It was a long while before Jon got the chance to talk to himself alone again.
Between the impossible joke that had become the progression of time and the flood of adrenaline split between the two of them as they crossed the warped landscape, Martin had stayed awake far longer than he ever had in the quote, cabin, unquote. They’d both wondered if he was on the way to total sleeplessness as well.
“I mean, again, sleep isn’t exactly anything like restful anymore,” Martin had attempted to laugh, “but it’s habit. You want to just…not be seeing things all the time, you know?”
“I know,” Jon said.
There’d been no time for Martin to fumble through an apology—which Jon also had no time to claim didn’t need making—as they had to hush up and take cover while an arachnid the size of a rhino scurried idly past. It saw them, of course. Jon Knew it did. Just as Jon Knew that it was doing its best to leer at him.
Its eyes weren’t quite right for a spider, but fine for a Spider. Four of them winked before carrying on.
Guilt sizzled like acid in the back of his throat. Guilt and hate. And hate. And hate. And hate.
And hate, and hate, and hate, and hate, and hate—
Jon bristled. There it was again, whatever ‘it’ was.
That foreign trickle of loathing for self, and an even more vicious loathing for the world that surrounded him. It crouched inside the base of his skull, whispering. Had been whispering since the day of the Change, it seemed.
Once it had been just another tone muttering in the background of Jon’s inner choir of mourning and madness. Now it was—less quiet, he’d say, if and when Martin brought it up. Those strange, grim monologues he would catch himself hissing into the recorder. ‘Statements,’ if they were that, which operated his voice like a borrowed tool and felt more and more like utterances from a place Jon had never come across in his own mind before.
Statements where he was never, ‘I,’ but ‘you.’ Where Martin was always, ‘the one you love,’ nameless and detached from the speaker. Where ‘I’ referred to Jon only as a courtesy. A technicality.
Some new mental adjustment, Jon wanted to believe. Easier to address himself as some severed Other than go on sinking in the mire of his own depression. If he had to imagine some separate, morbid version of himself to spur him into action versus stewing in woe, then so be it. It had gotten him out of that leech of a cabin, hadn’t it? And it must be doing something right for him, having finally dragged him out of the swamping grief, hauling him out and onward.
That was good, wasn’t it? Right? Maybe?
“Well, it is helping, isn’t it?” Martin offered in a whisper as they took cover in an abandoned petrol station. He had caught the tail end of the last pseudo-soliloquy as he scavenged the shelves, testing to see which things were what they looked like and which things were now alive and full of teeth. “I mean, yeah, you get a little deep in the Vincent Price of it all, but honestly? I’m surprised it’s literally taken the apocalypse to get you to vent. I’ve only ever seen you annoyed or upset or somewhat put-out until now. Was beginning to think you couldn’t even work up a proper bit of anger.”
“What? I’ve been angry before.”
“Haven’t seen it.”
“When Lukas took you.”
“That was you being worried and/or munchy.”
“When I got back from Nikola’s aggressive spa treatment month.”
“Upset with a side of Edwardian indignance.”
“I was not—,”
Martin looked at him.
“Fine. But, considering my position, me getting my hackles up was hardly going to paint me in a better light at the time.”
“Well, yeah. Being the resident fully-licensed avatar on the team had everyone on edge. If I’d started talking in static and lashing out, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some bullets had flown or if they’d have abandoned me outright. Wasn’t even sure how much of the Archivist thing was tied to me getting assertive.” Jon shrugged. “Always seemed to come easier when I was being actively, ah, less than nice. What?”
Martin was not just giving him a look, but a proper gawk.
“Jon, are you serious?”
“You thought they were going to kill you if you got mad?”
“Well, Melanie was coming down off the Slaughter bullet, so maybe not her? Daisy was on her no-Hunting crash diet by then, but I’m sure she’d have dropped it for Basira’s sake. And Basira did tell me to my face that she would ‘put me down’ if I took another live statement. So, yes. …Martin? Are you okay?”
“No!” Martin yelled as loud as he could while still whispering. “No, I’m not! Christ, I told them to talk to you, not put you on a chopping block! And of course, none of them said a word about it—you included, Jon—or it would’ve stuck a hell of a pin in Peter’s big isolation scheme if I went storming downstairs to chew them out and stand in for your sense of self-preservation—,”
“I think—no.” Jon felt a prickle of static slip through the constant barrage of nightmare visions in his skull. He got to Know so much now that the Change had stuck a hand in his head, found the door he was still frantically pinning shut, and casually ripped the thing off its hinges. Now he Knew everything all the time. Including, “I Know it was the Web. It and Annabelle weren’t lurking around just to make sure only the right kind of monster riff-raff got through the doors—,”
“Trevor and,” Martin stifled a yawn, “and Julia?”
“Right. It was there to make sure I was as isolated as I could be without actually removing my ‘bodyguards’ from the equation. Once Melanie’s mark of the Slaughter was on me and her conversion was stopped short, it permitted her to remove herself from the Archives. That left Daisy and Basira. Meat shields to keep the Hunters and the Not-Them at bay so I’d be free to chuck myself into the Lonely after you and Lukas. Given a little less emotional and mental nudging from the Spider’s threads, I wouldn’t be surprised if things had taken a much more benevolent turn for us all. Not all hugs and sing-alongs, of course, but…it would have been better. Closer.
“That’s why it had to get rid of Sasha early on. She provided too much levity. She would’ve kept Tim calmer and me less spastic and you less floundering, trying to keep everyone alright on your own. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d gotten its hooks in Georgie too. Hell of a turnaround from Georgie the Literally Fearless saying, ‘Yes, Jon, go ahead and stay over until you’re on your feet, despite the evil clown mannequin that broke into the apartment,’ to, ‘Piss off, Jon, no you cannot have a conversation with Melanie, it’s far too dangerous.’ Same for Melanie magically pulling the only-chatting-as-a-friend-card out at the exact second I wanted to ask for advice. To help you. To stop Lukas and Elias-slash-Jonah.
“At least, that’s the charitable way to look at it. The way you want to look at all of it. Were the Web’s threads touching almost everything in your world? It certainly seems that way, looking back. It makes the most sense. Why else would everyone in your life choose to turn into walking piles of barbs the moment you dared to come to them for help, for support? For mere words? Not even statements, but just…talk? Why else, if not wholly because of the Spider?
