07 July 2012

The Apocalypse Man (fiction)

Here’s my piece that won 2nd in the Mayhew for speculative fiction. It’s 4300 words. It’s sci-fi. It’s weird. And it’s darker and grittier than what I usually write. Ye be warned. 


THE APOCALYPSE MAN

A Triptych



A huge gash stretched across the old man’s forehead. He squinted as he touched it and brought his hand down in front of his eyes. There was no blood on his fingers, but he stared as if he could see what they had touched.

He was sitting on a concrete ledge rocking back and forth. “Where is my home?” He looked down the busy sweet with the cars floating by. “Where is my home?” Then he looked up. Gray wispy clouds hung overhead—too thin to be real clouds. “Where is it?”


He looked down the street again, at the rush of pedestrians, and suddenly his eyes lit up. A man in a business suit was clacking down the sidewalk toward him. The old man peered with a wild look in his eye—a look that may have been recognition.


The old man stood, stretched out his finger, and stepped in the man’s path. “You’re the one. You’re the one. You’re the one.”


“Out of the way.” The man in the suit grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him back against the concrete ledge.


“But you’re the one. I recognize your face.”


Without breaking stride, the man in the suit glanced over his shoulder and frowned. But he didn’t respond.


“Hey, what planet is this?” the old man asked in a throaty shout.


The man in the suit, face forward, disappeared into the crowd.



* * *

It was now morning. The old man favored his left leg as he hobbled along, staring at the ground. Wisps of his white hair on the crown of his head blew in a sudden rush of wind as he zipped up his coat. He swiped his hand behind his neck, as if to catch a ghost, but nothing was there, so he set it down on his neck, thinking. “It’s gone. My hair. It was so long. But now. Now... now it’s gone. It’s gone. Long gone.” He patted his neck, as if he might find it still. “Long gone.”

When he looked up, he found himself at the same concrete ledge—a small, raised flower bed in the center of the sidewalk. “This is where...” He backed up to it, set his hands on it, and tried to lift his butt onto it. But his muscles shook as he did, and his heels fell back to the ground. Next he turned and rolled, his face going into the grassy flower bed, and he pulled himself into it, then rolled back, his butt now sitting on the ledge. He touched his gash again, then reached back to check the emptiness on the back of his neck. He looked up at the black patches in the sky. “They’re swarming,” he whispered.

People walked by, but none seemed to notice him. He thought about shouting at them again, but instead he touched his gash and started rocking. “Why did I come here?” 

And just at that moment, he scowled, looking down the sidewalk. The man in the suit was approaching again. He hopped from the ledge and stood, not in the path, but ready to intercept him. When they were a few strides apart, he spoke: “It’s all going to end. You don’t believe me, but...” The man in the suit looked forward, pretending like he couldn’t hear, but the old man was facing directly at him. “Please, you have to listen. You’re the only one who will listen.” The suit passed him and continued down the walk.

The old man hobbled, losing ground fast. “Just let me explain. Let me explain. Please. I can prove it... Just let me explain.” But the suit had vanished again into the crowd.


* * *

He waited there all day, knowing the man would have to come back past the same spot. But he never came. The old man kept looking up the street, at the crowds passing, and his stomach clawed at his insides. He mumbled to himself: “I lost it. Lost it. My mind. I know I lost it.” He shook his head and looked around, at the crowds and the cars and the stained sky. “But if it’s lost, I shouldn’t know it’s lost. It wasn’t my fault. I think I had to lose it. It wasn’t my fault.” He rocked back and forth. “But just because I lost it, doesn’t mean I can’t find it. At least for a little while. Maybe I can find it again for a little while. At least long enough for what I’m here for.”

A few people scowled at him as they walked by, and he knew it was because he was talking to himself out loud, so he tried to stop. “To stop.”

He waited there on that ledge for hours. Waited. 

But the man in the suit never came.


* * *

He scrounged in trash compactors that night, and he wandered back to the concrete ledge the next morning, earlier than the day before. But the man in the suit never came. Perhaps he had taken another route. And night would come again.

