“Good day to die.”
I nearly had a heart attack.
I took a few deep, wheezing breaths to calm my racing heart and looked at the object on my front porch. It was a blanket, a hideous checkered quilt with something muddy and pink that might have been flowers printed drunkenly at every crosshatch. The edges were coming apart and the rest of it was trying desperately to follow. The blanket was wrapped around a squat, upright cylinder with a domed top; thin ribs poked into the fabric in a starburst pattern that came from the top and ran down the sides: a birdcage.
"Day to die. Good day to die," squawked the cage from under its covering. It seemed to breathe at me. Inside, something shifted and made the cage rock slightly.
This was unusual.
I glanced around the street as my hand went automatically to my jeans pocket for a cigarette. The neighborhood was just waking up. The early-morning sun was burning through the Portland mist and pushing steam off the asphalt in waves, and the chemicals hadn't found their way into the right part of my system yet. The slam of a car door from down the street drifted through the heat mist like a dream. Closer, a hovering lawn sprinkler buzzed with an insectile whine as it made its slow circuit across someone's lawn. I didn't see anyone walking away, which is what I had hoped to see, so there was nobody to shout to about why they had left a bird on my front porch. I lit the cigarette, sneezed in the bright sun, and did anyway.
"Hey, who left this bird here?"
To my left, the sprinkler gave a satisfied beep and settled down onto the wet grass with a whir of tiny motors and a glint of weatherproofed stainless steel. The street was quiet. Behind me, the unseen bird ruffled its feathers again. I could feel the calming burn of the heliocaine settling across my spine like a warm octopus. It struck me that this was a weird thing to happen, but it probably wasn't unusual for someone to leave an unwanted pet at the mercy of a stranger. It used to happen all the time.
Of course, there weren't any pets any more, but then again, the helio sometimes makes you forget the details.
As far as parrots go, it wasn't an attractive one. I'd brought the cage inside to get out of the heat and it was sitting on a carpet of newspapers that I'd stolen from my neighbor's porch and spread across the kitchen holo-counter so the bird couldn't defecate on the display panels. Not that I planned to take it out of the cage, of course, but just in case it felt like spraying anything. It had watched me with its distrustful little eyes while I wrapped another tab of heliocaine around the coilgate in my wrist – it was a two-tab day – and lit another cigarette. Its feathers were one of those ugly shades of green that you never have a name for, lighter than forest but somewhere east of lime. Avocado, maybe. Its beak looked like it might have been doused with chemical solvent. It was black and pocked and covered in little bumps like low-grit sandpaper. I wondered if birds could get herpes.
But worse than the coloring was the smell. If you've ever been trapped inside a sawmill after a heavy rain you'll have some idea of what this bird was sending out. It was a mix of old hamster cages and the moldy odor of untreated well water, the reflex musk snakes spray when they're afraid. The second I pulled the blanket off the cage it hit me like a bowling ball, and at the swirling center of the eye-burning storm the bird clicked its diseased beak at me and said, "Good day to die."
This thing was not welcome here.
If I had gone with my initial instinct and tossed the cage, bird and all, out into the street before tabbing the second helio, and if the chemicals hadn't swarmed into the first dose and launched their quilted fingers into my brain with such welcome, frenetic urgency, nothing bad would have ever happened. Life would have stayed the same, nobody would have died, and I would have continued on my happy and fruitless path through the bacterial bowels of life.
Instead, I passed out on the kitchen floor. And that's how I ended up meeting Lazarus.
By the time I woke up, it was already well past noon. The parrot greeted me with a sentiment about how great the day was, and wouldn't it be such a fine one to die in, and for a confused moment I just stared at it while the pieces of my brain came together. It had grown bigger, was my first thought. The second thought was that there was a person in the shadows at the end of the kitchen. I twisted around and stumbled to my feet. The helio was bringing the kitchen to me in a sort of crumbling mosaic, and when I looked again there was nobody there. But there, there it is. A human shape glimmered out of the shadows and then faded away again. I blinked. There. Nope, gone.
"Good day to-"
"Shut up!" I whirled and screamed at the bird, grabbing the cage and shaking it. The parrot squawked and thumped from one side to the other. My whole body was pulsing with sudden and unexpected anger. Another side effect of the helio. I think. I coudn't remember. I dropped the cage onto the floor and rubbed my palm into my forehead, scrunching my eyes shut to clear my head. When I opened them again, the mosaic was fading and leaving the plain world in its place, and the dark corner of the kitchen was empty.
Ignoring the overturned birdcage on the floor, I swept the nest of newspapers off the holo-counter and thumbed in my password. The entire counter came alive in fluorescent light, separated into a half dozen panels that automatically displayed every browser tab that was already open on my sliver pad in the next room. I made a pulling motion over one with my fingers and the display lifted above the countertop and righted itself so that I could look at it head-on.
My client was a throwback to the early 21st century when business was often more complicated and, more often than not, had more to do with internal politics than business itself. He'd left me a short email (my only client who still emailed – everyone else used Hyperlife) sometime this morning between when I'd found the bird and now. I tabbed it up:
Ray – still waiting to hear back about the Keller articles. Payment was made last week and you quoted a three day turnaround. Waiting patiently for your reply.
Those little polite touches, the Sincerelies and the Waiting Patientlies, as if he wasn't even now shouting at his marketing assistant for hiring such an obvious and total flake, were what made him stick out for the dinosaur he was. Nobody did that anymore. Nobody pretended to care. The world was better this way, with all the glaring truth and bitter honesty you could shove in a shithouse stuck out for the world to see. Bowman was a late Generation Z, and one of the rare ones who'd been raised in an unbroken family where manners still mattered and you respected your elders and yada yada. He balked at a worldview that was good enough for everyone else. His secrets and bitter honesties only came out for closed doors and turned backs. It was backward.
But it was his life, and money was money. And if I didn't give him an answer soon, I might end up losing the commission.
I flipped the email away and tapped air for the Hyperlife portal. It spread from the tip of my finger and glimmered serenely, silver and blue and sea-green and superimposed with my pre-coded work avatar right in the center. The face looking back at me was clean-shaven with a mid-summer tan and combed blond hair that looked freshly cut. The bangs waved slightly, as if caught in a light breeze. Green eyes and a gentle smile, all perfectly centered under a broad, smooth forehead. It was a strong face, handsome, and you got the impression that the body to which it belonged was equally strong, equally capable.
"Raymond Wilson" read the name to the left of the face, underscored by several lines indicating my age ("35"), my job description ("writer") and my work history ("National Geographic, Esquire, Quintessential, BBC Television").
It was all bullshit of course, except for the job description. My face looked nothing like the perfect model I showed my clients. I wasn't 35 (quite a bit younger, actually), and my name wasn't Raymond Wilson. And as for the work history, well, I'd sent proposals. But that was Hyperlife. Anonymity was well respected these days, and even though you always knew that the person talking to you wasn't actually that person, it didn't matter. Nobody was who they were anymore.
My face – my Hyperlife face, that is – waited blankly, a cavernous portrait of nirvana. Jaw slack, eyes blank – weird how eyes that never move look so soulless. It was only in those eerie lifeless seconds before you began transmitting that your mind really grasped how Hyperlife avatars were still nothing more than dead code, just puppets waiting to dance on their strings. Once I keyed up the transmission, the face would come to life and match my own down to the minutae of my expressions.
