Soundtrack: “Micro Cuts” by FC Kahuna
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Purple lights pulse up from Playland, in time with the electronic music. Over the rhythmic beats, a jolly autotone repeats over and over: DON’T stop now! CAN’T stop now! DON’T stop now! CAN’T stop now!
A handful of partiers comes reeling up the steps. “Hey,” slurs one guy, clinging to the railing. “These two are comin’ with us. Ain’tcha, ladies?” His friends try to pull him along, but he is stubborn, peering down at Marissa and Kelley, his face painted in a dizzying black and white pattern.
“Thanks anyways,” Marissa says, waving him off.
“Aww, you scared?” The guy sways a little, one hand hovering over his crotch now.
“Hey man, skedaddle.” Marissa keeps her voice calm, remembering last week. Beside her, Kelley takes another swig, saying nothing. “We’re fine right here. Move along.”
“Move along?” The guy’s friends are tugging at him more urgently, a couple of them glancing down at Marissa and Kelley, perhaps sensing something more than just a couple of women huddled on the back stairs sharing a bottle. “Move along?” He starts to unzip his pants, stumbling toward them. Behind the green plumes of Kelley’s joker mask, a merry blue light has begun to burn. “Stuck-up bitches…” At that moment, his companions succeed in dragging him the rest of the way up the steps, and they all go staggering off in search of the next party.
The blue fire behind Kelley’s mask slowly dims. At last, she stirs, passing the bottle back to Marissa. “Spoilsport,” she mutters, her voice like rotten sludge moving through a sewer pipe. Kelley is thoroughly drunk, something Marissa has rarely witnessed. It takes a liter of 100-proof whiskey just to give Kelley a good buzz. Over the course of tonight, she has consumed at least two.
She sighs, sliding her mask up onto her head, the last of the fire going out of her eyes. CAN’T stop now! thundering up from below. “You’re the first breath of fresh air in the last couple or three thousand years, you know that, Kelvin?” Her voice is human again.
“What about Tyler?”
“Tyler’s been extremely valuable. Would you believe, he’s going on one-fifty?” Marissa shakes her head curiously. “Been keeping him fresh these last hunnerd and thirty-odd years.” Marissa doesn’t ask just how Kelley has been keeping Tyler “fresh.” Kelley leans back, gazing up into the blackness. “He thinks we’re friends, but…he’s just an asset. I’m about as old as the universe, but in all that time, I’ve never had a real friend.” She turns her bleary gaze upon Marissa. “’Til now.”
Marissa peels back her mask, too, the black hood bunching at the back of her head. She’s been holding back all night, but now it’s time to drink. She takes a long pull on the bottle. “You’re gonna make me blush now, getting all sentimental on me.” She holds the bottle, playfully, away from Kelley’s reaching hand. “So, what’s your ultimate plan? All these people under your spell, the factory—what’s it all for?”
“Isn’ it clear by now?” Kelley’s words are slightly mushy. Though she doesn’t move, the bottle flies out of Marissa’s hand and back to hers. “After being trapped here a few billion years give or take, look what I’ve managed in jus’ the last couple decades ’cause someone up at the NFMA wanted to make some real coin.”
“They gave you a way out.”
“Bingo. But it’s only a foot in the door. I’m gonna throw that sucker wide open. And you’re gonna be there.” Kelley takes another gulp. “And this ol’ thing?” She indicates her body, which is still that of an eighteen-year-old girl. “I won’t need this any more’n their shitty Bypassports.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Marissa snatches the bottle back, contemplating Kelley’s words. What form would Kelley have, without a physical body?
Kelley turns sideways, leaning up against the wall and studying Marissa. “My turn.”
“Your turn, what?”
“Shutup, I’m ashin’ the queshins now.” Kelley playfully wrestles the bottle out of Marissa’s hand.
Marissa snorts laughter, and after a second, Kelley joins her. Gradually, they quiet. Had any observer noticed them, they would have seen two tousled girls seated facing one another on the steps, knees drawn up, masks shoved back on their heads, engaged in the sort of deep and soulful heart-to-heart reserved for the very inebriated.
“What’s your worst memory?” Kelley rests her cheek on one knee, and there is something lurking behind her cobalt stare, something Marissa would bet has never been there before: A species of fondness. “I mean, the absolute most horrible experience in your whole life.”
Despite the warm rush of blood stimulated by the whiskey, Marissa’s face feels cold, her lips numb as they open to release the words she has never spoken to anyone, not even Tori. Especially not Tori. “The first time Rusty put his fingers in me. I was twelve.”
“The first time. So, it happened more times?”
“More times.” Marissa laughs harshly. “By tenth grade, I’d learned how to give the perfect blowjob. I think the only reason he didn’t fuck me was he was afraid I might get pregnant.”
“You never told. Tried to get help. Why not?” Kelley is studying her closely.
“He said he’d kill Tori.”
“But you ran, in the end. Right when you were about to graduate. You were a young adult, could’ve just left after that, right? Gone anywhere you chose.”
“That was never going to happen. I was never getting out of there alive. The night I ran away, he wasn’t just going to finally screw me. He came to end me.”
