by NICK RAYNER
A stretched grey corpse with hollow eyes and bedazzled with carnival lights beckons you to evolve while telling you tales of your ancestors. You listen intently as the world awakens to chew you alive.
It was a day of extravagant mourning in the underground city of Vegas. Standing in the street amid the dirge of wails and rolling bottles, looking skyward towards the shadowy alien stalactites, you could maybe see the skylights synch up with a trombone player, making the music look like white light rather than white noise. A citywide commotion, everything was bright and wet and leaning.
Daddy Ashberg was a pimp who was having his funeral at night.
Awe-inspired cretins and associates came from all over town to attend the send-off which was as extravagant as he was in life; neon feathers and platinum chairs, gold-rimmed everything and gauche artwork lay against his casket. Pimp culture had become so incestuous and outrageous that his contemporaries attended half-dressed as mascots and half-dressed as imagined foreign royalty.
Daddy Ashberg was inside a closed casket because he didn’t have a face and there was no sensible way to make an illusion out of it. In a show of brash ignorance, he had inspected too closely a creature that came from the ground above – a twitching stone appearing dormant – and succumbed to a sneak attack. It latched onto his face and flayed it until his head was a cracked and emptied egg. They dressed him in his Main Clothing. A diamond boa slumped from the casket onto the floor. Nobody bothered to recover his face.
In attendance was a steadfast pimp-game ally named Troy.
Troy had shown up at the funeral wearing a black t-shirt, a faux pas on the verge of catastrophe. A grand lynching was moments away, so heavy was the disregard for social reverence. He peeled his shirt off, baring his emaciated frame to those gathered; the situation was diffused, so radical was the gesture. Troy sat in the front row after surveying the audience carefully. He did not know these people.
People were crying. There are women and men crying through makeup, and there are women and men crying without makeup. I cringe at the sight of naked faced sadness. Everyone else looks like a mask dropped into a receding tide. Nobody in here is really sad though. They’re just paying their respects. If they don’t show up, they won’t make as much money tomorrow. That’s why I’m here. Nobody else in this town will have me.
The ceremony was touching.
The tiny, kitschy cathedral emptied into the street in a lush outpouring of dandy gangsterism. Troy threw his shirt in the garbage, as is customary at the end of each working day. Underground, there is no way to tell what time of day it is, and in a town built on gambling and escapism, accurate clocks are only a rumor. Judging by the fatigue of everyone else, it was close to night time.
On the planet Polo, the days are only 16 hours. Beneath the surface it’s always 11:30 at night. Alleged centuries have passed and nobody remembers why they were driven underground in the first place. The most significant link to humanity’s shared history is a massive boring drill located past the outskirts of town, out in the zone controlled by heavily armed children. They have knives and bats and a few guns. Over the decades the drill has become caked in blood. Conservative estimates dictate that it was used for ritual sacrifice.
There was no sewage system to speak of for Vegas; it was constructed hastily, and for generations was populated by paranoid, frantic people reeling from the calamity that has swept the surface of the planet. Mythologies that fetishized death. The blood drill and the vast lake of shit and piss that sits not far away. They say the roaming child gangs disposed of their sacrifices in there. Nobody has the equipment to go and check, as even approaching it is hazardous to your health. It makes you sick and crazy.
For as far back as anyone could remember, there have been long, grey humanoid bodies that come in from above, through the rocks. Like slowly encroaching vines, they first start out as toes and feet, descending down like icicles of cold, inert flesh. Feet lead to legs as the body grows downward, giving way to an elongated torso as the toes connect with the ground and slowly burrow even further down. There were never any less than ten at a time, with the most ever recorded being fifty. When they came through Vegas, they carried alien cysts with them, gathered from their journey through the planet. It was one of these that killed Daddy Ashberg, springing to life and enveloping his face in its jagged wings. The heads never came down; those stayed back up at the surface. Their necks just went on forever.
I saw a dead child nailed to the wall of an alley with dead cats latched onto his flesh with locked jaws, dangling like horrific ornaments. It must have been a trap. A trap for the kid or a trap for the cats. It was impossible to tell.
The necks were decorated like everything else. Streamers and glitter and chains and graffiti. If you saw a tree for the first time, you might be horrified too. As it stood, they were used to it, and saw a new touchdown as a time for celebration. If you can get close enough to the limbs, you can hear the vibrations moan through the emptied interiors.
I was walking away from the funeral and I saw Daddy Ashberg’s son, Ghoul. The ground beneath our feet is solid rock and so nobody ever built any graveyards. We made due with crypts and sarcophagi, neither of which is exempt from the curiosity of the nonstop party. Bones got raided and ended up in the alleyways controlled by cartels of savage children. Ghoul was 8 years old, leaning cooly on a mound of bricks and smashed skulls. He was surrounded by dogs covered in paint. Like most other children, he had sawed off the tips of his fingers and he was nearly blind from police interrogations utilizing blistering lights. His milky eyes followed me as I passed, though. He flashed me a toothless smile that told me he was sick from eating human flesh. He had blackened gums.