I turned it on. The suntanned face of Ray Wilson jerked to life, blinking slowly and grinding its teeth. It looked hungover. I rubbed the bridge of my nose with a finger and a ghostly, manicured hand floated onto the display to do the same. Suddenly the avatar glitched into a psychotic, leering smile, then just as quickly flickered back to the tense, tired look that was camping on my real face.
One of the earlier complaints with the Hyperlife system had been that it matched facial movements so well that no matter what the face looked like on the outside, you could still recognize someone you knew well by how their facial muscles moved when they talked. Turns out that facial expressions are as unique as fingerprints. Everybody loved the level of detail until a woman had been raped and killed with the metal post from a bed frame and the police had found a string of threatening Hyperlife messages dated over the weeks leading up to the crime. The sender had used a range of avatars and vocalization apps, but one of the digital forensics guys had managed to match a few telltale mannerisms – a recurring tick below the left eye, a half-cocked smile that sneered up slightly on one side, something about the way the eyes widened for certain vowels – and they'd taken the woman's ex-husband into custody the next day. All they had to do was talk to him to make the match.
When the news of the crime came out, the public had been outraged. Not that someone had been killed, but that their anonymity had been compromised. Sensolife's stock took a dip, and the next Hyperlife update had toned down the expression-matching aspect and introduced a randomized control feature to insert erratic expressions meant to throw off police systems. Murders were fine; bad publicity was not. Keep the customers happy, even if it means letting a few pedos and psychos knock around with their thrills.
Sensolife never said where the randomized expressions came from, and the early rumors were quickly quashed by the faceless corporation. They didn't even have a Website, despite being the single largest corporation in the world. But that was their right in an anonymous age they'd been instrumental in creating, and nobody questioned it. The only name and face anyone really knew was their PR head, Damien Wells, but now he was missing. Nobody seemed to care much, as long as the servers were still up.
On my kitchen counter, the flat Hyperlife face gleamed sickly in the cold backwash of its display light. It was nothing more than a series of sensors and projector eyes set under a smooth glass casing, all touchless. In the center was a blue bird with wings stretched to either side, hovering over an open hand – the Hyperlife logo. I waved my hand over the transmission sensor and took a deep breath through my nose. Ray Wilson's nostrils flared.
"Mr. Bowman," I began, addressing my client, "Just putting the finishing touches on those articles now. You should have them–"
"You have to kill them."
I jumped. Ray Wilson sneered for an instant then glitched to a terrified expression of shock. The voice had come from behind me, on the...
"Oh, God damn it!"
I gave the bird cage the hardest kick I could muster in the narrow space between the holo-counter and the wall. The cage ricocheted off the wall and smacked up hard against the coffee maker on the counter at the far end of the room. The automatic coffee maker beeped and started to dribble black spurts through the cage's wire sides. The bird fluttered limply on its belly, beak pressed against the formica countertop.
It struck me that what the parrot had said this time had been different from all the others. Before it was always a squawking string of "Nice day to die, day to die, nice day to die," like a snatch of dialogue from a movie or something.
This time it had been, "You have to kill them." Just that, simple, not the squawking gibberish of a parrot, but stated, matter-of-fact. It even seemed that the pitch of its voice had been different, but that might be the heliocaine talking. Ray Wilson blipped in my peripheral vision, his eyes bulging like a strangling victim. I absently waved a hand to turn off the transmission, the message to Charles Bowman forgotten for the moment. Ray drooped, a puppet on a shelf.
The bird had to go.
I walked over to it. The kick had done a lot of damage. It was bleeding from one of its eyes and its left wing was cocked out at a painful angle. Its good eye watched me from inside a clump of what looked like black tar that circled the entire eye. I hadn't noticed that earlier; it looked like a disease. Its iris had taken on a reddish glint. A trickle of blood ran down from the injured eye and pooled around its beak, which was slowly opening and closing, like a man gasping for breath on his death bed. I didn't think it could stand.
Now that the heliocaine was fading, it struck me how strange this all was. This bird was the first animal I'd seen in person since I was eight years old. There weren't any animals. Anywhere. We used to have a dog, when I was a kid, but one day it just hadn't been there. My parents had sat me down that afternoon and tried to explain it, but I could tell they were doing that adult thing, taking something complicated and condensing it down into little words because Children Can't Understand. What they were trying to explain was that someone, a bad person, had released a mutated strain of rabies that was hurting the animals. Killing them. A strain that could be passed to humans. All I understood was that Pringle was dead. I'd cried. People are dying, too, my dad told me. I don't care, I'd said. I just wanted Pringle back.
Killing the animals. I tried to wrap my little eight-year-old head around it all night, but it didn't sink in until I saw the German shepherd the next day on the way to school. It was just lying on the sidewalk, flies buzzing, stomach swelled up like a balloon. Its tongue was lolled out and green vomit was crusted on the concrete around its head. I showed up in class with tears on my cheeks and my teacher asked what was wrong. When I told her about the German shepherd, she freaked out. Ran to the phone at the front of the room, practically screamed into it. Everyone was afraid for some reason. On the way back home at the end of the day, the German shepherd had been gone.
Oddly fitting, then, that the first animal I see in seventeen years tells me I'm going to die.
By now the dripping coffee was leaking over the edge of the counter and onto the floor. With the cage on its side, the bird was lying in a pool of it, feathers soaked, and it was still trickling out of the coffee maker's drip nozzle. Steam drifted up with each black splatter, and I realized that the parrot must be getting scalded. For a few more moments I just stood there, letting the bird lie in the scorching mess. Watching it writhe. Where the hell had it come from? How did a caged bird fly to my doorstep when all birds were extinct?
I righted the cage.
How do you get rid of a bird?
Open the cage, of course. Let it fly away.
"It's going to be alright, Pringle," I said.
"You have to kill them."
I had already wrapped the cage back up in the filthy, avocado-green blanket, shoved it in my trunk, and driven several miles when I realized that the bird probably wouldn't be able to fly away with that crooked wing. It was most likely broken, or at least too sprained to hold any weight. I mulled it over at the next stoplight, and by the time the sphere floating over the crossroads had faded from red to green, I'd made up my mind: Who cared. I'd let it out anyway. Someone else could deal with it.
One thing that bothered me was that I'd called it Pringle back in the kitchen. Pringle had been my dog's name. A year or so after his death I'd practically forgotten about the dog; there was so much else going on at the time. The moves, the roundups, the vaccines that hadn't worked. Since then, I hadn't spared him any thought whatsoever. So why had I called the parrot Pringle? My brain felt like it was cramping up just thinking about it. I needed another helio tab. The soles of my feet were beginning to itch, which was always a bad sign.
Gammans Park was a murder paradise.
They say it used to be a cutesy little recreation area with a playground for children, mostly just a few meandering foot paths through some scattered clumps of pines, the kind of place you might go with your kid after school on a sunny day, but those days are long past.
Most of the other parks in Portland were closed down one by one and converted into industrial blocks, but some legal chokepoint had made Gammans Park immune to renovation. Businesses had been clamoring for the turf for years – real estate was a commodity in any city – but somewhere in the original deed was a line of fine print that made it untouchable. Of course, the last of the estate had died off some dusty decade past, and now nobody kept up with it.
Everything in Portland gleamed of chrome and titanium except this one cancerous mole smack-dab in the center.
