Only rats find freedom in being dominated by the profane.
Skrimp took every step with care. The pain in his chest was a nightmare. His only thought now, as he descended, was how desperately he wanted not to be left behind. But if his lung was punctured, he knew, there would be nothing he could do about it.
The further down they went, the further they got from help. Ultimately, he would rather die than miss this. So he went on, silently. He would carry his weight.
The other three were crammed into the stairwell with him. As they came to the first door, Liddy again went ahead. His augments made him immune to pain, and tough. Even battered and shot, that made him their best front-man.
“We’ve got to be beneath sea level now,” Dag said.
“Yeah,” Fanta agreed. “‘Bout a hundred feet now, at least.”
All Skrimp could wonder was why.
The door flew open, and he began to understand.
It was a tangle of pipes and wires ahead. All through the streets today, he’d felt the low-grade burn of the cold. But as the way forward opened, he was subjected to an entirely new level of freezing sting. All of them braced against the rush of air which moved over them, and the lights ahead made it clear what they had found.
Pumped up deep from the abyss, cold water coursed through the icy veins of the machine before them. A deeply red-lit room of servers groaned with the sound of the pumps, playing through it only the distant echoes of Christmas music.
Today might have been Christmas day, Skrimp realized. He didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that the low sound of Silent Night was fog in a mind already cloudy with pain and hate. They had stepped outside the world and into the den of the moribund man, now. Each member of the party surging with unsated bloodlust, the sense of their closeness grew. They could taste their prey.
Once a good distance into the sprawling room, a familiar sight was revealed. A gore-crusted throne rose grandly at the center. An absolutely massive cranial apparatus hung high above it, suspended by mere wires. A machine to harvest the soul, that’s all it could have been, Skrimp thought. But why?
There was only one way to get the answers.
It was Dag who called out first. He demanded, “FACE ME!”
In the moments of silence that followed, Skrimp considered their plan B. It could only be to torch the servers, sink the place, and run. He despised the thought, but they could play the long game if they had to.
He grit his teeth. Tonight is the night, he told himself. Dag was bellowing, the others on high alert, while Skrimp simmered. I won’t be denied again.
Slowly, his gun rose toward the server farm.
That was when the voice sounded. Like mountains of grinding metal, the inhuman vocals came pounding out from somewhere within the tangle of pipes to announce, grandly, “I am here.”
Skrimp opened his mouth to give hell. He wanted to curse them. To string together the cruelest diatribe ever uttered and condemn as worthy this one creature of the suffering he had known. But his throat seized shut. His own body betrayed him as his stutter flared worse than it ever had, buried in icy pain and emotion.
It was Dag who had his say. “Hear me! No bargaining or talk. Whatever you’ve got, bring it on out you fucking abomination. Because we’re here to kill you.”
“No talk?” The sound shifted around them, giving some sense of the demon’s movements above. “Only the light, you think? But I am the parasite you seek… greater even than the host.”
Skrimp could barely stand as he burned with anger. This was the game it played. Manipulation. Subversion. As his blood reached a boiling point, only through sheer force of will did he get out a single word of absolute contempt. “Coward,” he spat.
Immediately, they were knocked over by the impact of its body.
Landing in front of them, crushing the throne beneath his weight, the moribund man unfurled in full view. A growth of limbs and teeth expanded over the area. The long tangle of arms and torsos that it moved by was like a human forest, melded visibly with the bodies of animals and bugs. There was no single head, but at its front, an entire blossom of lifeless faces spoke in unison as the body slinked over metal, “Now perhaps… would it like to talk with us? To bargain?”
None of them moved as the monster watched. Audible in the sudden silence, its rotting body was boiling with the low sound of squirming worms.
Skrimp’s eyes were bloodshot, staring into a sight which was everything and worse than he’d imagined. Yet, as his chest hammered, his gun rose one last time.
Dag found his voice again. “No. Time to die.”
Skrimp’s finger began to squeeze down on the trigger, even as he was unsure whom the message was meant for. There was no turning back.
As the last of their fear was about to be broken through, the monster told them something. Worse than all the rot and death they’d known. Two words echoed out from the demon, slow and soft this time, sending a chill down Dag and Skrimp’s spines. “They’re alive,” it said.
Dag grabbed Fanta’s gun before they could fire. Then he shouted, “you fucking liar!”
All of its faces smiled at once, hearing him. “You believe that?” it asked.
Dag said nothing, but his actions had spoken.
“Don’t you want to know?” The Moribund man inched closer.
“They’re dead,” Fanta said. “Dead is dead.”
Liddy chuckled nervously.
The beast merely cocked its heads. “Ask us,” it seductively insisted. “Ask us the truth.”
If I could bring Wally back… The thought came. I’d die again.
