg, his longer hair damp with sweat and whipping about with each blow to his gut as he moaned through a mouth guard.
Why they had mouth guards and not gloves was a mystery. Nameless yet etched into the earth, he wondered that they would not choose to show teeth spraying out onto the floor.
When a final hook crashed into the battered fighter’s jaw and turned him away, his eyes closed, to collapse on the floor it was more mercy than violence. The winning fighter held his hands up and grinned, his teeth yellow but sharp looking, his face twisting into jagged edges and his muscles taut under his skin.
Nameless hated him at that moment. Yet it was a distant hate, small and unimportant, compared to the recognition as a lithe woman with long black hair tied back in a braid stepped through the opening gate to throw her arms around the winner’s sweaty chest, laughing in his ear. Two unimportant men helped the loser to his feet and took him away.
The fire in his chest became the fire in his veins, his blood fire, as she looked up from embracing her latest brawler. The instincts he knew she had brought her eyes up to meet his, and in his perfect focus he could see the individual veins lining the whites as they widened in surprise. He knew she spoke at that point, but he wasn’t concerned with whatever obscenity she uttered.
He walked towards the cage. The crowd had thinned out to find alcohol or other drugs, to wait the next fight, the next moment of watching violence as real as it could get when you weren’t involved… a few remained, but they did nothing to stop him. Inside the cage, Miranda and her fighter waited, him confused, her alert and aware of him approaching like vermin cornered. He went around the cage, to the door he’d seen her use, knowing that there were several men or women around the periphery who would respond once she gave the word.
No one tried to stop him from stepping in the ring. To most, he probably just looked like he belonged there, and those that knew he didn’t were her creatures and would follow her lead. The music had changed to percussive instrumentation, pulses of sound out of the heart of a machine, and the links of the cage (like the fencing around a dog kennel) almost seemed to breath in time with it.
“I didn’t break any agreements with Mastrato… “
“I’m not here for Mastrato. As far as I know, he’s happy with the agreement you two made.” Again his voice came out of his chest like rocks slamming and grinding against rocks down a deep, deep hole. “This is a personal call.”
“Mira, who’s this guy?” The winner interjected, and was greeted by a withering narrow-eyed look, as effective a castration tool as a sharp stone sickle.
“Donny, talk when I tell you to.” She turned her dark eyes back to face him, and he noted with that part of his brain that still thought in those terms how angular her face was, how sharp her nose, how her chin came almost to a point in her face. “I didn’t know you and I were on personal terms.”
“Well, I killed your father. That’s fairly personal. I was wondering if you’d decided that you just couldn’t let that slide any more.” He shrugged his shoulders, feeling the bones and joints tumble like boulders falling down a mountain under the leather, the joints of his neck popping and crackling. “Because if that was the case, we could take care of it personally instead of you sending disappointingly impersonal messengers.”
She tilted her head to the side, then looked over at a large, fat woman built like a cube, with posture suggesting an amazing amount of muscle beneath her paunchy gut. She wore a hooded sweatshirt and black jeans, and her forearms were clad in leather and adorned in spikes, and she shook her head in response to the look.
“I don’t follow.”
“Then I’ll make it very clear. Someone tried to kill me today. I thought of you.”
“I’d certainly love it if you were dead, but until ten minutes ago I had absolutely no idea how to find you, much less try to kill you. And I wouldn’t want to risk any shit starting with Mastrato, either.” He considered this.
If she was lying, it would be foolish of her to bother. He was on her home ground, alone, surrounded by her people. It would be an ideal place and time to try and kill him. Even if she was leery out of memory of what he’d done the last time, had she overcome it enough to send artificial killers at him she’d certainly have no problem trying it again.
On the other hand, he really didn’t have any other ideas that didn’t involve a lot of work and effort he wasn’t comfortable with.
“You know, I’m really sorry to say I believe you. I was hoping you were the one so I could take my frustration out on you.” He turned his burning eyes to her pet fighter. “So I suppose this is the part where I suggest you use those connections of yours to find out what I want to know.”
“You want me to find out if anyone is trying to kill a guy who doesn’t have a name and who usually only shows up when someone else has hired him to put the hurt on something that’s… let’s say resistant… to dying from the more convenient methods?” She looked like she was biting back a laugh. “What am I supposed to do, ask if anyone wants to kill Not Me?”