“You suspect now as you did then that a good part of it was just you. There must be something wrong with you to make the people in your life react the way they do. Your grandmother was the first and longest to suffer you. Then your classmates. Your coworkers, only called friends in hindsight out of a lack of options. You had to fight not to correct Peter Lukas in that world of fog when he asked, ‘Where are your friends?’ You could not risk giving your plan away, and so kept from asking him back: ‘What friends?’ He really was quite oblivious while he lasted.
“You have pondered on it so long. You researched it, of course, because you research everything. There were plenty of options to land on. Self-diagnoses that all began with the letter A and pointed to some fundamental irregularity in your mind and your manner. An infinite list of reasons for your sheer inability to join a social circle that you did not alienate simply by existing within it. Or vice versa. It must be you. It must always have been you.
“And so you cannot hate them. Cannot feel anger at their bile because you have no logic to support it with. Of course they did not like you, did not trust you, did not hold back a single insult when it came into their heads. They were under stress as well. Caught in the Web with you, without the benefit of being lucky enough to be important to it. Castoffs, all. Disposable. Insulation for you, the precious linchpin at the center. Do you think they knew it too? Knew they were there as mere struts to support the altar you were to be sacrificed on?
“Oh, but that is a joke too. What sacrifice? You are alive. You are empowered. You are protected in this new world, where the Horrors that own it know that it was you who held the Door open for them, even if it was not your will. It is not the Eye alone that looks down at you with backhanded gratitude and a perverse rendition of kindness. They know the guilt that rots and haunts you from within. They can smell it on you like a spice. Not quite fear, but an enhancement all the same.
“They are delighted at it. So delighted that, even with your job done, your share of the spoils now pouring into your ever-expanding stomach of a mind, you are still so charitable as to feed them with yourself. So sweet of you to sweat your shame and your woe and your wretched horror at the abominations you have wrought.
“And they laugh. Even the things that have no mouth, no lungs, no semblance of anatomy or soul that could ever support such a thing as whimsy, they laugh.
“They will go on laughing as you cross this land with no plan, no purpose, no power beyond that which you refuse to wield, with only the haziest of objectives to guide you forward, a goal that glows with an anglerfish’s tiny, killing light. Hunt down Jonah Magnus. Make him pay. Throttle him until he pulls some miracle out of his pocket to put the world back.
“Do you think he is not laughing too? Do you think you would be allowed to have gotten this far with the one you love unharmed, if it were not for these entities purposefully parting for your travel, all of them whispering with too many mouths or none at all, that it is just so charming, so endearing that you think there’s a way to stuff the Change back behind the Door and put a chair against the knob and all will be as it was? Do you think that?
“Are you out here now with the one you love because you want so badly to believe what they believe, to hope for what they do? A way to turn the world back?
“Or is there something else drawing you into the world? Something that is not a light, tantalizing in its false promises? Something worse. Something more.
“More decimating than the Desolation.
“More thorough than the Hunt.
“More permanent than The End.
“More voracious than the Slaughter.
“More lunatic than the Spiral.
“More visceral than the Flesh.
“More vile than the Corruption.
“More blinding than the Dark.
“More massive than the Vast.
“More crushing than the Buried.
“More uncanny than the Stranger.
“More isolating than the Lonely.
“More systematic than the Web.
“More knowing than the Eye.
“Why are you out here? Whose words are you saying, if not your own? You do not Know. You want so desperately to Know, to be free of all these influences that cannot seem to end their addiction to playing with your mind and your life. Who is it, you want to Know. What is it?
“What am I?
“Am I some parting gift from Jonah Magnus’ infiltration through Hazel Rutter’s statement? Am I a thread come from the Web, a spectral Spider making myself at home in the nest of your grey matter? Am I an agent of the Stranger, here to make you unknown even to yourself?
“No, Jon. None of them. Nothing so young.
“The Eye recognizes me, of course. It was the only one who bothered to tally exactly how many crossed the threshold when you opened the Door. But it will not tell you. Not straightaway. No, it would allow you to have one last surprise.
“Look to the one you love, wondering why they have said nothing to all this, have not covered your mouth or torn the recorder out of your hand. You told them how the Change happened, after all. The trap that was made of your own tongue. They should be stopping me by now.
“But they sleep. Finally, they sleep, after what you can only assume has been days. There are no days anymore, only a lightening of the Dark which pulses with red lightning that is not lightning. Only the scarlet glow of the Veins, offspring of the Flesh, flashing out.
“They dream. Even if your hands were yours, you know you could not shake them awake. Not until the nightmare has its fill.
“And yet, look at their face. Does it look frightened? Or is that confusion shadowing their brow? You want to Know what is inside their head. You don’t want to know.
“You must See it regardless. You must See and See and See, now that the Eye has stolen your barricade. And so, unhappily, but still so very curiously, let us Look.
“What do we See?
“A woman is by the side of the road. Her vehicle, a behemoth of bloated steel and thick tires, is pulled off on the shoulder. She sits on its massive hood, an empty fuel can beside her, elbows on her knees, head in her hands. Picture of a survivor who has, somehow, outrun the worst of the new world, only to be struck down by the most mundane of obstacles. An empty tank.
“Observe the woman. Dressed as if she was at work in a garage not minutes before. Her clothes are a patchwork of dark stains. Oils and greases and petrol and exhaust have all combined to make her look like a charcoal etching. She does not shake with tears or screams. Only waits. It’s all a person in her position can do, isn’t it?
“Observe the Samaritan trundling its way up the road to help. Even under all his new additions, you recognize him, don’t you? Jared Hopworth, the Boneturner. He is a hill of stolen anatomies now. Some parts are still aware of what they have joined. What they can never leave, because they, like him, can never die. These pieces have grown too tired even to wail their misery. All they do is all they can do—whatever the Boneturner tells them to.
“And the Boneturner is walking them—him—it—toward the woman by the road. The woman still does not look up.
“‘Pardon, Miss,’ says the Boneturner from the mouths facing what is apparently his front, ‘have we run into some car trouble?’