“You know this for a fact?” Marissa says nothing, but Kelley reads her expression. “Wow, that sucks. You’re badass, girlfriend. But you’re lying.”
Marissa does not drop her gaze. “Whatever.” She grabs the bottle from Kelley. “I did what I had to do to stay alive. Believe me or don’t.”
Kelley is smiling, shaking her head, bells softly tinkling. “Oh, I believe that.” She draws closer, her crematorium breath heating Marissa’s chilled flesh. “That was pretty good, I’ll give you that. But you’re holding out on me. Your worst memory. The truth this time.”
Marissa looks back at the thing that owns her, body and soul. DON’T stop now! CA-CA-CAN’T stop now!
She is walking toward the shed out back of the house, Rusty’s shadow falling over her. The grass is still wet from last night’s storm, and her sneakers are soaked. She does not want to see what is in the shed. Rusty is screwing a metal cylinder onto the end of the Glock .40. Open the door, M. Inside, Ernie is tied to a post driven into the dirt floor. His tail and ears perk up when he sees her. Rusty takes her right hand and closes it around the gun.
You’ll do it, M. If you don’t, I’m going to take this gun, this very same one, and I’m going to kill Tori. That what you want? Her hand is limp at her side, dangling the gun. Well all right, then. He reaches for the gun. The paralysis breaks and she screams, aiming wildly. It takes ten shots to even hit Ernie. When the gun clicks empty, she throws it, clamping her hands over her ears. Pick it up. Rusty is holding out a fresh clip. The hot barrel touches her hand as she clumsily reloads, a permanent scar to remind her always. Good girl. You’re almost done now.
It takes seven more rounds.
Kelley and Marissa sit in silence while the music pounds and people stumble up and down the steps. At last, Kelley reaches out to brush Marissa’s hair back from her face. “You never cry. I’ve never seen a human who didn’t.”
“Forgot how, I guess.” Marissa is hollow, exhausted, and horribly sober.
Then Kelley says something Marissa is certain she has never uttered before: “I’m sorry.”
“For making you do that. Let’s forget it ever happened. Instead, tell me your bestest most favorite memory.” She wrinkles her nose, wiggling in anticipation.
Marissa will never reveal her bestest most favorite memory, which took place decades ago, in the garden, behind Tori Marshall’s house, and involved the near-destruction of the city of Lincoln. But there is a close second. “One time when I was a kid, I hopped a ride with a UPS driver.”
“No way! Why would you even do that?”
“He kinda saved me from Rusty.” Marissa shrugs. “Got a thing for delivery drivers, I guess. Something about that uniform…m-m-mm!”
Kelley lets out a guffaw, flipping the empty bottle over the retaining wall, where it smashes on the pavement. “C’mon.” She springs to her feet. “This night ain’t over by a long shot!”
The monorail spirals upward, then rips across the horizontal plain, stopping at last where DimCor, Inc. makes contact with the Ceiling. Kelley leads the way through a gleaming tunnel sweeping upward to a heavy door that opens into a wide, circular chamber with a domed ceiling of blue-black metal, etched with twining, serpentine symbols.
The floor is made of white stone that emits a soft light, and this somehow gives the patterns overhead the illusion of being in constant motion. At the center of the room sits a huge furnace made entirely of black Zarchite. Deep within, the roar of flames can be heard; yet, the air is starkly cold.
But despite the beauty and strangeness of this room, Marissa’s attention is drawn to one aspect above all else: The portraits lining the walls—row upon row, circling and circling the chamber. Each frame contains the image of a man or woman, aged beyond imagination, gnarled and practically mummified; still their eyes look out with gleaming awareness. Beneath each face is a name. And in the withered features of every last one of them, the thing they share shines through, pure and simple: Greed.
There are hundreds. Marissa gazes up into this multitude, eventually arriving at the second-to-last frame. The shriveled, balding crone is unrecognizable, barely human-looking anymore. The name below: Kelley. “She had a hell of a mind.” Kelley Robadu’s voice comes from behind Marissa. “She could turn steel into gold, Zarchite into diamonds. But best of all, she was the one who designed the Central Mindsynth. Real wiz-kid.”
“Yep. All the broadcasts that keep the party going, and so helpfully tell the Divine what to think? That’s what powers them.”
“So, what is the Central Mindsynth?”
“Aside from the city itself, it’s the greatest achievement this world has ever known.” The fact that this is not a real answer does not escape Marissa.
To the left of Kelley’s portrait is the newest frame. There is no name beneath it. The image is a vague, shifting shadow. Marissa catches the hint of square-framed glasses, of pale skin and red lips. For a split second, a name appears: Tyler. Then this fades. Marissa slowly backs up again, taking in the whole assemblage, its magnitude, its meaning. “What happens?” she asks softly. “What happens to them when…” She does not finish.
“They live on,” Kelley answers. “In me. I am the sum of all their best, combined in one superior being. Every one of them came willingly, eagerly. That’s how it works—they have to say yes, or I can’t seal the deal.”
“When do you…how often?”