“Good point.” He opened his mouth to speak again when he felt it in the pit of his stomach, in the connection to the stone that lay under the cement he was standing on, in the very molten heart of the earth that was like his blood. The light that flickered on and off around him protested, the electrical pulse of the machine that served as the revel’s heartbeat sounded timorous despite its volume, the smell of bodies sweating and smoke and booze all quivered in his nostrils, as if everything that was a part of the world was being twisted.
“What is that smell?” Miranda waved a hand in front of her face, her nose twitching and nostrils flaring.
“Get cover.” He growled, his voice blasting from his lungs as the fire in his blood ignited, molten and seething, and he saw.
Bulky, twisted shapes blasted by the light leaking out of the warehouse illuminated in staggered flares, enhancing their strange halting motion so that it became a series of still pictures. Ponytail steps in the way of a hunched-over figure and suddenly there’s a cloud of what appears to be brown steam in the air while a clawed hand hovers a few inches past his throat. In the next second, as the lights change from blue to white, black t-shirt is in the middle of a punch that might well have killed most people, burying his hand so deep into the abdomen of a lumpy, indistinct looking man that it brought to mind the death of Houdini. Next to him, ponytail falls back, his blood trailing down his neck from between his hands, and the thing that killed him stands revealed as a mixture of human and canine features, flowing into each other like hot wax sculpted by hurried hands.
Dozens more of them lurked out in the darkness waiting to come in after him, and he knew they would kill anything that stood between them. Most of the manic dancers in the warehouse had no idea it was even happening, nor did the remains of the crowd of spectators who’d taken such pleasure in watching the brawl staged so artlessly before.
Well, if they liked that, this should be interesting for them.
Knowing he wasn’t prepared for speed, he stomped over to the chains in the straight line to the door and simply tore them in half to get them out of his way. In his ears he could hear a wailing, screeching roar, and he welcomed the company.
He noticed, briefly, that Miranda and her pet fighter had dropped to all fours, as had the simply enormous blond woman with the spiky forearm guards. He’d wondered if they’d do that in a crowded place.
Am I precious to you now… The loud chorus of some song he’d never heard. He didn’t care, either. Instead he marched in a straight line at the door, his feet now so heavy that each step shook the building and cracked the cement, radiating out from under his feet. People were scattering to get out of his way even as the misshapen, barely human forms came bursting through the loading doors. He saw black t-shirt go down underneath two or three of them, saw scraps of cloth and flesh flying into the air, knew the man was already dead.
The crowd was a beast with many heads now, driven by panic and incomprehension. A yellow-white blur of flesh the consistency of suet with huge, black claws studding paws like a hairless bear and a face like hot tallow hurtled across the room and flung itself through the air, landing on the nameless man faster than he could have moved ordinarily, much less at the moment, and slapped down on his face with those claws like shark teeth in a cricket bat.
It was like trying to maul granite. The creature’s arm twisted back and folded from the impact, and a hand that was surrounded in shimmering air and glowing from inside drove itself forward into the pulsing abdomen and pulled out a braided mass of roots that approximated a spinal cord. The slick fibers smoked in Nameless’ fist as his hand got hotter and hotter, and smoldered into flame between his fingers.
He was slow, though, weighted down by the essence of the rock and the great shell he’d called up, and several more of them charged forward to slash or bite or tear and then leap away. Having seen his hands in action, they chose to stay out of their reach. He hurled the liquefying mass off of himself and fended off another pouncing figure with a blow that tore its head from its shoulders, spraying yellow offal and spreading a smell like methane.
More of them were coming, and they weren’t confining themselves to him. He saw several of them pull down a fleeing man on the other side of the room and begin tearing into him.
He opened his mouth and shrieked, the sound high and piercing and ululating like a wave that washed away the pulsating music still blasting from the speakers, the sounds of panic from the crowd, and flames filled his mouth and poured from his eyes. He screamed, and the fire erupted, streaking across the room to incinerate two of the wet, mealy creatures, setting them afire with the reek of rendered fat burning.
The panic was in full swing. People were scrambling to get out, either through the loading dock or out one of the doors to the sides, while the leaping, skittering, animated man-animal things slashed between them seeking victims. It confused him… the previous attack had been aimed at him. These ones seemed to be having a hard time confining themselves to a direct attack when there were others to rend and tear, and they were fast enough that he couldn’t just pick them off.
He was leaking flame when he exhaled now, fury for blood. He’d expected to have to deal with guns, and so had armored himself. Now it was working against him: he couldn’t move fast enough to get them unless they came at him, and they were only doing that in hit and run fashion. Four or five crashed over him in a wave, slashing and biting, but before he could react most of them were out of reach and he barely managed to clout one on the head before it moved out of reach. He sucked in air and spit flames at it, catching it in a plume of fire that ate the greasy mire of its body in a shrieking pillar of orange and gold, but it was still taking too long and too many of the things were freely indulging themselves on the crowd.