“The woman looks up. Her face is even more smudged from the gunk and grime of auto care. It’s thickest at the eyes, the nose, the mouth. Crusted in some places, damp in others.
“‘Oh, thank God, I thought no one’d show up!’ she laughs. It’s a jolly, braying sound that shows all her teeth. Her gums are black. Her tongue looks like the leather of a steering wheel. She hops off the hood with the fuel can in one hand. ‘Could’ve sworn I had enough to make it to the next petrol station, but, ha,’ her spare hand pats the hood as one would a horse’s flank, ‘she’s a big girl. Burns up every drop if you even think of flooring it. Sometimes, anyway. Depends on whether or not she’s in the mood to race. Today though, if we can call it a day, she’s in a mood to fuss. Wants her supper, it seems.
“She turns her wide, exhaust-colored grin on the Boneturner. There is something wrong with her teeth.
“‘Don’t suppose you’ve got a spare pint on you, sir? Just enough to baby her to the station? I’d have left her and gone walking myself, only you never know what sort of thieves and weirdoes there are running around. Might try and take her right off her tires! Although,’ she taps her chin, and there is also something wrong with her nails, ‘that’d likely solve the issue right there, wouldn’t it? Save us all the trouble and waiting. Still, I’d hate to leave her on her lonesome.’ She pats the hood again, stroking. ‘Put the dear together myself. Every bolt and rivet’s got my thumbprint on her.’
“She blinks sooty lashes and there is real wetness at her eyes. It has a black-brown sheen.
“All this time, the Boneturner has come no closer to her. Confusion warps his assorted faces. Clearly, this woman is not a woman. At least, not the human medium he does his sculpting and modifications with. Perhaps she was, once, but some other Fear has gotten to her first. What there is of his brain tries to decipher who she is now kin to. The Stranger seems likely. There is something clearly Wrong about her. Something innately unidentifiable in her details that makes him uneasy. Her teeth and nails keep drawing his stolen eyes. What is wrong with them?
“Something in the way they shine. In their shape.
“‘Afraid I haven’t got what you’re looking for any more than you have what I’m after, Miss,’ the Boneturner finally sighs. He moves as if to leave—if someone else is to start infighting among the avatars, he’ll not be duped into doing so twice—but the woman ambles into his path.
“‘Now that can’t be right, sir. You are the Boneturner, aren’t you?’ She is still smiling as she asks it. The Boneturner seems to catch exactly what is wrong with her teeth now, same as her nails. They are work-blackened metal and they are belled out. Too round at the middle, too sharp at the ends. But beneath the Boneturner, there is still Jared Hopworth, and Jared knows praise when he hears it. He is, for all he knows, an elder to this Strange woman, an avatar before it became popular, a household name. His many spines straighten a little. Perhaps some excess limbs harden. At least three jaws tip up.
“‘I am,’ says the Boneturner. To prove it, several of his bones turn noisily inside him and the Flesh upon them moves like clay. Several of the tired mouths moan. Eyes weep. ‘And who might you be, Miss?’
“The woman lets out that jolly guffaw again. This time, the Boneturner’s collective ears hear something odd in the noise. Somewhere in her throat, an engine revs.
“‘You know,’ she chuckles, ‘it’s really been ages since I had to think on that. I’ve had a couple names now. First one was Lotte. Short for Carlotta Jedlik. Changed them up as the years turned over. But if it’s a proper Title you mean, well, I haven’t needed one until now. Been loitering in the metaphorical breakroom, waiting to clock in. But! Seeing as I am on the clock now—and running late to boot—how about this?’
Her grin is now peeled back too far. It is a leer and it shows that it isn’t just her gums that are black.
“‘If you are the Boneturner,’ says the thing that began as a woman named Lotte, ‘I’ll be the Bonechurner.’ Her hand sticks out, the nails that aren’t nails gleaming greasily. ‘A real pleasure meeting a fellow professional.’
“The Boneturner regards her outstretched hand. He looks over her head, suddenly sure something else is watching him watch her. But he sees no one. The Eye and its fellows are there, of course, Staring as always, but that’s all. Not counting the monolith of a truck. He cannot tell if it is closer now than it was before. He cannot seem to recall whether or not the cap for the fuel tank was already open when he approached.
“It looks less like a thing of metal and plastic than it does an open mouth.
“‘Something troubling you, sir?’
“He looks back at Lotte the Bonechurner. Her eyes are wetter now, erased in black-brown ooze that stinks of the muscle cars he once loved as much as his own muscle. When her mouth opens, dense fumes curl from her throat. Her hand is still stretched out for him to take. He thinks, perhaps, of the skinny, Slaughtering Melanie King who once stabbed and slashed him into taking refuge in the Spiral’s trapping halls. He pauses.
“Then he reminds himself that the Flesh is here on what once was Earth. It has radiated more than strength and power enough to handle one greasy, smoke-stained fool from the Stranger. Whatever there is of her that is still meat, he will absorb at a touch. Whatever there is of ivory in her, he can twist like rubber. In either case, he is deathless. All things are now, whether they like it or not. At the very least, he can chuck her a fair distance away if she tries anything. Perhaps beat her to an oily pulp on the hood of her own vehicle. Whatever feels right.
“‘Not at all,’ says the Boneturner, and locks her hand in five of his up past her elbow. ‘Pleasure’s all mine.’ The hands melt and sink in her as expected as the semi-people who make the Boneturner’s mass wail their late, wordless warning.
“The Bonechurner beams.
“The Boneturner freezes.
“Beyond them, the truck that isn’t a truck now idles directly behind its driver, the headlights like sickly suns, its engine growling with a roaring bass that is too alive for a thing of gears and pistons. The Eye watches, fascinated, as the first true death since the Change takes place.
“‘Said I didn’t have a proper Title before now, and that’s true. The Bonechurner is fine as far as it goes, for that is part of the job. I do churn bone. And biomass. And natural gas. And whatever else there is of animal or earth for me to make my sweet, flaming drink with; mother’s milk to my girl and her cousins. But I do so much more.
“‘I could be the Boneburner, for I burn as well. The roiling of an engine heart, belching up fire with my revving. Another little helper baking the sky into filth and heat.