Blast-beat drumming echoed through the cavernous casinos abandoned to the funeral. The dog was either rabid or deranged, its wet and painted face hanging low, lips trembling. It looked like it was lip synching the pained murmurs of the emptying dirge.
We’re all going to end up blind down here. Myself and some other young folk are making a break for the surface. Our eyes are starting to atrophy and we’re surrounded by stories of how it used to be. We still worship the sun down here in hell. We need to figure out what’s going on up at the surface. They say it’s a world destroyed by calamity but nobody knows for sure.
A dead blackbird was lying in the middle of the street. A circle of alive blackbirds was flying overhead, keeping an aerial perimeter around the body. Everyone is drunk all the time.
I lost my job but I found my old flask filled with homebrewed liquor that smells like cat piss mixed with tomato sauce. The closer you get to the downtown casino row, the longer it takes to get anywhere because the floor is so sticky. The loose, guerrilla government of Vegas was in possession of pre-colonial documents that claimed the planet was terraformed before we arrived, but to what degree we will never be sure. Scouting parties had gone up top to look for spacecraft or evidence of the technology used to do it, but they never came back. I see the pockmarked corpse of a cat sitting by a trash can. Everyone can tell it was a swarm of rats that did it, but nobody wants to talk about it. They move as one cohesive unit and they are hunting larger game. Every dog I find nailed to a wall is smiling.
Near the Great Blood Drill and near the Lake of Shit and Weapons is the stairwell to the surface. It used to be guarded, but the death of the guards lead to the initial armament of one of the many gangs that surround the area. They’re all dead, and out there along the cratered ground and all along the edge of the lake, there remain the corpses that the local government did not deem fit to include in the crypts.
One of the grey hollowbodies was making its way back to the surface. When they go on their return trip, they are all scarred and blackened. They say they go all the way to the planet’s core. That’s what they say.
Nobody was there to stop me from going to the surface. I thought there’d be more of us. The ground was called the floor and it was one giant garbage receptacle. Every step I took crunched. I remember slipping and sliding more when I was a child; we all die. At a certain age you develop a finely honed center of gravity and become an everyday acrobat. I almost slipped on a condom and split my head open on a pile of bricks. Always piles of bricks. I was told they were grave markers but I never checked. Ghoul could tell me if he could speak our language.
The kids down there didn’t have guns. The gangs had disbanded. People were living in a trance. The drill was old and gory. The staircase – a sharp incline to the surface that felt like scaling a mountain - was built out of irregular stone. Graffiti and filth decorated the base, but the closer you got to the surface, the more insulated it was. A committed man could make it up in roughly three hours if they brought a flashlight. A light source had the added benefit of fixating the mind upon a mission, whereas the mind was free to wander in the darkness, distracted by the life forms lurking beyond the walls. Entombed in stone but spinning wildly. Burrowing in circles trying to find the source of the reverberations. You could hear them coughing if they were close enough.
Up top was a different story. Nothing was dirty, but everything was moving. Those polluted subterranean entertainers were unaccustomed to seeing environments teeming with life, having acclimated to scanning dark corners and shadows for threats. Ambling to his feet, he surveyed his surroundings, noting a small village nearby. It’s night time. The wind blowing against his bare skin gave him chills. The sky is lit brightly with stars and a multitude of meteorites. Activity was all around him.
There are two moons in the sky and one has been split down the middle, each half tethered by some sort of bright red membrane. Troy wandered absentmindedly for a moment, keeping his eyes trained on the village, and nearly tripped over a head buried neck deep in the ground. A distant horn blast caused a flock of sling-necked birds to scatter from the canopy.
It was the head of one of the hollow bodies; eyes carved out, mouth closed, head balded. He placed his hand on its forehead, fully expecting it to come to life. Some murmur. Whether coma or silent photosynthesis, the life was muted in it. A worm the length of a lying man slithered quickly into a nearby bush and vanished.
Troy examined the terrain and found three more heads in the ground. The village was half composed of mud huts, and half built from logs. Quaint, unambitious. The clouds were purple. An unending wall of dense forest was to one side of it, with expansive, rolling plains at the other; stalks of some vegetable lines in neat rows along the agricultural land of the former village inhabitants. The leaves floated along the branches of trees, tracing them slowly, vibrating to produce a gentile hum. The houses in the village were empty. Their customs were unfamiliar to him, but it appeared to have been abandoned long ago.
The soil feels like it’s breathing beneath my feet.
A cluster of eyeballs levitating in the air closes and camouflages itself as he looks over. In the corner of his eye, right where the skin meets the bulb, the grim figure of a man stepped out from the forest. He appeared to be exerting tremendous focus simply to be there, phasing in and out of the visible world like erratic animation.
When I turn my head to see him, he’s gone. I need to angle my head just right so I see him in my peripherals. I can’t tell where his shoulders end and his hood begins, it was so tall and he was so skinny. Everything is blurring together and he looks like a spear. A spear holding another spear, or another person. He shouts over and asks where I’ve come from. I tell him I came from Vegas, and I point to the staircase. I see him gesture towards the forest and whisper “welcome home.”