“When I find someone with something I want. It may be only a hundred years. Or more. Once we went almost a thousand.” She points to a portrait on the wall of a skeletal, batlike thing with a hole where its nose should have been, draped in black. “Everyone in Robadu is descended from those original wizards. From the start, I’ve kept the average lifespan to around twenty-five—thirty at most. Keep ’em partying hard and selectively bred, so they never grow old enough or sober enough to question this life, and there’re always more to replace them when they fall off a cliff, or kill each other, or their livers give out. And every single one of ‘em is dying to work here at the Factory. To them, it’s the promised land. I hand-pick every employee at birth—the conservatories are enchanted to detect the really stellar ones so they can be pre-programmed for their destined careers.
“Of course, we’re talking about generations of inbreeding and mutation here, so in most cases their magical and intellectual gifts are stunted. But…every so often…that mutation works the other way. It’s like finding little jewels in a mountain of sand. Those little jewels, they’re the ones who designed and invented, who built and maintained all you see here—under my care and supervision, of course. And Tyler…now, he’s truly one in a million. And he’s very eager.”
“So, why haven’t you made the switch yet?”
Kelley traces the outline of the new frame with one finger. “Each one of these babies takes a hundred years to forge—start to finish.” Another non-answer. Marissa’s gaze travels across the circular walls, coming to rest upon the oldest portrait.
The man in this picture is the only one amongst the multitude whose visage has not been ravaged by age. Something about that face: the thick, dashed brows above upturned, catlike eyes; the dark tumble of curls over the smooth forehead; the sensuous mouth, like a pink bow. This beauty…or perhaps, something hidden just below it…makes him seem much more than just a man. Much more dangerous. The inscription beneath: Elan Robadu.
“He was a scientist, a sorcerer from World Two, ahead of his time by several thousand years. Before the naturally occurring force of magic was such a deep, dark secret there. He alone figured out how to enter the Channels leading down here to World One. When he returned to Two…well, when I returned, sharing his body…wasn’t long before Robadu had followers—scholars of sorcery, folks with magical abilities large and small, benign and deadly. We named them the Divine. There were more every day, all working to open more Channels, widen them. To one day make our two worlds into one.
“But then—the Channels slammed shut, sealing everyone in down here. The few who managed to find ways to slip past the border got vaporized by giant, sizzling bolts of goddamned lightning. So we were banished here, trapped by a killer curse from somewhere above. And down here we’ve been for hundreds of generations. Robadu and I, as one we built this city.” Kelley’s voice is wistful. “It was my rebirth, the dawn of a new age for this forsaken place. The first of two.”
“The second one being when the NFMA made you a Bypassport to World Two,” Marissa finishes. Kelley giggles in reply, throwing an arm around Marissa as they study the countenance of the original Robadu. “But…” Marissa bites her lip.
“Ask away, girlfriend. I know I owe you one.”
“How’d you get here, all those billions of years ago? Why couldn’t you leave?”
Kelley is silent for a long time. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. “We’ve got a lot in common, you and me. We both got screwed by someone who should’ve been protecting us.” She reaches up, gently removes the portrait of Robadu, and places it in Marissa’s hands.
As Marissa stares into it, the picture fades to black.
There is a rending noise, as if space itself were being ripped in half. A glimpse of blinding whiteness, a trillion exploding suns. Against the white, a boiling mass of black is hurtling closer and closer, writhing appendages snaking out, then disappearing. The amorphous thing fills her vision, reshaping itself again and again with whip-like fury, its enraged sounds beyond description. The white disappears as the rift crashes shut, sealed with the ancient curse that still holds to this day. The furious shrieks of the thing that was the true form of Kelley Robadu, trapped within this dark and hollow world, would have been felt in other realms—had any existed at the time of this aberration. And so ended the creation of the first prototype universe, a failure to be sealed away and left to rot, locked in this cellar, for all time.
Marissa slowly raises her head to look at Kelley. Lifts one hand to touch her face. “I’m sorry.” There is a flicker in the gaslight of Kelley’s eyes, a cooling. “When the door is finally all the way open…and you can go wherever you want…what then? What happens in World Two?”
Kelley’s pink lips slowly curve into a smile. She nods toward the portrait still lying in Marissa’s hands. Out of the blackness boils a storm of devastation. Under poisoned and sulfurous clouds, the Earth shudders, great fissures exploding the streets and highways. Long-abandoned buildings and bridges crumble like fossilized skeletons. Cars still sit in parking lots and driveways as though there had been no warning, none at all, tires rotting away, widening bands of rust devouring their original colors. Across the face of this decimated world swarm the dim remnants of Mankind, beyond any sense of right or wrong, scavenging, raping, killing in an ecstasy of utter depravity. And above it all swells a vast shadow, black, writhing. Laughing.
Toss ‘em in the furnace. Alone at last, the words ratchet through her head until she wants to throw herself into the furnace. Gotta break a few eggs. All the horrors Marissa has witnessed today are still nothing compared to the thing she herself has become. With a cry, she jams the needle into her groin, unable to get there fast enough.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.