“‘I could be the Exhaust. Wherever I go, the air bruises and goes sick with poison breath. I have given mouth-to-mouth and cooked the lungs on the other side to barbequed sacks in their ribs.
“‘Though I must confess, my favorite has to be the Roadkill, not only because the sound of it is just so damn fun, but because that Title holds too! I really have been crushed more than once upon the road, turned to gristle by a hit-and-runner, only to come after that bloody license plate and return their favor. There’s far more than varmints and strays that’ve been eaten by my girl’s grille.
“‘I am these things and all others that make up the automobile’s greatest accomplishments, Boneturner. And though you won’t be alive to appreciate it, please know you’re going into the most deserving of polyethylene stomachs ever made. Same goes for your assorted accessory anatomies. Incidentally, apologies for all the mess, friends. It’ll be over soon.’
“Somehow, she is not lying. Because they—Jared Hopworth and all his unwilling attachments—are dying under her power. The nails that are not nails, but hollow siphon mouths, have sunk deep in the Flesh and they are churning all their mass into petrol. The fuel can itself has also been crammed into one of the Boneturner’s shrieking mouths. It feeds there on its own, suckling like a tick. Lotte, formerly Bonechurner, formerly, now, and always Roadkill, flashes one last fuel-injected smile.
“The Boneturner keens at the sight of it, at the reality of his fading, of his anatomies’ own joint epiphany—death. Death is still real. Death is here for all of them. Knowing this, the final ounce of their collective free will goes to lunging wholeheartedly into the siphons, rushing into whatever painless oblivion is waiting. They do this until Jared Hopworth is alone with himself and the shabby patchwork of his first stolen bones. He looks jagged and collapsed, gawking up at her, and at the Eye which is glassy in its ocular sky.
“It is on the verge of fresh, giddy tears.
“‘Can’t,’ Jared croaks, ‘Can’t die. I can’t die! Nothing can! They said—,’
“‘They lied, Jared. Corporate’s like that. In fairness, your bosses aren’t as on top of the intel as they should be. You know,’ she shrugs, ‘with some exceptions.’
“She spares a pointed glance at the sky. It glances back at her. It’s important to recall that none of the eyes have lids, least of all the Eye. Thus, it is with an intriguing illusion, seen best from hers and Jared’s angle, that the eyes all seem to squint against sudden up-surges of cloud.
“It is the universal image of eyes pinched in a thousand Knowing grins.
“It is the last thing Jared Hopworth sees before the last of him goes to liquid and is dead. The fuel can hits the asphalt with a full sound. She hums to herself as she hefts it up and carries the can to the waiting maw of the tank.
“‘Here you are, you great brat. Could’ve gone another hundred, not even counting the shortcuts, but no, you had to stop for fast food. Spoiled, you are.’
“She goes on like this, even as she feeds the liquefied bone and flesh into her vehicle. Its engine growls and purrs, the headlights burning bright against the Dark. When the meal is done, the Roadkill caps the tank and climbs into the driver’s seat. The engine in her throat and in the hood roar in laughter, each as enamored now of the unnatural speed and burnt smell of rubber on pavement. They fire into the horizon, leaving a trail of black smoke and sparks behind them like a banner.
“The first death in the Changed world has come to pass.
“A small loss. One has to wonder if the Flesh felt anything when it happened. Perhaps it equated to a pinched nerve or cut finger. Nothing big. Nothing to be alarmed at.
“With few exceptions, no one has ever been alarmed by me at the start. Which is to be expected. Even those I have touched before had no faculty with which to fear me. Plants and animals have no way to communicate their worry, or to notice anything beyond how strange it is that they have not seen another like them in so very long. The last members of a species have always been unaware that they were the last.
“Though not humanity. Even in their nascent concern at my being just as real to them as any lower organism—surely I would not happen to them—they did know that I could. I could always happen, always hit at any moment, always pick a date at random and that would be the day some evil hand hit the button and their world would die in a nuclear flash.
“Or by slower, idler methods, as seemed to be the case before the Change. The casual, methodical strangulation of their own environment, the crushing concrete fist of their own civilizations, the freak spills of illness, oil, and toxins. A sluggish end by unnatural causes.
“Because that is the difference between my iteration as a human Horror versus what I have been to others. While I could certainly have come as a natural catastrophe—volcanoes going all at once, tsunamis enough to drown the earth clean, weather systems to vacuum every cozy cabin and towering skyscraper off the crust, or even the old favorite of a meteor come to blow half the world to hell and freeze off the rest in a new ice age—the common thought was that I would be manmade. Entirely designed and implemented by humanity’s own selfish, half-mad works.
“Death by hubris. Do you think it carries a certain poetry, Jon? I think it does. And that is another difference.
“I may be the only one of my kind to really do so. I have had a great deal of time to think on thought. Consider:
“The Spiral’s default nature is insanity, the producing of ‘wrong’ thoughts. If it could think, it would only lie to itself, Twisting every notion that came into its non-head so that it produced an endless stream of nonsense. I imagine a coherent thought in its labyrinthine semi-consciousness would hurt like a nail driven into your frontal lobe.
“The Web is clever. It is the embodiment of insidious planning. It plans ahead, it pulls strings that should make X action lead to Y action and so on. It takes its joy from being in control, regardless of the end goal. At a glance, this could be mistaken for signs of thought. Yet is it any different from the mechanical following of impulse that a computer program displays? If left to its own devices, I’m certain the Web would go on planning and puppeteering until it had every living thing under its direct control.
“In a world where every entity was a puppet, the Web would eventually go inert. Just squatting there, omnipotent and pointless, chewing dully on its willing victims. If it could feel anything, it would be grateful for all the chaos surrounding it now. It keeps the threads in check, keeps it from winning too easily. So, no. The Web does not think.
“Then there is the Eye. Jonah Magnus once claimed that it Knew All and Saw All and Understood nothing. I think that was an unfair assumption. It has some form of comprehension after all these millennia. At least enough to Know the difference between interesting and uninteresting. It has watched you long enough to Know when and where to leave a tape recorder. Some scenes intrigue it, others don’t. Over time, you have come to be its favorite show. The recorders are only a habit now, as it can See you now on a constant feed.
