Even if I lived to see a thousand fiery suns pass over the rim of the greater world, I never imagined that Harouk could debase himself to such an unprecedented degree. But the torrent, the overwhelming swell that came pouring from that vast channel was like a swarm of maggots that had refused to pupate into flies, and instead continued to feast until they were giant beyond imagining. "On what grounds," I screamed, my very cords shredding themselves and spotting with blood to produce the needed volume, "do you continue to fill your bellies with such abominable gullywash?" By nature, by the essence of our humanness, ground into us by evolutionary time vast beyond comprehension, do we seek out the flavors, the moistness, like when we used to eat soft-batch cookies and the world was entirely comprised of the delight of pure, endless discovery. But now that damnable child, that cold-blooded imp, he danced just out of the range of my claws as he waved his knife around threateningly, all the while chanting "Hey, hey, I kinda-sorta, cut the fuck out of your aorta" over and over again until I was sick with rage. I thought I felt, I mean, I could have fucking sworn that my right eye had ruptured, blown wide in a giant blood spray that enveloped the random horrified person next to me on this train, but now breathless, staggering in front of the mirror in this cramped bathroom, I see that no such thing had occurred. So there's not really much left to do at this point except to relent, spread your shit flaps wide, and make way for Tha Real Cocksuckaz, for they shall not be denied. Everybody so cracked out like a dragon's claws had tunneled their way up through the back of their necks, up all the way around the brain till they plunged deep into the frontal lobe. People thought that guy was some sort of idiot savant but nah man, the truth is he just did way too much coke.
I stared at the com.sat feed as the numbers crawled by and made rapid mental notes -- 0.11.04.119.00.110.0057.0011 -- and began to realize that the northern arc was rapidly deteriorating, and that any hope of realignment was now quite remote (if not impossible, but I was hardly ready to state that in the official record.) Damn them! I tried to warn them, many times. But how could I hope for them to understand the complexity of the incoming storm? I didn't even understand it myself, not truly. Yes, sure, I was able to compose the equations that described the activity, but what the thing actually is, or would be, it's beyond the comprehension of this feeble paste my ancestors saw fit to pack into my meager skull. Thanks a lot gramps. I'm pretty good at picking berries and throwing rocks at animals, but you didn't see this one coming, did you? No, you fucking assholes, you certainly did not anticipate this. And now I have no plausible options.
I am going to locate that ridiculous female and inform her that I will no longer be responsible for the care and custody of her disgusting and humongous children. They are of the weaker seed, and allowing them to perish in the imminent supercell would be one small solid I could do for the human race. And it's far kinder than letting them waste away slowly; left to their own devices, I can only imagine that one of them would eventually muster the cleverness to overcome and devour the other. Eating, always eating. The thing I can't understand but I know it exists. They start with our childhood and they just keep eating until the marrow's sucked clean and the bones are dust hovering in the fetid air. Fucking air. It's been a million years since I took a clean breath. And yet I am fortunate, because as Harouk likes to remind me, there have been others in history with the opposite issue. In ancient times, when our slope-headed ancestors were killing in the name of the Blood Gods and raping their way to greatness, a few biological sports, rare evolved martyrs, were inexplicably born. Possessing gentle, thoughtful, and intuitive natures, they took the first baby steps towards comprehending the universe, their minds opened to the intricate web of reality, the first blossoms in the cesspool. You can imagine what became of them. With just a fraction less of the killing impulse stored in their beings, they were quickly identified, ostracized, and ultimately were absolutely helpless against the coalescing killers and their yet untainted compulsion to employ pristine violence. And so they left as a beautifully scattered head; countless pieces, chunks, droplets, launched into the Paleolithic air by a masterfully wielded club. Though they were as individuals utterly extinguished, some rare few had managed to plant their seed, and for ages it lay mostly dormant until an unknown catalyst summoned it forth and in quantity sufficient that its worth was significantly recognized. Safe? No, not yet, not even close; but among us, flourishing guardedly, calculating, matriculating until the unspoken word is given. And that word shall come concealed behind the wind at night, inaudible to all but those who are attuned to its specific pheromone signature. Until then, we hunker in the boonies and wait.