The old man shook his head and wandered around the busy streets. He found a cup with a straw lying on its side in the gutter. He put the straw in his mouth and sucked the liquid out until the sound of emptiness echoed in his ears. He carried the cup with him until he passed a trash can.

Ahead of him he saw a crowd gathered around a store window, some of them holding shopping bags, and all of them captivated somehow. He started pressing his way into the crowd, wanting to see what they were seeing. “Pardon,” he whispered, “pardon,” but they might not have been hearing him. As he pulled past one stranger, the stranger jammed an elbow into the old man’s ribs. “Pardon,” he whispered again, retreating further in.

At the front of the crowd, he could finally see what had drawn them in. There was a large screen showing some sort of news broadcast. A beautiful woman was speaking and holding a script in front of her; to him she seemed scared. Perhaps terrified. Beneath her, a strip of characters scrolled across the screen, but they were strange characters with twisting shapes, and he couldn’t tell their meaning. He felt like he had once known them, but he couldn’t remember anymore. A square appeared next to the woman’s head, and it showed a photo of a white moon on a dark, black sky. He heard someone in the crowd gasp and he caught the words lunar colony. The old man glanced quickly at the sky, and then back at the screen, eyes wide as he watched:

The lady was replaced by a video: a gray image, a sterile hallway—and then a man standing in the hallway—a man in a heavily padded, white jumpsuit with a mechanical helmet and mask—the video image shook, blurring the screen—when it steadied, a dark red smudged the lens, and the man in the jumpsuit had disappeared from the hallway—the camera rushed down the hallway into a cramped circular room—paused, staring at a blank wall—moved again, through a doorway, and into openness—above the horizon was blackness, dotted with tiny stars—below the horizon was gray, almost white, flowing hills and rocky outcrops with not a single plant of any kind—the camera swung, moving down the side of the glass building—twisting, looking back—there was the man in the glass helmet—the camera swung up—down—spinning—around and around—darkness—gray—darkness—gray—darkness—and stars—interrupted by something red, almost like a liquid, but it wasn’t falling like a liquid should; it was floating, or it was falling very, very slowly—gray dirt and small rocks smashed into the view, and everything was still—still—still—until, from the bottom of the screen, flowed a dark red liquid, creeping up into the gray dirt and rocks.

The screen showed the lady again; she was scared; she was terrified. People in the crowd were murmuring: “Bastards!” and “...start a war...” and “should have killed them when we had the chance.”

I remember what I’m supposed to do,” he whispered to himself, and he looked from the screen, to the glass, to the floor. He turned around and faced the crowd. More people were running toward the crowd he was in, wanting to see. Some were rushing away. And he heard more murmuring voices and “murder on the moon.” They stared past him at the screen.

“This is the end of the world,” he said. He saw a kid glance at him and bite his lip; then the kid looked back at the screen. “THIS IS THE END OF THE WORLD.” He paused to catch his breath. They were looking at him now. “THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO STOP—” the kid punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, and the people looked back at the screen. 

“BUT THERE IS ONE WAY TO STOP IT!” He felt a tug on his arm, a push on his back, a kick on his calf, and he moved, unwilling, through the crowd, stumbling to keep on his feet, grabbing coats and pulling to keep himself upright. Then a hand grabbed his lapel and shoved. He fell out of the crowd, backward, and onto his back. He curled his fingers into fists so they wouldn’t get stepped on as more people rushed to see what was on the screen. 


* * *

He wandered for a day or two, finding little food and no sign of the man in the suit, and the world still had not ended. But he saw the gray specks in the sky, and they seemed to be gathering.

One night the yellow street lamps shined down on thick crowds of people, much thicker than usual. Many of them were dressed in costumes—costumes that reminded him of horrible things. Black masks, bloody faces, forked tongues, and meaty bodies. They were laughing, shouting, kissing, and biting, and they were rushing by, not paying attention to him. 

He pulled himself to his feet and then climbed up onto the concrete ledge, teetering a little before getting his balance. He held his hands to the sides to steady himself. 

“IT’S ALL GOING TO END.” Then in a whisper he added, “I’ve seen it.”

The people looked at him, some of them stopping, but most of them still moving, still laughing, shouting, kissing, and biting.