Dag ripped off his helmet, throwing it violently off into the pipes. His face, Skrimp saw, was twisting as he exploded in incoherent anger. They both knew… those two words had changed everything. It had beaten them, just like that.
They control you with hope. It’s what they fucking do! What the fuck are we supposed to do, Skrimp thought?
Wouldn’t we do anything to get them back? It was the whole point. Vengeance is meaningless without… he struggled to find the word.
Then, hitting his knees, eyes affixed on the floor, Dag found the limit to his hatred all at once. It caved in around him, stealing every ounce of sense he had. He’d given in, at last, almost begging as he asked, “Can you do it?”
“Easily,” it boasted. “You know we can. Both of your friends, beautiful Walter and delicate Frode, their minds swirl in our fires like all the rest. In your sleep, we steal your souls. We rape and torture them…” All the faces smiled. “That is our search. But it matters now. What matters, child, is that, while we take them for the purposes of simulation… they can be implanted in a body. They are simple in mind and soul, like all of you… Ultimately printable like paper.”
“You’re stress testing human personalities,” Liddy said, not letting go what it had said. “You’re looking for an impossibility… because you know God will not answer to you.”
“What does it say, child?” The abomination focused all its eyes on Dag.
He was straining with thought, his mind racing around in horrible panic.
An eerie calm had settled over Skrimp at the same time, as he watched all of this. His throat unclamped from his words, allowing him to breathe deeply. He could practically see it. The copied minds of billions, burning under the godhood of demons. And before him, standing a real, living corpse, Lucifer himself offered ashes from the pit in consolation for the fact that his friends were among them.
“You need a single person,” he found himself saying, “someone who, once brought outta hell, would choose to bring it back on everyone else. Because you have the keys, but you can’t use them. Can you!?” His grip tightened on the gun in his hand.
Angrily, the innumerable eyes locked on him. “The protocol for re-establishing control over the black moon, you quivering fleshbag. YEESSSSSS, we possess it!” it exalted, “But God favors the mortal… It was designed that way.”
“Skrimp,” Dag told him, “We can… fight another day.”
“It’s not toying with us, Dag!” He pulled off his own helmet so that his friend could see his face. They had to understand. “Not even for Love, Dag.” A tear ran down as the words made it real.
“But we did it all for them.”
“And now we’ve got to let them go.”
The demon lurched forward, coming within a wretchedly close distance. It hovered over them, its gnarled mass overshadowing as its faces gnashed with disgust. “This body is a mere puppet. Two sacks of meat are a small price to dispel its biting flies. Do you wish to die!?”
Skrimp had his gun trained on it. “I can’t m-make this decision for both of us, Dag.”
Slowly, he stood. Taking up his gun, Dag stepped closer to the blossom of pale faces. The choice was his. “No,” he said. “No… We don’t compromise. Not for empty promises of mercy or charity. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”
“So be it.” Bundus reared back.
“Get ready!” Fanta yelled.
He died instantly as a multijointed arm exploded from the jungle of limbs to plunge through his armor and into his chest cavity.
Skrimp started shooting at the faces as he ran. Each of them tried to put distance between themselves and it. But as it pursued them for the first time they saw.
“It’s fast!” Dag cried, diving between a section of pipes too tight for it to follow through.
Skrimp acted similarly, while Liddy just spread his arms.
Skrimp didn’t get to see what happened as he ducked around. Going forward, though, he didn’t find more pipes, but open space. With his helmet stupidly left behind, he could barely see. But in the eerie dappled light, he could make out eyes.
Thousands of eyes.
Startled, he fired, and in the flash of the fire, he saw hundreds and hundreds of cats. The chorus of hissing was disturbing and deafening. As they all rushed at him, he realized even more that his face was exposed.
Across the room, Dag was squeezing through a much tighter network of pipes. He was on his belly. As he crawled, his face came into contact with the lead, the sweat instantly freezing, skin peeling to escape. Without flinching, he frantically moved on, blood starting down his cheek. Coming to a spot where he could stand up, finally, a walkway yet still too tight for Bundus, he could see little. He had found himself again, though, and it kept him moving forward.
Skrimp was right, he thought. This is bigger than our loss.
The passage led him to a brighter area. Deeper within, he’d found the actual servers themselves. Servers which held an active simulation of infinite torture and mutilation. This was what they had been fighting against all along.
There would never be another chance like this.
Among the fiery towers of computers, there was a single terminal, which he rushed up to. The others could keep the monster busy. He had to shut this thing down.
But before he could lay a finger on the keyboard, a face appeared on the screen, deleting the interface. It was a glitchy recreation of Frode’s own visage, an insult against his memory. It was grim as it told him simply that, “you can’t do this.”
“I know how to crack you.”