He took another step and felt the cement crack again under his feet. Too much time drawing this, and if he waited too much longer it would only get worse. He felt like he’d started to grow. Part of his brain screamed that it wasn’t a good time, but then he saw a girl barely into puberty, a streak of magenta hair and tight clothes, running towards the door about to be dragged down and knew he was out of options.
He pulled the fire into his chest and cast it aside, hurling it forward into the body of the one closest to the kill, blasting it into smoldering fragments. Gasping, he dropped to one knee as the sudden loss, the shock of being just him again hit.
It was a bad time to be distracted.
The smell caught his attention before he saw it. Teeth ripped into his right shoulder and claws dug into his jacket for purchase, sending a gold brooch with intricate looping lines like a mandala spinning through the air as his back slammed into the cement, barely managing to keep his head from slamming backwards too.
He managed to jam his arm up into what approximated a throat on the thing, but it already had good purchase into his shoulder, vibrating like an old diesel engine in what might have been a growl. He screamed as it dug in its claws, knowing he had to focus past the pain or it was going to kill him, barely able to think at all. The smell of rot, of manure and rendered fat made him want to gag.
“Horus-hater, defiler of Osiris!” It wasn’t much… he could barely feel a flicker in response to it, but he grasped at it, bringing his legs up and rolling hard to the side, stronger already, strong enough to throw the thing off of him. It landed on those black claws and glared in surprise at him. “Defender of the golden barque, brother of foreigners, red-haired thunderer!” He spit his own blood onto the floor, feeling creeping cold burning down his arm from the shoulder bite, and traced a crude image of the Great Bear on the floor. “You who resisted Apep, who defeated night!”
The creature leapt at him again.
He rose from his crouch, crackling red lightning spilling from his wounded shoulder and torn ribs and split lip, and a burst of thunder erupted from his hand as the palm made contact with the throat. It jerked and spasmed as the bright red sparks burned into it, while the hand crushed the neck, tearing into the muck of its form.
Decapitated, it fell to the ground at his feet. He snarled and shook his hand, the reeking offal of it burning off of him in foul steam and smoke. Holding out his hands, he gestured to the lights bolted to the railing above him, the machinery around him, even the large racks of fluorescent lights that lay dark far above.
Around him, the chaos raged on. Some of Miranda’s people were using guns, to no real effect as the bodies of the creatures attacking them were like wet sacks of gelatin, with mock organs made of mandrake root. The bullets simply punched through, moving too fast to do enough damage. A few fur-clad forms testified to the more effective tactic, hybrid vermin-human forms with the claws and strength to fight on the same level, but they were heavily outnumbered. Most of the crowd had either escaped or been killed, their bodies lying half-chewed on the floor abandoned in the pursuit of newer prey.
He closed his fists above his head as more of the things made their way towards him, having abandoned various kills as their feral minds realized he was not in fact dead yet.
Arcing blasts of raw current leapt to his hands from the lighting rig, from the large breaker boxes on the walls, from the suddenly silenced racks of speakers along the walls, from the batteries of the parked trucks in the yard and the motionless forklifts in the building itself. His eyes went blue and red from the power crawling like scintillating snakes along his body, and the tang of ozone burned in every nostril as he stood motionless in the heart of a lightning storm.
Then the lightning broke forth like spears, seeking out the offal and burning it, flashing everywhere he could see. Smiting them down with fire from heaven, the burning rage of the red god lashed forth in bursts of current, flashing again and again, finding their dozens and striking them.
The lights above crackled and popped, or burned. The room was plunged into darkness and quiet. The only light was red, thrown from the figure standing in the great black ring of scorched cement, his arm and sides still crackling as the red lightning slowly burned away his wounds.
People huddled in terror near the walls, afraid to move. A few snarling rats much larger than any rat ever grew chittered from behind the ruined cage. Lumps of burned matter sent plumes of smoke from where they were struck down. From behind a red haze he looked out over the room, saw the bodies of those killed for no reason, not even for hunger or out of hate, killed because someone had hated him enough to use unfinished offal to attack him.
He turned to the largest of the rats. Saw her eyes flashing in the dark at him. It felt strange to want to apologize to her, so he didn’t.
Instead, he turned and walked.