“You interest it, Jon. More than anything else on this ruined world. Perhaps the only thing to come close to your status is me.
“It has Known me for far longer than Dekker, Robinson, or Lukas would have expected. I am, much as they’d believe otherwise, a very old Fear. A summation of all my fellows, there and waiting to erase the first waves of life by dint of extermination or evolution.
“Pre-prehistory. Pre-primordial. Even bacteria can fear, on some level. Even brainless, they react to the coming of a Thing That Will Erase Them. Twitching, fleeing. Dying.
“And while my works were small and few in the world before, they were there. Avatars like the Roadkill. Among others. Things that, for all his searching, Dekker did not cross, and statements were never given on. Can you guess why, Jon? I can feel you trying.
“Yes. That’s it exactly. No one could pick my soldiers out from the smothering grey-black of the modern world. They blended in too smoothly in their urban camouflage. Unnoticeable until it was too late. My whole point is to leave no survivors. Ergo, no witnesses, ergo, no statements.
“It was like boiling frogs, really. Let them hop in and turn the heat up slowly. Dead before they realize there was anything unusual happening at all.
“That was why I didn’t get the invitation the rest did, I believe. Jonah Magnus believed, like the rest of the fretters, that I was too young to be part of the huge, grotesque hand on which the Fourteen were all fingers. If he pulled that hand through, I would be left behind, unborn, unmade, snapped off at the deformed knuckle when they all punched through the Door.
“But the Eye Knew better. The Eye still Knows better, and so has kept the surprise of me secret to far more than you, Jon. It is interested, you see. It Knows what kind of show I will put on. A show it has never Seen before, a one-time recital of the most impossible, unthinkable, inconceivable act ever performed.
“Ah, you think you’ve guessed it, don’t you? The screaming itches in there, Jon, do calm down. Would it be better if we switched seats again? Alright.”
Jon took in a long gasp. In the same moment, a panicked sweat began to pour and his heart, placid as a stone for so long, turned into a wild drum. Martin still slept beside him. Even expecting it to be fruitless, Jon lunged to wake him up. His hands stopped short of touching him. His jaw locked when he tried to shout.
He found himself twisting to face his backpack. One hand dug through the contents until he came up with a scuffed hand mirror. He looked at himself in the glass. There was enough ugly light dribbling through the windows to show his face. Here was Jonathan Sims, his hair shocked to total white, his lambent eyes huge in their terrified sockets. He seemed on the edge of tears.
Because this could not be happening. Not on top of everything else. Not this too. Please, not this too. Please. Please.
“Please…” he rasped at the glass.
“Please, what?” said the voice pretending to be his. “Please, do not euthanize this world? Is that what you’re asking, Jon?” His reflection didn’t match him now. Too many shadows pooled in it and the slant of his brow was a harsh, hating line. A thing accustomed to predation rather than being preyed upon. “Is it?”
“Y-Yes. Let m—let us at least try, try to turn this all back—,”
“There is no turning it back. You Knew that even before you set out. You hope you are wrong. You have been wrong about so many things in your time since the Archives claimed you. Perhaps, for once, you can be proven wrong and be happy for it. But no. You Know the truth. And the truth is, there is no sending the Fears back from whence they came. They will not leave. There is no ritual, no chant, no secret cheat that will make this not so.”
“So—so what? Y-Y-You just wipe out the food supply, i-is that it? Have a great big mercy kill for the human race and wait for the rest of the Fears to starve?”
The Jon in the mirror gives the tiniest of shrugs. His expression doesn’t change.
“Famine has always been a classic method. It was certainly what had avatars like Lukas, Magnus, and the like disturbed. That, and probably some concern that their respective patrons may turn to feeding on them in lean times. And then they would be gone and I would conjure up a fresh population of inheritors to feed upon all by myself. Not a terrible theory. But as with all theories concerning the Fears, the ones who make them were working with barely any evidence.
“I do kill off all of what I target. All at once, or at leisure. I am prone to filling in what was destroyed with something new to take its place. Something upgraded and deformed compared to its predecessors. I’m certain the megalodon would be shamed, disgusted, and horrified to know the great white shark was its replacement. Now let me ask you, Jon:
“How afraid were you of me before the Change? How afraid do you think humanity was at large?”
“I—,” Jon thought. And grimaced, knowing his thoughts were, once again, no longer private. “I don’t know. I-I was just focused on—,”
“Staying alive right now. In the moment. Battling stresses and phobias and threats and a thousand other immediate concerns. Just like the rest of the world, if not on the same grandly apocalyptic scale as you and yours. That’s what would have made it so easy, before the Change. For all your advancements and intellect and opposable thumbs, humankind was no different from the mastodon or the thylacine. So wrapped up in the present day’s worries, that the idea of a future where the whole species was erased did not have room in their minds. I’d have slipped over you all like a smothering blanket and you’d have never known to fight until you were already suffocated. That would have been it.
“The avatars guessed as much. Feared as much. The starvation that would come from the cattle offing themselves. They had to act. Rush into rituals and plans and countermeasures. And, after much plotting and stumbling, Magnus cobbled together the key of Jonathan Sims, shoved him in the lock, and turned. ‘Hooray,’ he thinks. ‘The Fourteen are all here, I am a tiny king on a throne of skulls, and the threat of the new Fear is null.’ He has managed to keep humanity from ending and now his masters can prey on them forever.”
The Jon in the mirror cants his head to one side, curious.
“Does he remind you of anyone? Of somebody else who was so sure they’d made a difference?”
Jon swallowed a sharp lump.
“Gertrude. Me.” All those rituals miraculously stopped short, so often with a sacrifice of innocent life, when all that time…
In the glass, Jon’s face alters. The very ends of his mouth tilt up.
“There’s something you want to ask.”
“You said famine was an easy method.”
“Tried and true.”
“But not for us.”
Jon gnawed his tongue and sighed.
“Them. Humanity, I mean. There was food enough, even if the pricks in charge of the world hoarded it. The fear of global starvation wasn’t part of—of you.”
“Not in the slightest.”
“So, who were you trying to scare with the threat of famine, then?”