Are you still there? The cloudcover is nothing less than total here at Stormwatch. Wait, pause. I was just distracted by a frightening noise! I ran to the break room and found Davis assaulting the Coke machine with rabid intensity. He was going absolutely buck wild, slamming his body against it, hissing and screaming, thrashing and clawing at it, until he was bruised and exhausted. Then he cried some. Can't blame the man, I think such an outburst was inevitable under the conditions. I mean, if I had those ball bearings rolling underneath my skin at all times like that pitiable bastard Davis, I think I'd tear all my flesh off in pure hysterical madness. Ball bearings: small ones; I'd estimate a single ball to have a diameter no greater than 6 or 8 millimeters max, and the contemptible things, hundreds of them, roll beneath his skin, visibly bulging in slinking lumps that fall and rise like raindrops of flesh indifferent to gravity or any other physical force I can hypothesize. I tried to convince him to allow me to surgically remove one so that we could have it tested, but Davis was resolutely opposed to the idea. Still, I think maybe I can acquire a few. I have a plan to injure Davis in a way that will appear to be accidental and will open a gash somewhere on his shoulder or back where the bearings seem to be most concentrated. I can't imagine that not at least a few will spill out from the wound, and Davis then being entirely focused on his injury will fail to notice me quickly collecting the freed bearings. This, at least, is my hope. Sometimes, too often really, things don't play out as we'd hoped, and improvisation is needed. I've got drugs. I'm impatient, and if this "accident" doesn't work, I'm just gonna drug him and extract the bearings at my leisure. Hell, I might even go ahead and do that straight off and to hell with this whole complicated accident shit.
All this for some ball bearings, you say? It does seem rather extreme, but you might think differently if you knew my personal history. The arcs are still in diagnostic mode, so I suppose we have the time to really delve into it all. Gather 'round the fire and all that. See, at my tenth birthday party, my parents hired this clown for the festivities. His name was Klatchkey. Klatchkey the Clown. He was able to maintain his composure while our parents were present, but once they retreated to the parlor for coffee, it became clear that he was deeply intoxicated. On what, I don't know. He began to slur and nod and he fumbled about and made a real hash of his act, dropping his juggling balls, struggling to manipulate his many props through the haze of his inebriation. My brother's smart-alecky friend, Ritchie Vito, started heckling him pretty fiercely...
"Hey, clown! Get it together, man! Come on, Bozo, come on, Chuckles!"
...but then he went too far, and before anyone could intervene, Klatchkey had stumbled over to Ritchie, and one of those white-gloved hands reached out and began to... caress Ritchie's chin. Soon the clown was rubbing all over him, and Ritchie responded with similar lust. Their bodies were no longer under their own mental control. They trembled and writhed together in some kind of spontaneous mating ritual, and it was then that Klatchkey injected Ritchie with the swarm of parasites that would become so vital later. Rectally, I mean. So now do you understand?
I thought I had picked up a large, nail-embedded plank of wood from my dad's debris pile. Yeah, the tree house, the one he was working on for fuck knows how many years. Always talking such great plans for the sophisticated architecture, the innumerable accoutrements that would make it the finest tree house any boy had ever been privileged to call his own. Hell, people would travel for miles to see it, to make the pilgrimage, but they'd never be allowed inside. Oh no, that honor was reserved for me and my dad and a few of my best friends. Together we'd make a new world in there, a society where we were the absolute rulers: tyrants or champions, it didn't matter. It would be ours. Admirers could view it from a distance -- a distance: the other side of the fence. If the crowd grew too large, well, let's just say that dad had ideas on how to disperse them. As well as I can recall, that tree house never made it much further than a terrifying little off-kilter platform on the single puny oak we had in our backyard. It doesn't matter. The plank from the debris pile filled my hands with splinters. The party guests were screaming as I smashed that plank down onto not just Klatchkey, but Ritchie too. With each strike I alternated between them. I wanted to obliterate them both utterly. Were they dead? Did they die that day? Why can't I remember?