The entire lot, which stretched for a few blocks off North Buffalo Street, was a tangled overgrowth over which you could just make out the black skeleton of an ancient jungle gym. Rusted cans and shards of glass from countless bottles littered the ground and poked out at odd angles, just the right height to scrape across your Achilles heel if you weren't looking. Some of the original foot paths still wound through the choking underbrush, but nobody was strolling. If you stayed too long, you inevitably left with a knife in your back.
This was where helio junkies shaking with withdrawals came for a last chance to score.
This was where seventeen murders had been committed in the last three years.
This was where I planned to dump the parrot.
The sun was dipping below the tips of the skyscrapers, handing over all Creation to the care of the night and leaving a smear of thick, humid heat as a farewell gift. Gammans Park looked murky and dangerous in the gathering twilight, but I figured I had to do it here. For all I knew, owning a bird was illegal. If I got stopped by a patrol, a routine IG scan of the coilgate on my wrist would show I was a user, and that was a long, dark hallway I wanted to avoid. Best to do it here, with no one around, and be done with it. Glancing up and down the street to make sure nobody was coming, I slipped around to my trunk, thumbed the scanner to open it, and hefted out the covered cage. I didn't even bother closing the trunk. I wouldn't be gone long.
The parrot had been silent the whole trip, but halfway to the park entrance, it started shrieking. I ran the rest of the way and slapped the cage against the leaning, weather-torn gate on the way through. I heard a muffled thump and the bird went silent. A faded Don't Litter! sign hung from one rusted rivet on a crooked post. Someone shouted from the shadows deeper in the park, then that sound too disippated, leaving me in utter silence on the trash-strewn gravel path that led into the dead bushes. The combination of the eerie shadows and the hours without a helio dose had my heart hammering.
"You have to kill them," whispered the bird. "Kill them so you don't die."
I was too geeked to go any further. My feet were on fire; I needed helio. Right there in the open, I dropped to my knees and yanked the blanket off the cage.
The bird eyed me coldly, the blood on its face long dried to a flaky black crust.
"Just leave me alone," I said. I opened the cage door and, upending it, shook it roughly. The parrot tumbled to the ground in a heap. "Get out of here."
The parrot stood, ruffled its feathers, and just looked at me.
"Shoo!" I knocked it away with the back of my hand, sending it flying in a spray of feathers. The bird hopped back to me, cocked its head to the side questioningly.
"Go on. Just go." I felt a weight rising in my chest, making it hard to breathe. Why hadn't I just thrown it out in the street at my house, instead of driving all the way out here? Nobody would have known it came from my house. I wanted to say the helio was just making me irrational, nothing else – it had been a good excuse for every other problem over the past two years – but my head was clearer now than it had been in months and I realized that some part of me wanted the bird to live. Maybe it had the right. I thought of the way I'd watched it squirm in the steaming pool of coffee, the thoughts that had run through my head, and felt sick. Here, in this forsaken, tangled pit, it might be able to stay out of sight long enough to heal and fly out of the city. Dropping it in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, now that was a death sentence. There were no more birds.
Gravel and trash were grinding into my kneecaps. The bird wasn't moving, so I stood up and brushed the dust off my jeans and figured this was good enough. Out of nowhere my chin trembled and the park exit blurred as moisture filled my eyes. My neck felt hot. I wiped at my eyes with a bare forearm and kept walking. I felt eight again, lying on my side in bed with my cheek on a wet pillow so I could see out the window for Pringle to come bounding up the front path, already knowing he wouldn't.
My foot bumped something soft. I looked down and the parrot was in front of me, swimming into focus behind a layer of tears. I stepped around it and it fluttered brokenly in front of me again.
"Go," I muttered, nudging it aside with my foot. Nothing close to the vicious shove I'd given it just minutes ago. I felt sorry for it. No, I felt sorry for me. Because of this bird, I was remembering a childhood I'd done my best to forget. This bird had nothing to do with it. It was just the harbinger. All the pain and confusion was flashing back in brain-rending bursts through the drug-laced curtain I'd slipped up around the world.
The parrot was again in my way. It stood crookedly, the tip of its left wing dragging in the dirt where it was unable to draw it to its side. The dried blood and coffee made it look uglier than ever; a, sticky, filthy bubblegum wrapper clung to its breast. One foot was bleeding fresh from a razor glass shard.
I stopped thinking. For just a moment, my eyes went as blank as Raymond Wilson's. I knelt down and gripped the parrot's neck with one hand and groped in the dirt with other, felt a slicing pain as my hand slid across the edge of a long, warped bottle neck. I grabbed hold and rammed the glass into the bird's breast. A spray of blood skittered across my face, hot and heavy. Still holding the parrot's neck, I twisted the glass deeper. Hollow bones crunched. A red, translucent spike broke through the skin of the bird's back and gleamed like fire in the last dim light of the setting sun.
I was crying again. Tears mixed with droplets of blood and streamed pink down my cheeks. The glass was cutting into my palm. I drove the shard deeper into the soft birdflesh. Our blood combined before flowing in a single river onto the cracked dirt. I released the bird and let it fall to the ground. Its good eye blinked once and then froze, open, a dead, black marble.
The entire day after Gammans Park was a sickly sweet haze of one helio tab after another. I'd come home that night and somehow remembered to set the little orange bucket beside the couch to puke into before double-tabbing and disappearing. My hands were still bloody. My eyes were red-rimmed and wild. When I came to the next morning, I managed to nibble through half a banana before the next tab kicked in and I fell into oblivion.
Once, I woke up and got the feeling someone was standing in front of the couch, but before I could focus properly I slipped away again.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The mid-morning sun sliced through my slitted eyes and drove daggers into my brain. A pounding throb behind my left temple echoed every heartbeat. My tongue was sandpaper, a desert. I licked my lips and they were hard and cracked and my puss-like saliva clung to them like glue. My chest felt wretched and weak, fragile as thousand-year-old parchment. Something rasped when I inhaled.
"Dear God what do you want with me?"
I jerked up and a fresh bolt of lightning pain forked an agonizing trail behind my temples. I hadn't dreamed the voice. There was someone in the house with me. Someone terrified.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"Dear God what do you want with me?"
Two voices, one deep and the other slightly higher pitched, both shouting. Both in pain.
I rolled off the couch and staggered to my knees, looking around wildly.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
There, the deeper voice, coming from the kitchen. It sounded familiar. I should run. Shit, I should run. Whoever was hurting them would come after me--
"Dear God what do you want with me?"
The other voice. Behind me. Somewhere down the hallway. I swiveled in that direction and stumbled over the orange bucket, sloshing thin, watery vomit onto the carpet. My knee smacked hard against the little silicon coffee table in front of the couch and I almost lost my balance. Pain lanced through my leg. Facing this way I could see the mirror hanging to the left of the TV and, in it, the open doorway to the dark kitchen. Something moved in the shadows. The silhouette of a head turned to look at the mirror. I caught a glimpse of bulging, straining eyes before the head turned away again.
I realized how alone I was.
"Who are you? What do you want?" God damnit I knew that voice. If I could just get my head to...if I could just think. The living room faded to gray then faded back into place, a piece at a time. The helio was still at work. I was walking through stained glass, slipping on an ocean.
"Dear God what do you want with me?" Frenetic terror, the moment before the hammer falls. I had to do something.