“THE WORLD...” he caught his breath, “is going TO END!”

A dragon stopped and pulled away from the crowd, which made the others stop to watch. 

The old man looked down at the dragon and spoke directly to him: “They’re coming. They’re coming to destroy us.”

The dragon’s face turned upward, and his scaly hand reached behind the old man’s foot and pulled.

The old man’s oil-stained coat offered little padding. His back and right shoulder blade crashed into the concrete ledge, then the weight of his legs pulled him off, and he flipped forward on his face onto the sidewalk. A high-pitched laugh squealed from inside the dragon’s mouth.

“Please,” the old man groaned, “it’s not too late.”

The dragon kicked him in the side with a heavy boot, and the old man held his breath, trying to contain the pain. 

This is why it’s going to end,” the old man said, “why you’re going to die.” The heavy pain crashed into his ribs again. Then a boot came down on his hand, and the sound of four crunching bones smashed together into one horrific noise. His lungs, barely strong enough to make a sound at all, moaned the moan of a dying goat—quivering—bleating—bleeding.

He heard a voice say, “You’re killing him.” It was a woman’s voice, a pleasant voice.

Then he heard another voice, above him, say, “I know.”

And right then, he didn’t look up at his attacker. He was too weak. Instead, he just whispered, “The end is coming—for all of us,” and he stared down the sidewalk, where the people used to walk, but no one was walking there now. 

In the black shadows of the yellow street lamp, he saw the man in the suit watching from not far away. Pitying, perhaps. Or just being entertained. Or maybe considering how he could help. Whatever was going on in the suit’s mind, it all stayed inside. And he just stood there and watched. 

The dragon laughed.

But there is one way to stop it,” the old man mumbled. And he put his face on the concrete and closed his eyes.


Again his ex-wife had insulted him. But this time it was public—an insult she surely knew would be repaid with death. But she wanted to die, didn’t she? 

Didn’t they all?

The apartment was dark, lit faintly by orange-glowing lamps. Huge windows looked out on the cityscape below. The windows looked, but he didn’t.

He slumped to the carpeted floor and laid on his back in his business suit. His brow twitched, and his eyes squinted, like a little child about to cry. The void surrounded him. It had already filled him. And there was hardly any man left at all.

She’d deserved to die for a long time. She had taken their five-year-old and turned him against him—his own father. Had taken his son, his own flesh—the only human left that mattered. The only thing that might carry on. The only thing that might survive the void.

If he didn’t kill her, it would look bad to the partners. But it seemed like too easy an escape—to just give her what she wanted. But if he didn’t, they would think him weak. He had proved himself again and again, many times since he was initiated. But that didn’t matter. It would look bad. It was too public.

He kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. His stomach clawed at his insides, but didn’t want to eat. He had all the food a man could ever want—could have had it brought right to him—but he was too empty. Much too empty. 

It would be a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds, until it was done. And then, he knew, he would not feel less empty, but more. It was a gap that could only be filled by making it bigger. She deserved it. Many times over she deserved it.

And so did he.

He was a liar. He was a murderer. He was even a traitor. After all, that’s how he was initiated.

Suddenly he recalled his father. The man who he suspected had been the last good man. He and his associates protected each other. But it was not good. They all deserved to die. And if good men still ruled, they would die. But good men didn’t rule. They ruled. And that was their right to life.

Death had come for him many times, and yet he had escaped, climbing on corpses. He didn’t know why. He didn’t have reasons anymore. All he had was the void. Full of the void.

He didn’t know what else to do. If he let her live, then what? And what of their son? He would go on hating his father, believing the lies she had told him.

His son was a reason. His son was the last reason.

He noticed he had worked himself into a sweat, and just as he noticed it, the sensor noticed it, and a cool breeze tingled across his back. He shivered and swiped his hand behind his neck, as if to catch a ghost, but nothing was there.

“Get Haruspex on the line,” he said, speaking to the emptiness around him. There was a quiet beeping.

“This is Haruspex.”

“Where are you?”

“We’re in her flat sir.”

“Don’t kill her.”

“What?”

“I said don’t kill her!”

“But she’s seen us, boss.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll cover it.”

“We’ve already started.”