Once they had me in custody, they kept asking me if I attacked them. Oh, yes, I told them, but that choice of words hardly captures the reality of it. Dude, I descended upon them, at terminal velocity, plummeting like angels with savage weapons from the stormy arch of a vengeful God's firmament. No restraint, no remorse. They managed a meager defense but with the odds so lopsided there was never any question as to the outcome. I'm not surprised that you're having trouble identifying the bodies, so complete was my annihilation. The clown wasn't human and thus not subject to your jurisdiction, officer. The other one, Ritchie, he was a local boy. A night runner from Piedmont. In some quarters he was known as the Capuchin, and in others he was called Nergalito. But the name his parents gave him was Cordante Acardo.
Picture it -- Sicily, 1952. A young Acardo leaves the Old World for Ellis Island in a stolen frigate, possessing only his wits and seventy oaken barrels of hallucinogenic Turkish ergot moldwine. The future was his to conquer. Sadly, he ran out of potable water during the voyage and was forced to consume the mind-altering wine which utterly devastated his psyche as well as dehydrating him further. He died, thankfully, before he could land on these here shores and assume the false mantle of Richie Vito and attend that fateful birthday party in Syracuse that would result in the further spread of the Klatchkey Syndrome.
That, or the plank. The plank beating. I'm not exactly sure which scenario occurred.
They told us it was a pipeline, and that its purpose was singular and simple: to ferry mineral resources from the Epsilon Eridani star system back to Earth. We had been inundated with propaganda from the very beginning, endless proclamations of the critical bounty that resided in Epsilon Eridani's outer debris disk of planetesimals. I didn't care about the mission back then. I was just glad to get paid. They paid well, and it was deserved. I can't imagine there were many people with the complement of skills that the three of us possessed. I was the geodetic systems engineer for the second qualifying datum, so delightfully located in a perpetually frozen plateau, 318 miles from the closest supply depot. Davis, he was the prodigal mineralogist, the definition of his photographic memory more microscopically precise than even my own. And then there was Harouk, communications expert, official corporate liaison, and repository and guard of all information related to the project at large.
I confess the early times were fun. I didn't mind then being so isolated. The work was enthralling. Practically every day involved a gleeful Davis bubbling about a brand new isomorphism he had found in the latest payload. Though Harouk, ever-attentive, would quickly tamp down Davis's rambling and corral him back to the crystallography lab, lest I learn beyond the scope of my function. And our dynamic evolved along that trajectory, with Harouk guiding us towards a purely impersonal interface, until quite soon I realized that nothing was communicated between us that was not necessary for the operation.
Then, was it months ago, or years? I can't tell. Maybe it was yesterday. No, that can't be right. It was after the June payload arrival, so it has been months. Damn, strange that I have to measure time in this way. Sorry, diverted. So difficult to maintain thought in this place. Anyway, not long after the arrival of that payload, I noticed the changes in behavior. Davis was first affected, and shortly after came Harouk's change, and then me. Fuck. Me too. It's remarkable that I'm lucid enough right now to acknowledge it. Do you realize that none of us knew how the pipeline even worked? We just processed what they delivered. Harouk, there's no way he could understand it. Fucking bureaucrat asshole. Davis was too obsessed with his mineralogy to care about the hows. And me, I'd like to think I simply lacked sufficient information, but that would be dishonest. No, I just have no clue. I understand math better than anyone I've ever met. Numbers encompass everything I consider, and their interconnecting, their relationships are perfectly apparent within my mindscape. But what exists between the numbers, or outside of them? I sense it, but I am hopelessly locked out.
