A whole year is behind him. John is eating at the most glamorous restaurant in the city, alone. This is the fifth time this month, and he has grown sick of it. But he has hit an extravagance ceiling, and has no other choice. Everywhere else is beneath him. The mirror of his wine glass reminds him that he has grown paunchy. His jowls rankle him. Yet he can never summon the verve to exercise anymore. The only thing swimming in his pool is frogs. There is nothing he needs done that he must do himself. His wife doesn’t care what he looks like. And neither do the other women, for that matter. Out of ennui he has taken to crawling into random beds and making a wife of whatever females he finds there for a night or two. He rationalizes this by remodeling them into a second Naomi for as long as he is inside them, but his guilt has all but run dry. He still feels affection for her, certainly, and continues to lavish her with her heart’s daily desires, but feels the need for her company for her less and less. She is becoming yet another used-up luxury item gathering dust in his house, and it has proven beyond his omnipotence to make her interesting.
John puts his fork down, and washes his throat with wine. This last bite was the last he can stand. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll have the place burned down, in the hope that he’ll want it again by the time it’s rebuilt. But as John stands and makes to leave, something unprecedented happens: he is stopped. There is a waiter suddenly in his way, requesting politely but firmly that he pay his bill. John irritably makes himself the restaurant’s owner, effective as of ten minutes ago, with the effort it takes to scratch an itch, but still the man refuses to budge. You are not the owner of this establishment he retorts, affronted, flying in the face of fact. A respected patron- until now- but not the owner.
John’s voice is hoarse from disuse. He has little incentive to speak these days, save to Naomi, at their dwindling meals together. Everyone else is just another arm.
“Then who is?”
In reply the waiter glances discreetly past his shoulder; John turns to follow his gaze.
The far end of the restaurant is swamped in a fug of cigar smoke. The lights are turned down low, for the ambiance. He can’t quite discern the face of the man who sits by himself by the kitchen door- the man, the lean man in an acute-angled suit, who ever so subtly nods in acknowledgement, and tips a snifter of something to his lips.
There is an ice-toed centipede on John’s neck. He does not think, but simply explodes at the man, meaning to drown him in the immensity of his disembodied self. But his tentacles snap shut around nothing. If John weren’t seeing him, he would swear there was nobody there at all.
John leaves stiff-leggedly, shouldering past the waiter who has gone plastic as a mannequin, already driving his chauffeur to the curb to pick him up. He riffles through every soul in a mile radius, just to know that he still can. They are there, and for a moment he is relieved, but there is nothing inside of them to take hold of and puppeteer, no cracks to worm inside of. They are all solid stone, and there is nothing he can do about it. They belong to someone else.
Inside his the warmth of his limousine, John falls on to his side and hugs his knees to his chest.
He is no longer in control.
Everything he feared has come to pass.
John has a rival.
There is no other option.
It is already war.
John does not waste time speculating how this other man may have come to be. Whether he has come from another city to seize this one for his own, or some cosmic misfire spawned two city-gods instead of one, it doesn’t matter. His existence is an open sore, intolerable; there cannot be two of him.
The first order of business is to reconfigure his house into a fortress capable of withstanding whatever the other man throw against him. He requisitions citizens from their occupations to his estate in snaking lines of ants, arming them from the gun stores and personal stockpiles he empties. He concentrates until his windows are barred and bulletproof and there is a panic room of dense steel in his cellar. The neighbors are either evicted or given a psychological reshingling to make them better soldiers. Once this is done, he gathers himself into an anvilhead and sweeps down the hills into the city like a pyroclastic avalanche, seeding his will in every soul caught in his swathe. They become his eyes and ears, whole boroughs of unknowing spies. It was a cowardly mistake to flee from his rival at the restaurant. He should have laid him low him while he had the chance, with his own hands if he had to. He is out of sight now- a snake in the grass. Infinitely more dangerous.
But although he knows this, for all his preparation, John is unprepared. A runaway truck T-bones a parked cop car, killing two of his agents. A sudden fever of arson immolates a score of them. More are gunned down in a workplace shooting. John experiences each death as a maiming. The pain, the shame of weakness, sharpens his mind. He learns quickly to identify the agents of his enemy by feel; they are detritus stuck in the gears of his city, impairing the manufacture of his will. He bides his time, sacrificing a handful of limbs to elaborate the illusion of weakness, sneaking pieces into position, before striking back. A car dealership is pipe-bombed. A homeless man sets fire to a supermarket. The idea is denial of resources. His foe’s agents need to eat. John applauds himself for this strategy. Taking the long view, it will be far more effective than taking pot shots at his enemy in the street. He will whittle his forces down to stubs, smoke the man from whatever hole he cowers in, and crush him under heel like he would a rat.
Then one morning he awakes to the staccato of approaching gunfire. There is slaughter in the sloping streets. As The Enemy hacks fingers and digs eyes from his body sees his error in bleak clarity. In fortifying his home as thoroughly as he has, he has made himself a landmark. The Enemy has been playing him all along, allowing him an edge in the war so that he will forget there is no war if John is dead.
John escapes the smoldering skeleton of his house with singed hair, a hysterical wife, and a rancid hate in his throat.
John is in hiding. Wounded but alive, and stronger than before. For every time The Enemy fails to kill him he learns a lesson.
The city is everywhere a battleground. Nowhere is safe. Skyscrapers have become trenches where their unknowing soldiers wait to be sent out to die in the no-man’s-lands that are the streets in between. Every pedestrian is a potential assassin, and spontaneous massacres break out like acne across the city’s face. The public sees this all as an inexplicable crime wave, ignorant of their new purpose. Both sides vie for hospitals and other logistic necessities. What they cannot take, they destroy. What they lose, they destroy. It is better to let one’s fields burn than let The Enemy have one bite from them. The strange things of the city have been enlisted, and fight underground skirmishes of a kind that would drive men mad for witnessing. When John runs low on weaponry he begins to import guns from outside the city, and so his enemy moves to intercept them, and it is not long before the city is valved off from the world by the battles of attrition consuming its roads and highways. With no supplies coming into the city, John knows that the war must end soon. When there are no more bullets, no more working cars to kamikaze, one side will have to give. And as their fluid armies wage their guerilla warfare, as schools are shot up week after week and police stations are bombed to lawful dust, so to do John and his nemesis take the their fight subcutaneous, down into the city’ staging. John gets into the city’s teeming universe of bacteria to make The Enemy’s food supply rot that much quicker. It is not enough, and so he goes deeper, prying and teasing and massaging physics to see what complies. He finds a way to make electricity itself more volatile, and from then on the city’s lights flicker tempestuously. He can sense his enemy’s uncertainty in the stratagems that ensue. He knows that he has irreversibly changed the rules of the game. And as the city deteriorates, as their legions thin, John is certain the end is near.Cont.