There was a phosphohelium table lamp against the wall beside the entrance to the hallway, just a luminescent silver tube that beamed a cloud of light around its center. About the width of a baseball bat. It would do. I lunged for it, remembering too late the coffee table and knocking it onto its side with my shin. My chin burned against the carpet where I fell but I was still scrabbling forward.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
My hand closed around the glowing tube and I limped to the kitchen, the lamp fading with each step as it lost its wireless charge. By the time I reached the kitchen door at the far end of the room, it was nothing but a metal pipe. The auto tint in the kitchen windows was set at its darkest and I stood at the doorway of a vast purple shadow.
"Who are you? What do you want?" The deep tenor boomed from the room and I charged, swinging the lamp at the silhouette. The tube slid out of my sweaty fingers and flipped end over end before clanging against the far wall. My empty hands balled into thin fists and I let my momentum carry me straight toward the figure, ready to bring it to the ground and strangle it.
Instead, I bumped full-speed into the holo-counter. Breath whooshed out of me and I crumpled to the floor, clutching my stomach and retching.
"Dear God what do you want with me?"
The hallway voice was distant, fading. Heliocaine fingers pulled me into a world of gray and I fought against the current. A diffuse glow spread around the kitchen. Waves of geodesic colors danced across the ceiling. My stomach heaved, burning my throat with bile, but I managed to roll to my stomach and shakily push my hands against the cool floor. I made my knees. Any second it would come. A knife in my back. Something heavy and hard caving in the back of my head. The pistachio crack of a Sensogun, the bullet spraying bits of brain and skull and blood into the empty space below the cabinets.
Seconds took years. Empires rose and crumbled to ash between inhale and shaky, wavering exhale.
Nothing came, nothing fell, nothing cracked. Just the steadily brightening light.
Slowly, I lifted my head over the rim of the holo-counter and found myself face to face with Ray Wilson. The disembodied head distorted into a blubbering moan and then solidified with an expression of deeper terror, bloodshot eyes screaming RUN and lips pulled back over grinding teeth, and I recoiled before I realized I was seeing myself.
And as I stood, as Ray mirrored my grimace of pain when my bruised knee took my weight, mirrored my deep, panting breaths from the wild charge into the room with perfect, intricate detail, Ray did something bad, something he was never, ever supposed to do: He did something I wasn't doing. He screamed:
"Who are you? What do you want?"
Fifteen minutes and two cigarettes later, my hands had finally stopped shaking. My head was still roaring, but an ibuprofen tab and the nicotine had taken the razor edge away. Ray Wilson had shocked me. Hell, he had scared me. Standing so close, I'd felt the speakers vibrate with his piercing scream, seen a blood vessel pop in his eye and every facial muscle go taut as a bowstring with the force of the shout. It had rocked me in dark, still places that hadn't been disturbed in years.
Immediately, I'd waved the Hyperlife portal off the screen, then shut down the whole system for good measure. The nausea had almost returned when I saw the now-peeling bloodstains on my fingers, but I'd choked it down. What's done was done.
The other voice was still shouting from the hallway, but I knew what it was now: the sliver pad, complete with its own lite version of Hyperlife. Whatever the malfunction was was obviously affecting the whole network. I'd deal with that one soon, but for the moment I was too shaken.
The light that had been filling the room had reached a dim peak and now unwaveringly doused the kitchen in a calm, white glow that cast fuzzy shadows around every protruding edge and counter surface. It was the lamp I'd thrown at – through – Ray Wilson. It had skittered across the counter at the far end of the kitchen and come to rest near the wall, where it had picked up an embedded socket charge and come back to life. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the wall of the holo-counter. The light didn't reach down into this corner. It was a little purple cocoon just for me.
"Dear God what do you want with me?"
The echoes of the sliver pad's shrieking call pounded on my numb ears. Nobody home, try again later. The truth was, there was nobody home. I didn't feel like myself; shit, I didn't even know what "myself" felt like anymore. I was a collage, only now the glue was peeling away in long, sticky strands and all the pieces I was made of were sliding away from each other and leaving wet, empty spots in between. And in the cracks, blood was beginning to run.
And at that moment, as I sprawled broken and frayed on the floor and crushed out the butt of a cigarette straight onto the linoleum, Lazarus stepped through the front door.
I saw him as only a tall, dark shape in the beginning. He wavered at the edges, like the tipping point between dreams. He drew himself down on his haunches in front of my melted form and wrapped me up in his arms like a child. Then he laid me down on the holo-counter and stroked my sweat-beaded forehead and said, "We need to have a little talk, buddy-o."
An hour later, Lazarus left as silently as he'd come. I ran to the front door as it banged against its jamb and shouted "How do I find you?" but the porch was empty, as was the walkway through the front lawn and the street beyond. Totally, anemically empty. The only sound was an insectile whine as the lawn sprinkler slowly made its circuit of the impossibly lush lawn beside my house.
I receded into the dimness of the house and turned down the hallway that branched off the living room, knowing exactly what I'd find in the bedroom at the far end. How far would I go to save myself? It was no longer a question, but I hid that inexorable truth as deeply as I could. Its time would come.
I tabbed as I walked; there wasn't much time. Even so, I paused before turning the knob of the door at the end of the hall. It was the briefest of lulls, but in that deadness something heavy and clumsy shifted behind the door. It had been waiting for me this whole time, and only Lazarus had been able to prepare me for it. A rusty, muffled spring creaked; the moldy stench of death crept around the edges of the frame. A shadow crossed the ribbon of light that splayed out from the crack under the heavy polypropylene door. As if it riding on the back of the shadow came a thick, choking sense of despair, of everything gone wrong.
I swung the door wide.
The bedroom was insufferably bright, the windows completely untinted, and there it was, basking in the unfiltered sunlight.
It was obviously bigger now, at least three feet tall and bulbously fat. Its legs were as thick as saplings but I still couldn't see how they held its turgid body off the ground. Thick folds of fat and hanging skin protruded from under its feathers in slimy patches, the skin green and mottled like the scum on the surface of a dying pond.
It had been preening itself when I opened the door and now its head swiveled in my direction, a single slick, ragged feather dangling from the corner of its beak. The eye that had been bleeding two days ago was now a scabby black hole, and a thick scar ran up the skin of its breast through an area devoid of feathers. Inside the eye was death. Mocking, viscous death.
"Let's go," I said.
The parrot hopped off the bed and waddled behind me down the hallway.
I was going to die. I hadn't done it. Lazarus had been very clear, but I hadn't done what he'd asked.
Well, not all of it.
I glanced at the crumpled slip of paper in my hand and nearly barreled onto a sidewalk. I wrenched the wheel to the left just in time to stay on the road and careened back into the center of the lane with a screech of rubber.
My handwriting was barely legible to begin with and now the ink had smeared and I already knew exactly what it said but I reread the entry anyway:
521 Briarcliffe Rd.
Just a name and an address, the fourth in a list of five. The first three names and addresses already had a thick green Sharpie line scrawled over them but I could still recite every single name, tell you the color of their eyes and their hair and their lipstick and describe their clothes and the expressions on their faces where they'd been reading or stirring their coffee or watching a Hyperlife before I'd walked into their homes. I could still hear their screams.
The heliocaine wasn't working right anymore. There were too many fucking details. Filling me with their awful truth. Feeding me fear.
