by CHRIS CASTLE
“So what are we talking about here?” I ask, as he paces around the room. It’s the same routine each time; twenty two steps to one end of the room and twenty one back, as if the room somehow shrinks every time he sets out on one of his mini pilgrimages.
“I’m talking about change,” he replies. His throat is dry from all the talking and the intermittent cigarettes we’ve smoked in these last set of hours. Once, I’d kissed that mouth and made his voice change from his normal low pitch to something higher, more feminine. We slept together for a time but then he went back to just being best friends, as if that part of our life together was just another box to tick. I wonder sometimes if our whole lives are not just a sequence of boxes and sequences for us to fulfil, one tick steadily following the next until all the questions are answered.
“But what are we really talking about here?” I press on, not letting him off the hook. Both of us are computer hackers at the highest level; growing up, people tried to diagnose us with medical conditions, rather than just acknowledge we were just… smarter than them. We met through the internet and now it looks like we could die through it, too. I’m still in love with him, so I guess I’m okay with that. Being heartbroken can make me selfish but maybe I’m taking this to a whole new level.
“I’m talking about tearing everything down and starting from the bottom up,” he says, finally settling back down in his chair. We’ve been breaking code and sweeping viruses for over twenty-four hours and our room smells like a teenage nightmare. None of the stereotypical things are on display: no energy drinks, bad food or gaming posters. We drink well and eat well. We take ending the world very seriously. After all, I want to be in good shape for the apocalypse, if it comes to that.
“We’re talking about ending everything,” I counter. Part of me loves it most of all when we argue, even when it comes to blows. It’s the time when I feel most alive, as if I’m part of something. I’ve never had the guts to self-harm, so screaming and shouting and the occasional punch is as close at it gets for me. Once, he gave me a black eye and I wore it like a badge of honour for days, even when he begged me to put on shades. I told people I picked it up in a bar fight but everyone knew, of course.
“So what if I am?” He says and there’s viciousness to his voice, underneath the intelligence and the pouting, which makes me realise he could be serious. My heart ratchets up another notch and instead of feeling scared, I just feel alive.
“So…” I say, drawing out the small word for as long as I can, just to give him reason to run through it one more time.
“We steal the number three,” he says, suddenly matter-of-factly. “We take it from every place, on every file, in every country around the world.”
“And you realise what that will do,” I say, trying to keep my voice equally matter-of-factly but not quite managing it. Instead, I hear it tremble with excitement and crackle with a fear that’s more adrenaline than panic. I see him nodding and a grin creases along his mouth.
“Everything changes,” he says, summing it all up and at the same time side-stepping the ramifications of what he’s putting on offer. War codes, government passwords, back-up systems, banking…such as it is. Every number ever created, minus one of the digits. It would be like taking a major organ out of the world and then asking it to try and run a marathon. Maybe it would get around and maybe it would collapse after a few steps.
“Worst-case-scenario?” I ask, still trying to act flippant as inside, every fibre of my body feels alive and crackling with heated energy. It feels as if the sun is beneath my skin, flaring with new-found power.
“Everything ends before sun-up,” he says, the timbre of his voice not shifting one iota. Even as I fight it, my heart soars watching him; there is perfection to him that I will never know. I understand that and the truth makes me love him more and hate him harder.
“The best?” I fire back at him, suddenly curious to know if he has even considered a light at the end of the tunnel. He smirks again and I know that he has even managed to manufacture something positive out of his doomsday scenario.
“We take over,” he says and I realise there’s no irony in his voice. A stab of petty jealousy grabs at my heart, as I realise he has thought all this through and has reached his own conclusions without consulting me first. For the first time, I consider hijacking his plans, not for anything as noble as world preservation and peace, but just to slight him off.
“How does that happen?” I say, trying to sound superior but hating the inflection in my voice that still flickers with curiosity. “You want to people to pray from the rubble?”
“When everything is gone, we’ll be the people to start things over,” he says. The words he uses and the lack of hyperbole are smart. It’s the lunatics who are quickly dismissed when speaking like messiahs; the ones who carry out the plans talk just like you and me.