Harouk was in Communications for much longer than usual that June day. I know because I needed to submit my telemmetry report and he wasn't available, so I waited outside Com until he exited. His face was knotted. I'd never seen him distressed, but it was obvious. He downloaded my report without a word and then immediately went to the lab to see Davis. The both of them had begun to disgust me, to tell the truth. It makes sense that three heterosexual males who are focused on their work and deprived of female company for an extended period of time would begin to neglect their hygiene and appearance. I'm guilty as well in this regard, but I still can't overlook their slipshod attitudes. Davis, with his pulsating streams of ball bearings and his flabby gut, does he ever drink anything besides sugary sodas? And Harouk with his layer upon layer upon layer of dead skin, the sheets of epidermal waste piled upon each other like the strata of some lifeless world. It's not acceptable.
This is what I was talking of earlier, the malformed piety of corporate affairs. The entire purpose of forbidding pornography in the workplace is to protect the sensibilities of women, but there are none here to be offended. So why not allow us a few scraps of material? Heck, if you ask me, they should staff these places with limitless libraries of erotica. But that's a pipe dream. Of course, most people on long deployments sneak their files of choice past the supply check by encrypting them in some way and hiding them cleverly among the mundane banks of code. Among most of the coordinators this is expected and tactfully ignored. If Naff was coordinating this one, he'd probably wink and slip us each a memory key of smut from his own undoubtedly vast collection. His stuff is usually so outlandish that it fails to be genuinely stimulating, but there would be some lesbian workouts or sexy dancing girls in there that I wouldn't mind. But no, we had to get stuck with that prick, Steward, who toes the line and goes by the letter in every area. He's just doing his job, sure, but he doesn't grok how the real world works and so we're held to the same asinine standard as the nine-to-fives back in the other world, and it makes no sense. And then there's Harouk, who has access to everything. I don't mean to sound prejudiced but you have to know how it is with these Middle Eastern types. In public, they'll act as if the sexual urge is totally beneath them and pretend to be saints under the watchful eye of their vicious god, but you know that in private they're dreaming about anally raping their soft little teenaged wife-slaves. I've seen it time and again.
Wait. Pause. There it is again. I'm now certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is a fourth person aboard Stormwatch. The clues are subtle, but they're becoming increasingly noticeable. A whisper in the dark, some lines in the logs that aren't accounted for, the sound of footsteps where none ought to be. This very morning I noted that the Coke machine was out of Foosh soda, despite the fact that none of us three ever drink that crap, not even Davis. So who drank the entire supply of Foosh, eh? The fourth guy. The lone ranger, the three-dollar bill, the secret Santa, the lucky number, the barrel-rider...
...I felt someone enter the room and there he was besides me. He must have realized that I was on to his game and that subterfuge was no longer necessary. Ah. I thought so. There's no mistaking that painted form, that ridiculous motley costume. He still smelled like birthday cake frosting and mown grass.
"Why are you here, Klatch?"
"I want you to write the finish."
"Is that so."
"I think it should end with the process of beating Harouk to death. No ordinary beating, of course. I already have felt that's really what this is about."
He handed me a heavy metal rod, something torn from a supply closet panel or the frame of a seat restraint. One end was helpfully wrapped in electical tape to give it a comfortable grip.
"Klatch, I have no logical reason to do that. None whatsoever. I'll get the bearings whether Davis wants to give them up or not. And if Harouk won't exfoliate his goddamned face, I'll do it for him as he sleeps. I'll peel back the layers."
But I took the rod. I liked how its weight felt in my hand. It's been ages since I played baseball. We were all boys once, just boys.
"Why a rod? Why not a plank?" I asked, "like a rotting plank from a treehouse, long abandoned?"
"Obviously, it's something that came in the June payload and we don't need to elaborate on that. I've also an image of Harouk's head bursting from a strike, and something impossible floods out, some luminous, colorful jumble perhaps, or maybe sound or space, a whirlpool of space, dude, just something insane. Figure it out."
"I could do it if I wanted. Heh... I guess Nergalito wasn't the only one you infected that day, am I right?"
"Something has contaminated. But I don't want it to be explicit."
"Of course not. That's not your style. But while you're here bossing me around, will you at least show me a magic trick? Come on."