A traffic orb faded to red at least five seconds before I flew under it unheeding. A horn blared from the cross street, tires screeched, but it barely registered. My head was a thousand miles away, soaring on helio wings and bloodstained feathers. What bothered me most was how Lazarus had been so vague about all the details. Everytime I came back with a question he had somehow given me something that made sense without telling me anything at all, and at the end of our conversation I knew exactly what to do with only the vaguest sense of why I was doing it. And yet somehow that was enough. Here I was, running his errands, saving myself and damning my soul in the process. Not that I believed in souls, but if I had one, it was fucked.
The staggering fact was, I was now something much worse than I had been four days ago. Had Lazarus made me that way, or had I always been this person? Had he made me a killer, or had the monster always been there, deep inside me waiting for a chance to come out and sink its teeth into flesh? I thought of the way I'd kicked the bird, watched it suffer, torn a hole through its breast. The parrot lying in the broken glass as its blood stained the dust. Pringle, dead or dying somewhere, bloated and stinking like the German shepherd sprawled across the sidewalk. I had cried then, hadn't I?
Somewhere in the midst of my churning thoughts my eye caught something in the road ahead of me. I was now slipping into the outskirts of the city and the road had become silent except for my own whirring electric engine. Bare stumps stood sentinel in an arid plain that stretched away from each side of the two-lane highway, relics of a sprawling pine forest long murdered by a rampant virus. It was a bleak scene, lonely and barren despite the warm afternoon glow.
And there he was, standing with one hip cocked astride the double yellow line at the center of the highway. I slowed my car to a crawl and Lazarus casually strolled around to the passenger-side door. I was tense, and found myself waiting for the squeal of the rusted hinge that always sounded as the door opened, but it slid away from the frame quietly, smoother than an oil spill. Lazarus dripped into the seat just as unctuously. He favored me with a smile.
"You've been busy," he said, the words swallowing the car.
I nodded. My skin itched.
"But not busy enough," he continued. "Let's see here." My list of names and addresses was in his hand, although I hadn't noticed him reach for it.
"Mrs. Seifred, hmm?" he said, reading the name of the woman I'd been speeding toward. He spoke without much tone, but the name could have belonged to a serial killer coming from his lips.
"She's a lovely one, she is. A mite feeble, yes, yes, she's getting on. But you won't find her in bed, no, she'll be about. Kitchen, I might say. Yes, that's where." Lazarus's eyes stared beyond the dash, beyond the windshield, beyond the world, for all I knew.
"Yeah. Just about to do her," I muttered, eyes on the steering wheel.
"Do her, yes, yes, a mite vulgar, but yes, that's the...well, that's the gist of it, isn't it?"
I felt toxic. He seeped into you, brought all the darkness out and set it free from the shadows.
"The throat, I'd say. Yes, simple is as simple does." He was still on Amanda Seifred, unwitting resident of 521 Briarcliffe Rd. "We are, I'm afraid, quite short on time now. Perhaps the elaborate, uh, preparations, yes, are best left for another time. A rainy day, you might say." With what almost seemed like a sigh of longing, he pulled his gaze in from outer space and leveled it on me. I felt compelled to raise my eyes to meet his. They were empty and screaming all at once.
"You have been slow, buddy-o. Yes, too slow, too slow. Need I remind you..." His face contorted and Raymond Wilson emerged, mimicking my terrified voice: "I'll do it. Whatever you want, man. Please. Whatever it takes."
That had been me two days ago near the end of our conversation in the kitchen. Promising. Begging. It had been a joke of his then, too, to mix me up with Raymond Wilson, the digital man who looked nothing like me but was still, in so many ways, me.
"But yes, of course, such reminders are unnecessary," said Lazarus as his face morphed back into his own. "You will complete the task, yes, yes, you will. You must, as you know."
I knew. I nodded, eyes again fixed firmly on the smooth rubber contours of the steering wheel. The darkness receded a bit as he turned away, pooling back inside the deep parts of me where it usually stayed. Where it belonged. It was a welcome break; it would be back again too soon.
I felt more than heard the whisper as Lazarus slid the passenger door open and unfolded himself into the street. He pushed the door to close it, and the second his hand left the metal a tired screech lept out as the rusted hinge protested against the unaccustomed movement.
Lazarus stood outside the car door for a moment. He seemed to waver at the edges, but it might have been a trick of the bright sunlight. I couldn't blame anything on the helio anymore, and the feeling was like being naked.
I must have been coiled tighter than the car's rusted spring, because I jumped as the passenger-side window rolled down on its own. Lazarus's head popped through the opening.
"And, I must ask, if you will, umm, yes, let my poor pet out of the trunk. It is quite a hot day, and he has been through so dreadful much already, yes, yes he has. Ah, but you won't know about that yet, no, no. He won't be a bother at all, buddy-o."
And with that he was gone. Behind me the trunk popped its latch and the car rose slightly as a tremendous weight took its pressure off the suspension. I shut my eyes and leaned over to unlatch the passenger-side door. The parrot was waiting. It immediately hopped inside, digging into the seat with talons the size of mice.
I eyed the parrot's nearly bare, prickled flesh with disgust. Only a few feathers remained; the rest had wilted and fallen away over the course of the last two days. Every house I left, in fact, seemed to cause another patch of feathers to drop away. Its skin still oozed with some glutinous liquid I couldn't identify, but the skin was ever so slowly fading from sickly green to a light, pinkish beige. It almost had a human-like quality, albeit the hideous, muted humanity of Dr. Jekyll mid-transformation into the murderous Hyde.
The God-awful thing was still growing, too. Almost in front of my eyes, although it seemed to happen in the moments when it was out of sight, behind me or, more often, locked in the trunk. Its head now almost brushed the ceiling of the car. If it ruffled its feathers in the passenger seat, the dead-chicken skin of its bare wings would certainly brush my arms. The thought pushed me against my own door, giving me precious inches of distance from the molting monstrosity. The parrot watched this expressionlessly, but as Lazarus had promised, he remained silent.
I rolled a window down to clear the rotting stink that followed the parrot like a pet dog – my head practically out the window, I was leaning away so hard – then sent two helio tabs on a one-way trip to my nervous system. The helio may not have been fogging my brain as much as usual, but I still needed it; God damn it, I still wanted it. I watched a dust devil dance to the edge of the road and then flit away and dissipate, then stared at nothing at all until the helio settled in and flooded my limbs with clouds.
With a final disparaging glance at the parrot, I lit a cigarette and drove away. Amanda was waiting.
By the time I pulled into Amanda Seifred's driveway it was nearly five o'clock and the sun was fliickering in and out of the tall trees that lined the gravel drive. The house was small and yellow, a one-story bungalow sided with pre-fab vinyl and hemmed in with a strip of garden that looked unkempt but once loved. Snow-white Asiatic lillies struggled valiantly through a thin carpet of weeds, the kind my mom used to grow at our old house. I could almost smell their honey-sweet scent from the car, but of course, I couldn't – nothing could penetrate the parrot's olfactory assault.
A sea of shaggy lawn, most of it browned and faded in the summer heat, crept in on the house, and I had to swing the car across a strip of knee-high grass where it carved a thin crescent over the driveway. If it had been earlier and the lights in the house hadn't been on I might have thought the house was abandoned. It wasn't – Lazarus always knew what he was talking about, and even as my tires crunched on gravel I could see a moving silhouette through the drawn blinds. A mite feeble, Lazarus had said. She must be elderly, then. And probably a widow, judging by the neglected state of the house's exterior.