“How far?”

“One cut.”

He didn’t answer. He rolled onto his stomach and put his face on the floor. Then he slapped his palms against the carpet. And the pain shot up through his wrists. 

“Boss?”

“Don’t kill her. Can you patch it up?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

He lay still, breathing just barely. Practically suffocating in the emptiness around him. He lay there for a long time, twisting, and turning, but only in his mind.

The intercom came on again, with screaming in the background. Bloody, violent screaming. And he heard a voice: “Sir?”

“I said stop!”

“We did stop, sir.”

“Then what is the screaming?”

“It’s the boy.”

“That’s the boy screaming?”

“No, sir. It’s that... the boy has been...” The screaming nearly drowning out the voice. 

“WHAT?”

“TIE HER UP, DAMMIT!” The screaming became muffled, but continued. “He’s been stabbed, sir.”

“What?”

It was a scream from deep in the throat. Permanent.

“When we started to untie her mouth, she activated the security, and her dog came in. He damn near chewed my arm off, and while we were killing him, she grabbed a scalpel and chopped into Tages. I’ve never had to let one free before.”

“But what about the boy?”

“He’s dead, sir.”

The man in the suit lifted himself up and started stepping with his knees frantically, searching. Looking around the empty apartment.

What?” the suit whispered.

“He’s dead.”

He grabbed his face in both hands, then he grabbed the back of his neck, looking at the floor, looking inside his own mind. 

“Sir?”

The door of his flat slid open, and he stumbled blindly into the hallway, without his shoes.

He pushed open a wooden door manually, and it led him to a concrete stairway. He climbed, circling up and up, and running faster and faster as he went. He reached the top, and he heard a booming echo below him, rattling up the railing and the concrete. At the top was a door, the last landing, with two steps leading up to it. He pulled it open, and found blackness. He stepped from the light, and his feet landed on a rubbery surface. He stumbled, gasping, toward the edge of the roof. He grabbed the ledge with his hand, and fell down to his knees, sobbing. He fell to his side, rolled onto his back, and moaned in anguish.

And the tears rolled from his cheeks.

His teeth mashed together. He pulled himself to his feet and stood on the concrete ledge, in his socks, teetering a little before getting his balance. 


Atop the tallest building in the city was a flat roof, and around that roof was a concrete ledge. A man in a business suit stood on that ledge, looking toward the sparkling lights of the city and the traffic flying by, millimeters at a time. But he didn’t see any of it. All he saw was darkness. Darkness around him, and especially above him. The clouds seemed unnaturally thick and unnaturally dark.

He swiped his hand behind his neck, as if to catch a ghost, but nothing was there, so he set it down on his neck. He dropped his hand, and when the feeling came again, he swatted quicker, and his hands felt a thick shell and spindly legs. A chill went up his spine, and he nearly fell from the ledge by accident. He tossed the black bug on the roof and hopped down to safety. Then he bent and squinted at the thing. It was curled up into a ball nearly the width of his palm. But, he supposed, if it were stretched out, it might be as tall has his hand. Another shiver went through his back as deep as his kidneys.

“I thought you were gonna jump.”

He stood up with a start. There was an old man sitting, crouched against the corner of the ledge. He was curled up inside a heavy, stained coat.

“If you had jumped, I would have jumped too. I was ready to.”

The man in the suit just nodded and stared blankly. “Why?”

“What planet is this?”

“You’re the crazy man from the street.” 

The old man didn’t respond. 

“What are you talking about?” the suit asked. 

“You just killed one of them.”

“I—.” He looked at the dead bug.

“So you’ll listen,” said the old man. 

“What?”

“You’re the only one. Only one who will listen.”

“I won’t listen. How do you know I will?” asked the suit.

“I saw it. I’ve seen it all. That’s how I know the world’s going to end. I’ve seen it once before.”

“You’re insane.”

“I know.” But the look on the old man’s face was anything but insane. 

“I... I just...” The suit looked back to the ledge where he had almost jumped, and he thought about climbing back up. “I deserve to die,” he said to himself, so quiet the old man may not have heard it.

“The world is going to end. Very soon.”

“Huh?”

“It’s all so clear.”