“What about the hurt, the destruction?” I ask, for a moment trying to adopt a prudish conscience that clearly neither of us have.
“What about it?” He replies and lets it hang in the air; he’s called my bluff. I was waiting for him to try and justify it but instead, he’s simply sweated me out and I really don’t have any real defence to offer. Damn, I read the papers every day. This place already has one foot in Hell, if you ask me.
“It’s lazy to answer a question with a question,” I counter feebly, but I know he already has me trapped in the corner.
“It’s lazier still to ask an empty question,” he fires back and again I feel a brisk stab in my chest to realise that whatever I will be in this life, he will always be on a plane just slightly higher above me, forever. “Are you with me?”
“Yes,” I answer without a second thought and I know, in my heart of hearts, I would always say yes, no matter what he asked me. If it had been this or anything else, always yes. When people look back at this, they’ll call us lunatics, outsiders, psychopaths, even. And maybe we are. But one of us was driven by love and that is what people will never understand or always choose to ignore.
“What we’re doing…” he says, and for the first time since all of this has begun, he falters. I can see his mind stumble, as clearly as if he had physically tripped and fallen on his face. For the first time, I feel fear about what we’re doing. I have never seen doubt in him before and it shrouds him like a fever, casting a shadow over his perfect, pale skin.
“We made this,” he says pointing to the computer screens, “and then we stuffed it full of filth. We made it dumb and pointless when it should have been…it should have been perfect,” he says. I’m startled to see tears well up in his eyes. I’ve only ever seen what’s in his head before now. To see what’s in his heart scares me more than the end of the world that waits beneath our fingertips.
“It should have been beautiful,” he says putting his thumb to the screen. It reminds me of the times he used to place a fingertip to my cheek before dawn, when everything was quiet and the world seemed perfect and still. Maybe that’s how it will be in the future, after all this is done, I think. The idea of that, the notion of a future stripped of all the noise and hurt and stupidity, pushes me forward, close enough for me to place a hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe it still can, in the future,” I hear myself say and squeeze the tight knot of flesh under his shirt. I watch as my touch seems to stem the tears almost instantaneously and a small, cruel part of me wonders if this is just a display, to ease me through into the final plan. The bigger part of me dismisses such an idea but it is there, in the back of my mind, all the same.
“Yes, yes,” he mutters and I see him galvanising himself. He takes his fingers away from the screen and places his hand over mine. The doubt sloughs away from his cheeks, dismissed like a dewy cobweb, and the resolve seeps back into him. It’s as if the sunlight I’d felt in my skin is pouring into him, channelling life and heat back into his body and giving him strength. I realise that I am a part of this and that for a moment, just for a tiny, split-second; I am stronger than him, that he needs me. I feel as if I have reached a pinnacle and that my life is complete and true.
“Are you ready?” He asks me, gently shrugging off my hand from his shoulder and into his seat. It is not done cruelly, however, and he takes a few seconds to wait for me to take my seat beside him before we begin. I sit down next to him and the screens hum into life with our touch. For a few seconds our bodies are lit by the glow of the monitors and we are stilled, absorbing their light and silent under their power. He reaches forward to the keyboard and I follow, as if we are both locked into the sequences of an old and trusty prayer.
“Let’s begin,” he says and his fingers rain down on the keyboard. Mine soon follow and the familiar click-clack soon picks up its pace. Our plan begins. Outside, the unknowing city grinds along; traffic roars and screeches, people holler and curse. I pause for a moment to look up and out of the small window; the only one in the apartment. The sky is grey and I wonder how long it will be before it glows with a different colour. I wonder if smoke will fill the air. I turn back to the screen, as our work begins to take hold and chaos unfurls on the screens. As the seed grows, I steal a glance at him. His pale face is lit by the bedlam on the screen. He is smiling.
I smile, too.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: In addition to this month’s issue, his story Grid appears in the January 2013 issue, his story Slumber appears in the April 2013 issue and his story Last House on Vector Street appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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