I recalled the other thing Lazarus had said that had struck a nerve: "Ah, but you won't know about that yet, no, no." Everything Lazarus said meant something, and I wondered what he meant by that. A chill ran unbidden up my spine, and I tried to shake it off while I put the car in park and shut off the engine. There was a time – only two days ago? Shit, it felt like a lifetime – where I would have tried to sneak up to the house, tried to deceive my way into their homes. The first two had been like that before I realized that it made no difference if they saw me coming. Somehow they always let me in. Somehow it always worked out. You won't know about that yet, no, no.
I glared at the parrot and said, "Stay in the car or I'll kill you again."
The parrot winked with its good eye and screamed, "Please! Oh my God, I'll do anything. Just make it stop...oh God make it stop!," then fell to sobbing, its face expressionless the whole time, a tape recorder set to murder.
The chill returned, and this time I couldn't shake it. I reached onto the back seat, grabbed the knife, and got out of the car, my hand shaking the whole time.
I walked through falling dusk to Amanda Seifred's front door.
She looked like my grandmother.
Her white hair was pulled into a tight bun on the back of her head. A few defiant curls hung over her forehead, and she pushed them back as she opened the door. A brief look of curiosity stole over her face before she offered me a friendly smile and welcomed me inside. No fear, no distrust. God damnit, why did it have to be this easy? A fight, some rude words and a slamming door, Jesus anything except this absolutely altruistic neighborliness they all offered me, a stranger calling unannounced on their doorstep. The house smelled like brownies and the knife in my waistband felt cold against my back.
With disarming faith, Amanda Seifred led me into her living room and offered me a drink. I sat down gingerly on the edge of a flowered sofa and politely declined. The table beside me was covered in ceramic cats. The overstuffed cushion under me made me feel stiff and uncomfortable. I scooted closer to the edge and nearly slid off. Amanda was giving me a questioning look, but was still too polite to ask why I was there.
To kill you of course, yes, yes, I would have to say, before pulling out the butcher's knife and slipping its edge across her whispy throat. The blood wouldn't come out of this beige carpet.
Instead I cleared my throat and managed to croak, "Maybe I will take that drink, thank you."
"Oh of course, dear," Amanda said, whirling toward the kitchen. "My, you look parched. Such a hot summer this year, don't you think?"
Sure, let's chat about the weather. Why not?
"Sure is a scorcher," I called after her. I could hear the clink of ice in the next room as she filled my glass.
"So unlike Portland. Although maybe that's the old me talking," she laughed and emerged with a glass of lemonade clenched carefully in two thin hands. The ice and woman tinkled together for a moment. "When I grew up here – not in this house, you see, just a bit down the road – we would have months of rain on end. The ol' Portland mist, they'd say, but my did it make things grow." She handed me the glass and perched delicately in the chair in front of me as she talked. She folded her hands in her lap.
"...sequoia forest for miles and miles, right behind us here," Amanda waved a hand toward the hallway behind her. "That's where Daryl – my husband, you see. Late husband, God rest him – hunted buck. This must have been, oh, two-thousand twelve or thirteen, before it all started drying up, and before the animals, well, you know. You might have been just a little boy then, God bless you."
My teeth were grinding so hard she must have been deaf not to hear them. I raised the lemonade to my lips and took a shaky sip, then nodded. She even spoke like my grandmother. Maybe I could clean the carpet after. That would at least-
"...dear? You alright, dear? You look pale. Is it the lemonade?" I looked up into her eyes and I don't know what she saw there but she recoiled as if I'd bitten her.
"I...," I began.
"What brings you over tonight?" The kindly grandmother was fading and a look approaching fear was falling over her face.
"Oh dear, you're crying. What's wrong?" Her maternal instincts were keeping the fear at bay.
"I'm so...so sorry." I was crying, thick drops that curled around my cheeks and pooled salty at the corners of my lips. The kindly grandmother blurred. The glass slipped through my hands and thumped to the carpet, spraying ice and lemonade against my legs. I clutched the wooden sofa arm.
"I don't want to...I...I have to. Please understand."
"Tell me what's wrong, son. I'll help if I can. I promise I will. I'll help you."
"What would you do? To live? What's...where should it end? I mean, it's worth it, right? To live?"
"Of course it is, dear. Life is always worth it. Oh my. Perhaps...maybe I could call my pastor and ask him to come over. Lovely man, he-" she reached a gentle hand out to touch my arm. I recoiled as she had moments earlier, the touch burning worse than a red-hot fire poker.
Amanda looked flustered.
"Hold on here, dear. I'll just give him a call..." she stood to get her phone.
"NO!" I snarled at her. "Sit down."
She obliged, the fear returning. My head was clearing, as it had cleared in Gammans Park just before I'd groped in the dirt for a shard of glass and forced it through the parrot's papery breast. The cycle was constant, and now the anger surged up from my belly to smash away the tears. In spite of my plan, I was getting angry. It terrified me.
Grappling with these emotions, I reached behind me and slipped the knife out of my waistband, gripped it so hard that the young scab forming across my palm – where the bottle in Gamman's Park had cut me – tore open and began bleeding fresh. I stood, and as Amanda realized what was happening she crumpled lower into the chair and begged me with her eyes. I don't know what she saw looking back at her, but as my emotions ran the gamut of terror, rage, and sorrow, I'm sure they must have all played over my irises like a flicker-film. A cold sweat pricked at my neck, and I breathed the words to myself, to Lazarus, more than to Amanda Seifred, "This is your sacrifice. With it you save the world. I'm sorry."
Then I raised the knife and jammed it forward. My grave was getting deeper.
The parrot was waiting patiently in the car when I opened the door. I tossed the bloody knife onto the backseat, lit a cigarette, and the two of us sat in silence for what felt like the lifespan of the universe. Eventually, I picked up a green Sharpie from the change depression in the center console and traced a thick line through Amanda Seifred on my tiny scrap of paper. A handful of feathers dropped off the parrot. I noticed that its head was now pressed against the yellow fabric of the car's ceiling. I put the car into gear and backed into the driveway.
Suddenly I stopped and threw open the door. When I climbed back in, I was holding a white Asiatic lily between my fingers, one petal already smeared with a bright red thumbprint.
We drove on. It was getting late, and I still had one more stop to make.
The parrot was oppressive. I had killed a person yesterday, and that memory mingled with the reek of decayed flesh wafting from the parrot's feathers, just another straw in the mounting clusterfuck and the camel's back was fast approaching a splintery finale.
It was sitting in the passenger seat, its head about halfway up the seat back, body half bald from its sudden fit of molting. Without a word I grabbed it by the neck and carried it around to the back of the car. I tossed it into the trunk and slammed the door shut.
I'd been awake all last night, replaying the first of my "sacrifices" in my mind. The third floor apartment. The dingy furniture. The unwashed dishes stained with a week-old crust of tomato sauce scattered around the living room. The blare of a reality show through the floor-to-ceiling Hyperlife set. Richard Stallins, a cliche for the scum of all the Earth. I'd learn eventually that that had been an easy one. Lazarus had probably planned it to be. Stallins was an asshole, and probably guilty of more than a few unpaid parking tickets. He had the look of a serial abuser, a power-driven low-life who took out his pent up anger on first the wife, then the kids, then the girlfriend on the weekends. Thank God there weren't any dogs he could kick around.