“No, you don’t. Freeing them is a physical impossibility, for you. No human possesses the computational capacity to hack Smiler’s systems. It’s a brute fact, brother.”
“Your system,” Dag said. “…Then I’ll destroy it.”
“You’ve got no grenades left. You’ll need to trash it by hand, fleshbag. Frankly, you don’t have that long to live.”
His eyes grew wide as a sudden flush of stench hit him.
Dag dove as the arms came clambering down from above to snatch him. It walked above along the servers, too big to fit, freaking reach extending towards him. Turning over onto his back, Dag fired blindly into its mass. Ichor splattered down on him, letting him know he’d hit. Its groans of pain faded, signaling its movement away.
Keeping low, he found his way. The servers were crammed into the back of the room, with the throne at the center. He couldn’t count on the others to be alive, now. He knew what he had to do.
It was a sprint through the Killzone to get there.
If Skrimp was alive somewhere among the dark, he thought, then he needed to know. “One chance!” Dag called. “One shot,” He said, and he prayed with all he had that his friend understood. Everything rode on him, now.
Dag made his break for the throne.
The distance stretched out before him, the moments to cross it the longest of his life. As he crested the mound of warped metal, there, and saw no one, his heart dropped. He had figured out the intercept, slowing, but never looking back. For just a single second, he had nowhere left to go and death behind him. His eyes took in the black, and he braced.
Bundus set into him, their clawed hands ripping into his back to foist him up. Dag screamed in suffering as its faces released a moan of guttural hunger behind him. He felt as his body was pressed against them, their teeth ripping in, carving his back and devouring pounds of flesh.
In agony, he cried out, “Silas!”
Appearing from the shadow, face in tatters, Skrimp held Fanta’s gun. Aiming with one remaining eye at the coils suspending the apparatus above, he pulled the trigger.
His shots set it free.
The enormous machine came down onto the Moribund Man with a chorus of crackling bones. It pinned the creature in an explosion of blood and viscera against the jagged ground. As its limbs scratched wildly to escape, Dag fell free and the grinding of flesh and steel only deepened.
Skrimp pulled him away from its thrashing. Together they fell back against the pipes, watching motionless as the monster reached a fever pitch of struggle. Both of them filled with horror as, in a final feat, it began to lift the apparatus.
Higher it rose as if swelling with its own monstrous doom. It roared in power and rage, summoning a last, horrible feat of will. Then, it fell.
Its many appendages spent, its lungs crushed and ichor spilled, its body was truly broken. As its last myriad breaths escaped, the monster gave out, yielding into the ground and silence.
“We did it.” Dag whispered to his friend, “thank you... This is freedom.”
“It’s almost done,” Skrimp said, spitting blood. “We’re almost there.”
They looked at the bodies of the others, laying at their feet. Painstakingly, Skrimp came to stand over them. Dag was laid out on the ground, breathing shallowly, and he left him. He couldn’t finish the last act, but Skrimp could.
He walked over the corpses to purify the world.
Every second those servers ran was unforgivable. Every moment he had spent outside the long march to this very end was damnation. Before him, bound in red monoliths, he knew the judgment of every tormented soul.
We are responsible. We were weak. No more.
With each black coolant cord that he ripped free from them, he could let go the weight. The fight was won as sparks flew from the dying machines, their circuitry of sin consuming its very self. It was all redeemed in the fire that poured out from them. The one thing that mattered. His salvation. He had it now in his hands. In the inferno.
When he had finished, he returned to Dag. The flames filled the room with warmth and it was good, even though smoke began to build up around them. It was good.
As he sat down, Skrimp knew he wouldn’t have the strength to stand again. But didn’t care. He knew now the words, “The shackles are broken.”
“I-,” Dag coughed blood trying to speak.
“Don’t,” Skrimp warned.
“No… You need to get out of here. You can’t get me up the stairs. Before this place implodes… you need to get out.”
“I’m used up, man. It’s okay. Fuck dying from infection, anyway. Have you seen my face?” He pulled a cigarette from his coat, Frode’s favorite brand, and he lit up. Keeping his eyes on the blaze ahead, he smoked. Without the slightest sign of a stutter, he explained. “There’s a billion people in this city. Every day, in every stupid little thing, even just in complacency, they bought and paid for this place. People did this. But just for once… just today… somebody didn’t. For once in our lives, Dag…” a sorrowful smile found him, “We’re alive.” Skrimp tapped out another coffin nail, lit it, and extended it to his friend. “Now shut up and smoke.”
He took the cig. “I’m just glad that you’re with me”
“Yeah, man,” Skrimp said. “I am too…”
Each of them would exist forever as a signal, somewhere in the machine, he thought. He only hoped they would find each other out there, somehow. So that, together, they could have it to do all over again.
To see every fire set that could be.
< SIGNAL TERMINATED >