“You think because a of a little war—” the suit asked.

“What war?”

“We declared war. Two days ago.”

“Because of the moon?” the old man asked. 

“Huh?”

“Was it because of what happened on the moon?”

“Yes.”

“That’s not it,” said the old man. 

“The moon isn’t it?”

“The war isn’t it.”

“What?” The suit was confused. 

“They’re coming.”

“Who?”

The old man pointed at the black bug on the ground, like a giant locust.


“You’re insane,” the suit repeated. 


The old man just nodded.


“I killed my own son,” said the suit. 


“This will be better than death.”


The old man reached his left hand up and set it on the back of his own neck. The man in the suit saw the fingers on the old man’s hand. They were swollen and black, and the top joint of each finger angled away from the thumb in an unnatural way. It sent a shiver up his spine. “I did that to you.”


“It was the dragon.”


“But I stood and let him do it. I could have stopped him, but I didn’t care.”


“That’s why you need to go.”


“Go where?”


“You have to be me. You have to warn them.”


“Warn who?”


“The vessel is in the park. And you’re the one who gets inside.” 


“What are you talking about? Go where?”


“You have to warn them that their world is going to end.”


“They won’t listen. Haven’t you noticed?”


“They won’t,” he agreed.


“Then why go?”


“Because they might.”


The man in the suit shook his head back and forth rapidly—careful not to let the words settle.


“It’s going to expand your mind.” The old man gave an audible gasp. “Perhaps a little too much.”


The man in the suit frowned and looked down. “You said the world is going to end—this world.”


The old man nodded.


“I’m not going. I want to die. It’s what I deserve.”


“It’s better than death.” 


“I need worse.”


“It’s worse than death.”


He breathed, but he didn’t say anything.


“Will you go?”


“I don’t believe you.”


“You don’t have to believe me. You just have to go.”



* * *

It was dark—a covering of gray obscured the starry sky. They went to a park in the center of the city, past looming trees, lampposts, and down to where the river filled a large pond in the night. They peered across the water to a tiny island, not far away and covered with trees.

In there,” the old man whispered.

I don’t see it.”

It’s in there.” 

He looked down at his suit and then at the black pond. “Why don’t we both go?”

“There’s only room for one body.”

He put his hand on on the back of his neck. 

You just have to go,” the old man repeated.

The man in the suit took a breath and stepped into the pond. He could feel the rocky bottom with his socked feet. The water came up to his knees, but the cold went through his entire body, and he gasped and stumbled forward, slowing down so as to not kick water up into his face. He reached the far bank and crawled out on his hands and knees, and his mouth hung open as he stared ahead.

The vessel.

It wasn’t a sleek, black metal with sharp edges. Nor was it a colorful polyhedron that would flash past you like a lens flare as the world turned. Not at all. It was darkness—a darkness in the trees, a place that not even light was willing to go.

The darkness hovered in the air over a concrete rim that cut a circle out of the grass and weeds, a large black void over what resembled the rim of old well now filled with soil. It seemed as if the darkness of what might have been a well had risen above ground. The suit remained on his hands and knees. Frozen. Terrified.

“How do I—” he shouted back.

“Just step into it,” came the old man’s faint voice.

He pulled himself to his feet and stood on the concrete ledge, teetering a little before getting his balance and staring into the darkness. Staring into the void. Wrenching. But wanting. Pulled toward and away. 

Till he jumped.

The darkness closed around him. It didn’t lift him up like a shuttle launch, but pulled him down. Not into the ground. Through the ground. In a direction beyond the opposite side of the planet.

The terror that, before jumping, had gripped his entire body moved into his skull. And the words of the old man fell inside: “It’s going to... expand... your mind... perhaps... a little... too... much.”

And then he saw

But it wasn’t sight through his eyes.

He knew

But it wasn’t thought through his mind. 

Somehow it communicated to him. 

It coursed through his veins and through his blood.

And the locusts ate the body of his son 

and the face of his ex-wife, 

and he wished they would consume him too, 

and then, though he didn’t recognize 

this alphabet and 

although he 

had never 

heard the name before, 

he somehow 

knew 

the word 

it said:

EARTH