When I'd knocked on the door, he'd opened it wearing a pair of green plaid boxers and an off-white T-shirt with a surrealist landscape of brown stains that Salvador Dali couldn't have improved with a wine glass full of acid.
I had pressed myself against the wall beside the door immediately after knocking, and when Richard Stallins opened it, I'd slammed the full weight of my body into him, driving him back into the living room. He'd fallen backward and I'd tripped on a rug in front of the door and tumbled down onto him. He'd let out a wheezing "Ooof" as my elbow came down onto his beer gut.
Out of the corner of my eye, I'd seen a pair of terrified eyes peeking through an open door at about waist height. Uncombed brown curls, dirt-streaked cheeks. Before I could turn to look, they'd disappeared around the jamb. A woman had come running into the room at the sound of the crash, and Richard Stallins, that shitty oaf, crushed under an unknown threat, had shouted, "Back in the goddamn bedroom, Marce!"
I'd shouted the script Lazarus had given me, then stuck my kitchen knife straight through his bulging gut. No time wasted. I'd heard crying, and didn't realize until I was stumbling down the hall during my escape that it had been coming from me.
That one had been messy, and it wouldn't go away, no matter how many tabs I tried to drown in that night. I'd killed a person. Stallins had been pure trash, but fuck, I wasn't God. I wasn't one to judge a person's sins. Maybe he deserved to die; I'd seen the terror on that kid, on his wife. That wasn't all from me. They were scared of him – so scared that they hadn't come out of their rooms while a man fucking stabbed him, because what if I didn't finish the job and he got mad at their disobedience? Maybe he spent every night eating dinner with his family and gave each one a round of black eyes for dessert.
But maybe he didn't.
All night the scenarios ran through my head, danced like demons in the moonlight, always beside me, behind me, always just out of my grasping fingers.
Eventually, my thoughts had turned away from Stallins and to the conversation with Lazarus in the kitchen. While he was there, I'd gone into some sort of trance. Everything he said rang true, and that was how it must be. But away from him now for several hours, the veneer of his power was wearing thin and I found that I could think about his words without the complete, dumb agreement I'd felt at the time.
Sacrifices, he'd said. That's what the names on the scrap of paper buried in my pants pocket were. They were sacrifices that would save the world. I'd been chosen because of who I was: a nobody. A junkie with nothing left to live for, so hell, why not save the world on my way out? The way he put it, the whole thing sounded noble. And the names on the list, they'd been chosen very specifically as well, he'd told me. They all had to atone for something or another.
Why, though? Who are you working for? I'd asked.
Ah, yes, yes, that is the thing, isn't it? I must have been sent. Well, ah, yes, the truth of it is, I have. By very powerful people, Lazarus had replied.
It's not the motive that matters so much as the result, and these people, uh, yes, they are eager for a result that will benefit us all. This planet is, ah, well, it's dying. Very, very rapidly, you see. It's, well, in its throes, so to speak.
And I'm supposed to stop that?
You're not the first, and, umm, yes, you won't be the last, not quite. What you are is a step, yes, an important step, in the achievement of this goal. A step, yes, and I shouldn't say, but a step very near the end.
But I'm not...I'm not going to kill anyone.
Well, ah, you see, you really have to. It must be done, yes, unfortunate as it is, it really must be done. I will tell you why, yes. To, ah, start with, if you don't, I will kill you. It is, as you see, very important this is done. And yes, yes, there is more. You see, as you may have noticed, very, uh, bizarre, yes, bizarre things have been happening. There is a current at work, yes, yes, a current that pulls all with it. All, you see. All the people and all the things around them. Drags, you might say. Spasms. Sweeps the, uh, chaff, yes. To the sea. It is not our doing, although we have, ah, well, we have been a part of it, although I shouldn't say.
I don't think I can. Kill anyone. I can't.
It is in you, in you already. You have, uh, killed already, have you not? My messenger, yes, yes, you have proven yourself, as it were.
That's different than a person.
Oh that it were, yes, oh that it were. You do not understand this, nor, uh, do any of you, but the difference is, ah, negligible. Your animals are gone, yes, yes, but not for the reason you believe. Few know they are worthy, and all that. As it stands, my, ah, messenger, will return to you. It is more than it seems, yes, much more, much more.
I don't care. I won't do it.
Yes, yes, I see. This is unfortunate. Ah, well, down the list.
As he said that, Lazarus had reached out and grasped my temples between his hands. There was no pressure, but all of a sudden the pain was unbearable. I'd shrieked, but the pain only got worse. It wasn't physical; it was mental, emotional. With a gushing torrent my entire heliocaine fog had lifted and every painful moment I'd ever experienced came rushing back to me all at once. Pringle, dead. The deaths of my parents. Rejections. Cheating girlfriends. The crushing, inescapable loneliness of my life. In an instant I felt every single one in crystal clarity.
And the longer Lazarus held his hands to my head, the harder I felt it all. The pain of it all multiplied ten, a hundred times. My skull felt like it would shatter, implode into a black hole that would suck me in with it and hold me for eternity. The despair was overwhelming. It was a death of spirit that Lazarus laid on me, and I would have taken a thousand physical deaths to only stop it. I would take a thousand lives to make sure it never happened again.
I couldn't even hear myself scream: '"I'll do it! Whatever you want, man! Please! Whatever it takes!"
Lazarus pulled his hands away and I swear pieces of my mind stuck to them like glue. He was smiling. Of course I'd do it. I'm sure we all did.
But the more I'd thought about the conversation that night after my first sacrifice, the more I thought about the whole thing, the less sense it all made. What did the people on this list have to do with the fate of the world? Why bother with the parrot? Why do any of this when Lazarus was clearly capable of handling it himself. I began to wonder, right then, if I'd simply snapped and was having a highly elaborate hallucination. It had happened before. The helio fucked with you. Lazarus might just be a figure of my imagination. He barely seemed human anyway.
Was I? Was I breaking down? It made more sense than the other explanation: that Lazarus was on a mission to save the planet, and the only way that could happen was if I killed five random people. My world had been fragmenting lately; the helio had a way of pulling the pieces away and rearranging them. Was this how people went crazy? Was it just like real life, but different? When you dreamed, did you know you were dreaming?
It was about that point, as flitting memories of the last several days whirled through my head, that some of the pieces came together. There was a current, as Lazarus had said, through all of this. It must have been an hour later, but suddenly I realized that I had started putting together a plan. I couldn't do it there, though. I rolled out of bed and made my way to the kitchen.
I'd spent the rest of the night on the Hyperlife portal at the kitchen holo-counter, and the sleepless hours were catching up to me. I was on edge, wired and twitchy. As I pulled up to the ornate wrought iron gate in the upper west side, I heard the parrot thumping in the trunk. I resisted the urge to get out right there and choke it to death. I checked the name and address on my slip of paper again:
508 Westminster Ln.
I wasn't even at the house yet, but the grounds were lavish. Even the drive leading up to the property was impeccably maintained, lined with begonias and a few miraculous pine saplings rarely seen this side of the blight. I doubted they were real, or at least, original. Cloning and biomanipulation had managed to save specimens of some of the old plants, but that kind of engineering took serious money, and Amy Partridge apparently had enough to spend it on her landscaping.