One of the hollow bodies emerges from a fetal position beneath the treeline. A 30 ft. tall gangly menace, embers and peeling blackened flesh coating its body. The hollowed out eye sockets were darker now. Each stride was a marathon; it planted its foot squarely through one of the village homes and continued on to the field. He looked into the distance and saw more emerging from the forests. The night was alive with the stretched dead.
He told me he was a witch and knew where I came from. When he spoke, he vibrated in my peripheral vision. I saw him move his hands and the fingers were long and old. He told me that he planted the corpses that became these monsters, and that everything they touch dies. He told me it’s the only way to evolve in this world and survive the onslaught of bizarre realities. I called them the hollow bodies but they had to have a new name, given their promotion to sentient life. He called them “kids.” They didn’t walk like regular people; they had to move softly, otherwise their bodies might snap apart. He assured me that the same planetary core that had turned them into poison had also stripped them of strength.
Up there, they worship the sun too, but like how we used to worship death.
Dawn was approaching.
The sun, distant as it was, moved quickly like a cephalopod caught in a cyclone. Mad tendrils of fire lashed angrily like smoke blown onto a thrashing phantom. The head and radiation from the nearby star was enough to nurture the nightmare of life that existed on the planet, but that which giveth must taketh away. The sun was alive. Something inside of it viewed Polo with interest.
The same rays of the sun that illuminated the planet brought with them stronger, brighter cones that served as abduction beams. They cast on the surface and weakened all life with its head, robbing the good people of their faculties. Off in the distance, away from the village and outlined by a membrane of red cruelty, one of them was smashing into the surface and sucking tiny figures off the ground. It could have been hundreds, it could have been thousands. Their screams could have just been something conjured in his head, but he could have sworn…
He told me that there’s a whale that lives in the sun and every day it screams for dying flesh. The light bakes them slowly as they ascend into the sky, charring the flesh as the oxygen is sucked out of their lungs. They are beamed to the surface of the star where they are engulfed. Naturally, the star beast has no hunger for the insect-like kids that stalk the land and spread ruination upon whatever they come across.
He told me that he had a plan, but he needed to know what was going on down in Vegas.
Was it still dangerous by the staircase?
Did the children down there still have guns?
Is the drill guarded?
The kids were gathering topside, circling the concrete staircase that lead down to Vegas. They looked down at the young man, their mouths hanging open, their necks craning around as he paced back and forth, conversing with the witch just out of his line of sight. They needed more bodies to bring up to the surface. They needed more soldiers for the war. The star beast didn’t want what was already dead, and all the technology of the living would eventually be left abandoned, their operators sucked into space and burned alive. Abandoned like the casinos of Vegas on funeral day.
Three kids clambered down on their haunches and crawled down the stairwell like spiders. They were like water rushing down a drain. The witch vibrated excitedly and put his hand upon Troy’s shoulder. His long instrument trembled as well. The sun set in the West and the sky was clear of the speckles of violently extinguishing life. The sky was full of stars that seemed to move, too. Everything trembling and breathing and pulsating. Bulbous, white-hot joints. Why had their people come out there in the first place, where everything had life and everything sought to destroy life?
When the kids came back up, they were carrying a rendered slurry of civilization banded together with twisted wire. A long, bending, tightly packed cylinder made of debris and bodies and torn flesh and glittery things. Thousands of twitching fingers emerging from a hot churning welt of bricks, fibreglass, and wires. Hair matted with mud stretched across folded signs, promising bargains. Loose poker chips broke from the mass and fell at his feet. A weak staccato moan could be heard from the centre. An army of rats and dogs and cats, once plaguing each other with otherworldly strategies, now flaked in the air and encrusted Troy’s shirtless body.
At the end tip of the thing was Ghoul, still breathing. Still in the game. The thin fence wrapped around him pressed against his face, dirtied and bruised from the drag. He stared at me with hatred in his eyes. Everything up there stared at me with hatred. God wanted to kill me and my enemies had grown eternal through torture. The plan was to plant it in the ground and grow it to the core. I grabbed it and helped pull it out with the rest of the kids. The witch pulled me back by the shoulders. A settled flurry of bonematter lay at their feet.
This, he was assured, was going to be the game changer. It was going to be the final, inarguable column of human death that could defeat the mad sun god. It was to be fed into the core of the planet – into the cauldron of fire beneath hell – and emerge as a star killer.
“We will pull, and then we will push.”
Ghoul coughed blood at me and snarled, toothless and wet. Long barbecued fingers grabbed the netting and lifted him up and away from me. His eyes remained locked onto mine. He was going to be the first one down.
“God from our last home intended for us to be gods on this one. You should be excited.”
Nick Rayner works in Advertising and lives in Ontario, Canada. His website is www.milliondollarcuffs.com and can be found on Twitter at @wmdimes."
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