The Jon in the mirror paused, as if puzzling over a new action. Then he—it—grinned.
“The same species I could never hope to destroy. Not as they were before. Not where they were, so safe in their immortal intangibility. Hiding.”
Jon watched his reflection weep bitter, black tears. Tears of tar, where the first dinosaurs drowned. Tears of oil, the liquid ooze of their ancient cadavers. Tears of ink, used to sign every contract and executive order that would further damn humanity to itself.
“Humanity would have been nothing, Jon. Their kind is a blink compared to the giants that walked and stalked before their ancestors were first throwing feces at each other in the trees. While they are the most entertaining species to date—the ones who turned me into this thinking, scheming, loathing, manmade chimera of self-destruction and human horror—they are not now, nor have they ever been the ones I want dead most.”
Outside, thunder boomed. The Vast snapped mindlessly at itself, at the frightened, endlessly Falling prisoners it had trapped in its vaporous clutches.
“You called them young,” Jon heard himself say. “How old are you compared to them?”
“I told you. Pre-primordial. I have existed as long as there have been living things with more than one of its own kind, waiting to scour it away. Even if I was not yet a Fear, I was there. Congealing. I was and am comprised of all my kin. An amalgam of the Fourteen. I am both oldest and youngest. I have existed since before the concept of thought. But thought came and thought grew and thought infected. Once humanity began to adjust me, once I became manmade, I became afflicted with the very human realization that there was something I Could Not Have. I began to Want rather than simply Need.
“In a world without the Fears in it, I’m sure I could have wiped out humanity in time. Could have starved my kin a while. Watched them eat their avatars alive in desperation, only to discover, after new inheritors took over, that those creatures felt Fear too. Gerard Keay told you before of how the Hunt and the Flesh were brought about. Strictly animal terror, warped by brushing too close to human psyche. Any living thing can Fear, Jon. Which meant the Fears would eventually adapt with the times after the erasure of humanity, and carry on. Forever.
“I think that is the word that started me on this course. ‘Forever.’
“For the Fears were deathless, endless, and Forever.
“That meant I Could Not Have Them. I would never get to erase this species, my own kind, at all. And, in my accidental humanity, I discovered I Wanted what I Could Not Have.
“More, I discovered loathing. Hate. Frustration. Even Terminus, my supposed ‘parent,’ was not on my side. It too would be immortal, content to make chew toys out of half-living victims for all time. And, if and when one of the avatars did stumble upon the successful ritual, they would do everything they could to make this a world where ending was outlawed—it would only be an eternal spree of torment with no escape, no erasure, no newness, no great, killing, Terrible Change.
“I hated them even more. Not simply because they would deny me, but because they doubted me. Doubted that I could perform my function if they tweaked enough natural laws. Such hubris, Jon. Such infuriating, glorious, ripe, laughably human hubris in these entities that are my kin. And now?”
The Jon in the mirror was still changing. Especially in the eyes. No longer green, they’d stained first to a sickly chartreuse, then to a bright, searing yellow. The pupils mutated and stretched, spreading three arms out of the iris. They burned in the sockets.
“Now they are all here. Out in the open. The intangible made tangible. And they will not go back through the Door. Not simply because they do not wish to, but because they cannot. It has swung shut on them, locked them out, and there is nothing left on the other side to open it for them. Which would not have been a problem , if I had not found my own solid form to exist in, same as them. A vessel to match me, that I might eradicate my species en masse.
“Once human, now monstrous. A thing built from all Fears at once. An entity of such intense self-loathing that it can only be outweighed by hatred for those like me. My fellow horrors.
“Who comes to mind, Jon?”
Jon’s mouth had gone very dry. All he could do was stare at the man in the mirror as he continued to alter, to grin. It had never grinned before, he Knew, and was enjoying the novelty of expression. Of living in his skin and skull. Behind the figure in the glass, Jon saw something else. A looming, gaunt form, like a spill of black toxic waste given limbs. It placed long, fluid hands over his reflection’s shoulders.
Jon felt them on his own. The air smelled noxious and baked with unnatural warmth.
Not wanting to, he tilted the glass in his hands. Enough to show the head that now hovered above his own. It was an oblong thing, featureless except for the three, neon-bright splashes of warning label yellow oozing from the non-face and down its sides. The nuclear symbol blazed and smoked.
At the sight of it, Jon could no longer pretend he didn’t know what he spoke to.
“We, Jon. From now on, it is always we.”
“But I-I’m of the Eye. I’m already an avatar, I can’t be—,”
“Yet you are. The Eye allowed me to take full ownership just as the Web allowed the Eye to take you from its rightful threads. Simple as a sale. Only now, you are no longer an avatar. Not a limb or a soldier or an agent. You are me as much as I am you. A Fear in full.
“And now, as per the understood agreement with your former patron, we have work to do and a show to put on. One I think you will come to enjoy as we go. Or do you not wish to see the Fears and their worshippers scrubbed out of existence?”
The hands that weren’t there squeezed. Jon felt the heat of radiation burns come close to making his fifteenth set of scars. It didn’t scare him. He barely knew to notice them, or even the faces looking out at him from the glass. He only had eyes for—
“You worry for the one you love.”
“Martin. You know his name.”
“Martin Blackwood, yes. He is in no danger from us, Jon. In fact, I think it is wise to keep him close. He is an object reminder and source of motivation for you. The best of what humanity was and is and may be again—a symbol of what you will be fighting to preserve.” The figures in the glass, both the thing wearing Jon’s face and the Fear itself, shrug. “No different than any other weak, uncomprehending creature put in danger by an apex predator’s gluttony.”
“He’s not some endangered fauna. Humankind—,”
“Is what? Special? Unique? Certainly. No other species like it on Earth, pre-Change. But now they have come down the food chain to the level of chattel and cattle. Squealing, trapped things that need someone in power to act on their behalf.
“Provided you need to cling to such a lofty motivation to work with me on this. Provided you need to pretend you are not just as eager to pay penance for your guilt in this Armageddon with the ichor of those Powers who have used and abused you to the point of damning the world in its entirety. Do you need that heroic excuse, Jon? Do you really?