The clown shrugged and began to retch theatrically. He opened his mouth and I caught a quick glimpse of the plastic dentures that he used as teeth. Nothing about this guy is real. Into his gloved hands he noisily expelled a white bird. For only a split second I thought it might begin to chirp and flap about, but it was dead. Dead, partially digested, slick with mucous.
"Okay, I get it. No more magic. You win."
He let the bird drop to the floor.
"It's definitely an anchor, I'm just going to rely on you to make sense of it all."
"Stop talking, Klatchkey. Just shut up and go back to wherever you were."
"What are some of the changes in Davis?"
"Hair loss. Weight gain. Untended beard stubble. Earwax buildup. Pallor. Listlessness. I suspect he's not taking the types of supplements we need in this environment. I really worry about the guy, you know."
"Change him. Help him. Help him change again."
"If he goes, then Harouk has to go the same way. It's a package deal."
"I think I've set an avenue for that to be fairly easily accomplished. Ultimately, I trust you will come up with something that is a satisfying conclusion yet retains the spirit of the thing."
"The thing, huh?"
"Yeah. The thing. My god, quit playing dumb, you stupid animal."
"Thanks, Klatch. You've always been a buddy. Didn't we meet in college? Was that the first time? No, the birthday party. I remember now."
He glared at me, impatient.
"Okay, you win. Luck, be a lady tonight."
I stood up and walked back down the corridor towards the crystallography lab. I admit that I was just as curious as the clown was to see the end of this thing at last, to finally be able to touch the ball bearings, to handle them and appreciate their mathematically perfect roundness.
Okay, we're done here.
I meant to fill my pockets with bearings but I forgot. I'll come back and get them later.
The last thing to take care of is Harouk's debasement. He's behind the door but I already know what I'm going to find when I enter. He'll be hunched over his equipment and working fervently, feeding the slugs into his little portable CNC engine and calibrating each one, so that every bearing will be identical in mass and shape but unique in some ingenius structural way. I'm amazed that he was able to smuggle that device past Steward. I'll have to ask how he managed that trick. He'll squeal. And once he does, I'll get to see the luminous jumble, the whirlpool of sound and space, the impossible and insane marvel that will burst from the skull. It will be beautiful. And it will wrap around me like a blanket made of fur and I'll be warm tonight. I'll be as warm as a daring Italian sailor dying of thirst on the sunbaked deck of his frigate. But i'll have Foosh soda to drink. It doesn't taste nearly as bad as I thought.
Harouk was there, watching some sort of video with a bemused look on his face. The layers were so thick that I could barely recognize the living man beneath the crusty mask of dead skin.
"Acardo, come in. I apologize for my earlier curtness. So much to do these days, you know. Only six weeks to go, yes? We're all working too hard and yet there's always more."
I said something about Davis, I forget, I was really just trying to find the optimal launch angle.
"...yes, I agree. Davis needs some sun and exercise, all of us do. He is older than you and I, and that might be a factor. Oh, as for this..."
He motioned towards the video. I didn't really understand what I was seeing. Several cut young men were dancing and thrusting and I didn't like it. Did I say three heterosexual males?
"...my nephew, can you believe it? He's started a rap group with his friends -- rap-pop, he says. Most of their songs deal with homosexual themes, because they are all that way. It is a shameful thing and my sister is quite unhappy about it. But at the least, they are actually making money at it, and are becoming famous among the young people. I don't even want to pronounce the name they use, it is lewd. They call themselves Tha Real...."
No more, please.
I swung with all possible force at the hairy, skin-covered brown baseball before me and it cracked open with an explosion of light and warmth, and the things that came out of it were so much better than I could have possibly imagined. I felt like I died after a long and debilitating disease, and after a weary lifetime of expecting only eternal darkness, I woke instead in a blessed realm of clouds and angels with everything bathed in a silver light. And everyone I've ever known and loved is there to welcome me, and we gather our things and start some incredible new adventure, and we'd be as innocent as children yet wise like sages, enlightened souls on the endless road to the heart of all Creation.
Thank you, Klatchkey.
You knew it would be like this.