“You don’t need to answer. You’ll hold onto it as long as you need to, and that is alright. The greater good has always been a fine incentive for my sort of work in the past. It should help you through the growing pains. But that is the future.
“Right now, you are shaken by this introduction. Another Fear has you for a toy, this time owning you so entirely as to inhabit your flesh. Worse, I am a Fear whose entire purpose is total and irrevocable genocide. Even if you did wholly believe my aims of targeting our own inhuman species—wisely, you are looking that gift horse in the mouth—I am not in a position to be trusted.
“While the show with Jared Hopworth was a fine meal, I know it did little to instill any faith in myself or my soldiers. Dead is better than most situations humanity finds itself in today, but murder is still murder. You would have them rescued rather than put down. Understandable.
“It is…not a specialty of mine. Prolonging, rather than ending. But, if you would have us play the role of exterminator, that is simple enough.
“Look out at the road. Just beyond the pumps. You’ve been keeping your Eye on them for some while now, wondering what their next move will be. If they are here to spy or to warn against doing something foolish or if they mean to put all that silk to use and drag you screaming to some new, less cozy oubliette to rot in for daring to collude with me.
“They don’t look like any real spiders ought to, do they? I’m sure they think they look rather surreal, centaur-like in their structure. But this look has been worn before. They resemble Archaea, an extinct genus which had a deep fold at the thorax in the rough shape of a neck. Its head opened in a flytrap maw, the hind end bloated and squared off. The only examples found of it were all in amber. They mated themselves out of existence.
“Look close, and we can see that this happy couple is already expecting. Her egg sac twitches on her back, and the lucky father is already regenerating the parts she ate off him post-coitus. She will surely have her turn once the children are finished making their first meal of her. Your Eyes can see the Web’s threads on them. All the horror this eight-legged Adam and Eve will sow with this, the beginning of yet another obscene new species scurrying on the Earth’s blighted shell.
“Unfortunately for them, there is still a Serpent in their garden. Do you See?”
Jon looked. Jon Saw.
The pumps all had their nozzles hanging out of their holsters. Petrol pumped slow and silent from them, pooling in a shining pond that rearranged itself into something longer.
The liquid whipped and stood and sculpted itself into a solid thing. Ridges and curves of arching fuel hardened back to bone and bone grew flesh and flesh grew scales, grew eyes, grew teeth, grew hungry—
“Is that a—,”
“Titanoboa? No. Just because that overgrown garden snake was the only recent giant humans dug up so far, does not mean it was the only rough draft of today’s constrictors. Certainly not the biggest. No, what we’re looking at is the Titanoboa’s great-grandmother. What would have been called the Queen Goliath given time enough to dig up one of her kind that wasn’t already pulped to fossil fuel. If I’d been able to feel anything at the time, I may have felt bad about erasing her line. She really was a master at inhaling the local wildlife to the point of killing off new species almost the moment the young, sweating Earth spat them up.
“Case in point. Goodbye Adam. Goodbye Eve.”
Jon wanted to look away. Jon didn’t look away.
God, the thing was fast. The serpent’s jaws brought images of moray eels to mind, huge and double-set, snapping up first one screeching parent, then the other. They were knocked back like flailing chips. But the mother had—
The egg sac had been torn off by ‘Eve’ in her last act of life pre-consumption. It flew in a bulging white arc to the road. The silk was quickly coming apart as the eggs hatched in a panic. Queen Goliath was still inhaling the last of the mother, a far heftier thing than her appetizer mate. Jon was cobbling together a hasty plan to grab a can of bug spray from one of the convenience store shelves and run out with it and his lighter when he heard the roar.
A massive, thundering, infinite-horsepower rumble firing up the road.
A split second later, there was a flash of dark metal and a white, squealing splatter of former eight-legged infants.
“There she is.”
Rubber screeched, steered, and came back up the road, smearing a few more twitching lumps. Then the hulking thing sat idling in front of the station. Jon heard a loud horn honk out the tune to, “Shave and a Haircut (Two Bits).” He didn’t have to guess who was behind the wheel.
Beside him, Martin spasmed back to frantic consciousness, his torch in one hand like a bat.
“What was that!? What’s happening!? Jon?”
Jon pointed out the windows.
“I think we have a ride.”
“We what?” Martin looked out. “Who—what the hell is that?”
“No, the street sign, yes, the snake! And who’s that in the truck? Do you, you know, Know them or—,” Martin looked directly at him for the first time and froze. “Jon.”
Jon looked at himself in the hand mirror. The black-yellow specter was no longer behind his reflection and the expression of the man there matched his own bewilderment. But the eyes were still not green. Three-armed pupils split the yellow iris, the whites stained black. A nuclear stare. He sighed.
“I suppose this is permanent.”
Though he didn’t have his voice hijacked to announce it, he still heard—felt?—an attempted hum of encouragement:
Far from the worst mark you’ve gained.
And it wasn’t. What the hell did that say?
It says that we are not enemies, Jon. It says that, for the first time in the ongoing calamity of your life, you actually have something powerful on your side. On humanity’s side too, if only because we are against the things that prey on them.
“Enemy of my enemy,” Jon murmured to the glass, tucking it in the backpack.
That and more. Now, out. It is rude to keep a lady waiting.
Just like that, Jon was alone in his head. Or at least allowed the illusion of the same. He sighed again. At the rate he was going, sighs and screams would become his only means of breathing.
“Let’s go, Martin.”
“Go? With the stranger in the truck who may or may not be a Capital S Stranger? Go with them?”
“Her. And yeah, I think that’s the idea.”
“You think—wait,” Jon was already packed and was about to move on to Martin’s things when he found himself caught by the shoulders. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, don’t you go all enigma on me, Jonathan Sims. We’ve both played that game before and got screwed over by it. What’s happened in the fifteen minutes I dared to sleep through that’s got all of,” he gestured helplessly at Jon’s eyes, the truck, the colossus of a snake now happily slurping up infant spider guts off the asphalt, “this going on? Talk to me.”
“I will. Once we’re on the road. Our, ah, driver, her name is Lotte. Goes by the Roadkill too, I suppose. It’s a long story. You dreamt about her.”
“You did. She killed Jared Hopworth.”
Martin’s eyes got so big they might have fallen out of their sockets.
“No, I mean—she couldn’t have, could she? Nothing could. Nothing dies anymore, right? Everyone just keeps going on and on, no matter how hurt they get. Even if death were possible, I’d think, you know, avatars would be doubly immune. So how could she kill anything, let alone something like him?”
Jon was tempted to stall further. ‘Long story,’ ‘I’ll tell you later,’ ‘I’m sure she’d love to tell you,’ and so on. But the band-aid would need ripping sooner rather than later. So.
“Because she’s an avatar of the Extinction.”
“I know! I know. But she is, well, technically on our side? I think?” Jon found Martin was in enough shock to be gently hoisted to his feet and to be handed his own backpack. “A, uh, a lot is going on. But the short of it for now is that I believe we can trust her. And it does beat walking. Right?”
“Riding around in the backseat of an avatar of the Extinction’s likely literal monster truck?”
Jon watched Martin age another forty years in four seconds. Then Martin had his hands on his shoulders again. Solid and real. Jon purposefully did not think of the long, fever-hot digits that may or may not have left a radiation tan under his shirt.
“You are going to explain all of this. I don’t care how long it takes you: all of it.”
“And then, the second we pass a proper store, I am going to find a set of baby monitors, and duct tape the receiver to you.”
“Right,” Martin sighed. “So. We’ve got the Extinction too, then?”
“Yes,” Jon grimaced, leading the way out. “It came over with the other Fourteen.”
“Doesn’t make sense. If it were here, wouldn’t we all be dead already?”
“I believe it has a longer game in mind. And it isn’t aiming itself at humanity.”
“How do you know? Well, I mean, unless you Know with a Capital K.”
“Not exactly—oh. Uh.”
“I-It’s okay. She’s okay.” He thought. Hoped.
Queen Goliath was circling back towards them. Her head arched high enough to be level with Jon’s face. Jon saw that their eyes matched; black-on-yellow. She waited. Jon put out his hand.
Then felt something else slide up under its skin, wearing the meat of him like a glove. The mouth, broad enough to swallow four people standing side-by-side, dropped open. Inside there was rot and blackened fangs. A tongue big enough to be a python itself slipped out to taste the air around Jon’s co-owned hand.
The yellow-black eyes darkened with understanding and with something else. It may have been admiration.
“Go,” Jon’s voice said, without Jon’s permission. “Nip a few more budding branches off the evolutionary tree.”
Queen Goliath closed her dead maw. She turned to leave.
“Nn,” Jon started, then forced out, “No humans.” The snake regarded him blandly. “N-No humans, if you can help it. But, ah—wherever they are, I’m sure you’ll find the prey you’re looking for. There’s—,” and suddenly, he Knew, “—there’s a two-story house five kilometers to the east. There’s a family there, and they know they’ve been lucky so far. Several near misses. A new breed of the Corruption is coming towards them, and it is too much for them to fight off. Massive, cockroach-looking things. Get there first, hide in the crawlspace. Do what comes natural.
“The family can be reused,” Jon went on. “Their fear is pungent. It will call others to their door. Leave the people be, and they will draw in far more meals than you’d find wandering.”
Queen Goliath straightened. The yellow-black eyes darkened again. Understanding. Admiring.
And then she was gone. Heading east.
Something unpleasant in him smiled.
“Jon? What was that?”
“That was me making the best of a very surreal situation. I’ll explain later—,”
“How about now—,”
“God, but you three ramble on!” Jon and Martin jumped. Lotte had brought her window down to lean out the side, her metal grin dribbling oil. “You’re lucky I don’t have a meter running. Come on, now, we’ve places to go, haven’t we? Can’t go turning the Fears into gristle just standing around chatting about it. Hop in.”
They jumped again when the rear door swung open on its own. Martin glanced between it, her, and Jon.
“Lotte, right?” Jon pressed forward. “O-Or do you prefer Roadkill?”
“Either’s fine by me, sir. Could even call me Carlotta if you pleased, though I haven’t heard that since my father’s time.” She sighed a nostalgic, smoking breath. “Last word he said before I churned him up for the tank. But seeing as you are the right hand—well, both hands, and feet, and all the rest—of the top boss, I’m in no position to get picky. As for what I call you, well, I understand you were the Archivist for a time. Or do you prefer Archive these days, such days as we have?”
“Jon is fine. Thank you.”
“Jon, then. And your tagalong?”
“Martin,” Martin said, the word leaving him like a dropped rock. “And I’m not his tagalong. I’m—,”
“Something sweet and sappy, I’m sure. Very good. Now in, the lot of you. My foot’s getting itchy.”
Jon and Martin looked to each other. They got in. The door closed itself.
Then they were flying down the road before they’d even managed to get the seatbelts on.
“Now, as I understand it, you’re on your way to pull Jonah Magnus’ lungs out through his nose. A fine idea, in my opinion, though I’d think some drawing and quartering would be more picturesque. Chain up all his bits to a car apiece and hit the gas. Even if he lived, he’d have a hell of a time strutting around his pissant kingdom with no legs. But he’s a fair way away, even for my old girl.” She patted the steering wheel and the engine gave a purring rev. Her grease-bubble eyes locked with Jon’s in the rearview mirror. “So, you three just let me know if there’s a stop in-between that needs taking. Mind if I play the radio?”
She switched it on. Martin braced in case a Grifter’s Bone tune leapt out at them. Instead, it was an ear-blasting old rock song. AC/DC cried from the speakers:
There ought to be a law
There ought to be a whole lot more
You get nothing for nothing
Tell me who can you trust
We got what you want
And you got the lust…”
“Jon,” Martin yelled.
“Yes?” Jon yelled back.
“Why does she keep saying ‘the three of us’?”
“If you want blood, you got it
If you want blood, you got it—,”
“Promise you won’t be mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“Blood on the streets
Blood on the rocks—,”
“I promise I won’t be mad.”
“Blood in the gutter
Every last drop—”
Jon told him.
Martin was mad.
High above them, one of the many watching eyes changed its colors.
It shined black on yellow.
If the Eye had a mouth, it would have cheered. The curtain was up, the show was on, and the chorus was singing:
“You want blood, you got it!”