I rolled to a stop at the closed gate and waited until a buzz announced the attention of a guard.
"Got a delivery here for Mrs. Partridge," I breathed into the mesh speaker that was set into the squat marble column right outside my window. I couldn't make out the garbled reply, but the gates soundlessly swung inward. I rolled on with the feeling that I should be amazed the lie had worked, but at that point I was too high to care much. What I was doing...what I was going to do...would be infinitely more dangerous than my trenchant rendevous with Stallins yesterday. There was much more at stake here, and it wasn't the twelve-foot-high cement walls around this property that made me so nervous. So I'd come prepared: a triple tab in the house and a fourth on the drive for good measure.
In this state of abysmal functionality, I inched my car along the winding entranceway, feeling like I was speeding toward my doom even though the speedometer needle barely kissed the little white 10. The yard – if you could describe it with such a lowly word – was massive. Three gardeners worked the mulch beds; a fourth tenderly pruned a large leafy shrub that was so distant it practically faded into the horizon. If Amy Partridge's house hadn't been so opulent, I wouldn't have even paid attention to it, lost as I was in my own chemically anxious thoughts.
After a lifetime, the house proper rolled into view. Pure white with columns that tickled the clouds. Red-clay awnings over windows and doors placed in a carefully haphazard array. Picture windows glittering in the crass, naked sunlight. Engineered pine saplings might be in the budget for the entranceway, but even the president couldn't afford trees large enough to make sunlight do anything as elegant as dapple.
As my car approached, a servant in a black tuxedo walked to the roundabout to meet me. He greeted me formally and asked for the package I was delivering. I hadn't expected that. If this was going to work, I had to meet Amy face to face. Even then it might not work, but that was the only chance. Lazarus would know if I didn't.
"It's, uh, for her eyes only. I've been specifically instructed to deliver it in person. Highly sensitive," I ad libbed, then took a deep breath and willed my eyes to stay focused. Even so, the servant wavered at the edges. I fought the urge to puke.
The servant narrowed his eyes a nanometer and regarded me coldly.
"I'm afraid that's out of the question," he said. "I will ensure it reaches the lady untouched. Now, if you please. I am a busy man."
"I can't do that, Mr..."
"Everton, " he grimaced. "And yes, I think you can."
"Mr. Everton, look, I was told explicitly that I had to watch this package enter Mrs. Patridge's hands with my own two eyes, and it had to be leaving my own two hands when I did that. I don't think she'll appreciate you delaying its arrival. As I understand, she's anxious for its arrival."
Everton brushed aside the tone of authority I'd mustered as if it were a cobweb and spoke slowly, as if to a child, "Quite out of the question."
"Your call, Everton. I'll have to report this to Stallins of course." I don't know why I used the dead man's name, but I was grasping at straws and hoping that somehow, somehow, these people were all connected.
Everton's expression of disdain didn't disappear, but his eyes widened slightly. I'd struck something.
"Very well. If you'll please wait here I will announce your arrival to Lady Partridge."
With that he turned on his heel and strode up the polished front steps. I waited until he disappeared through the door, waited just a second longer, in case he was standing there watching, then slipped out of the car and ran up after him. I stumbled on the first step, but caught my balance and lunged forward in time to stab a finger between the door and the jamb an instant before the heavy wood – actual wood – panel swung shut on its spring hinge.
Thinking quiet thoughts, I slipped into the dim interior and guided the door silently home. I was standing in an expansive foyer with ceilings so high I didn't even notice they were there. It felt like a gymnasium after all the children have gone home, hushed and haunted. Every footstep rang like a thunderclap in the stillness.
There were at least half a dozen doors leading away from various edges of the foyer, and a long hallway stretched away directly opposite the front door. Everton must have moved quickly, because I didn't see any other doors swinging shut, and I figured I would have still been able to see him if he'd taken the hallway. A roiling wave of bile pushed into my throat and I retched into a potted plant beside the door. Too much helio, that was all. I told myself that I wasn't scared shitless, both of what I was doing now and what Lazarus would do to me later. Just the helio. That's it.
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and moved deeper into the softly glowing cave. Softly jiggled the knob on the first door I came to. Locked. There were four doors on this side of the foyer, and I slipped along the wall to the next in line. Locked. The third door swung open and I was face-to-face with shadowy shelves of stacked linen. A closet.
I eased the door shut and tip-toed toward the last door on this side when, across the foyer, another door eased open and Everton strode out, heels clicking on the marble floor. He was just turning to close the door when he spied me. My back was pressed against the wall. I looked suspicious as fuck.
"Sir!" Everton's voice cut through the silent hall and ricocheted off the walls in a flutter of echoes. "You shouldn't be in here. Come with me. Now." It wasn't a request.
I blanched. My lips felt crusty from where I'd puked. My saliva turned to cobwebs.
"I...uh...," I stuttered.
"That's quite enough. You will be leaving now, before I call the police."
This wasn't going well. Everton was rapidly clicking toward me, his face set like he had the unpleasant but menial task of squishing an errant spider. Then I noticed it: In his haste, he'd left the door behind him cracked open. A beam of light shone out into the dim foyer. I left my wall and walked quickly out to meet Everton in the middle of the floor. I had to be fast.
"Thought I'd go ahead and bring the package in," I said, talking as I walked. "She must be expecting it."
"Mrs. Partridge is expecting no such delivery toda– Hey!"
Using my momentum, I grabbed his outstretched arm in one hand, planted my other hand on his chest, and swung us both in a half circle, shoving off of him as I did. Now I was closer to the open door and he was stumbling to regain his balance. I sprinted toward the door. I heard his shoes slapping the floor in pursuit, but I was almost there, almost there. I wrapped a hand around the door's edge and slid through the opening, slamming it shut behind me. The door caught on something and I shoved my shoulder into it, twisting the lock at the same time. A muffled howl of pain sounded from the foyer and something wet sprayed across my face. I leaned against the door to catch my breath and only then noticed the finger lying on the brown carpet between my feet, squirting blood. I wiped a hand across my face and brought it away with a long red streak on the palm. The door had cut off Everton's finger.
I puked on the carpet, on the finger.
"Well that was rude."
Amy Partridge was large even by whale standards. She reminded me of a character in an old animated film I'd seen as a child, all skits and scenes set to classical music. Beautiful young centaurs and unicorn donkeys dancing at a feast in the woods, and in the center was the fat, drunken god of good cheer dressed in a toga and a red cape with grape clusters behind his ears in an imitation of a caesar's olive branch, guzzling from a golden chalice. Bacchus, in Greek, I think. The patron deity of alcohol and obesity and food and rock-out-with-your-cock-out good times.
That was the impression I had of Amy Partridge, although she wasn't wearing a toga and a red cape; worse, she was dressed in a neck-to-thigh silken dressing gown. There had to have been a mile of fabric stretched across unmentionable places, and the whole kit and caboodle was draped sanguinely over what must have been a custom ordered (and reinforced) slope-backed leather sofa.
I'd been fixated on first shutting the door on Everton and then on the dismembered three-quarters of a finger that lay like a dead worm on the floor that I hadn't seen her at first.
And then I'd puked, and she'd made the first move.
"Well that was rude."
I looked up from the floor, wide-eyed with pupils the size of pinpricks, and took her in for the first time. There was a lot of ground to cover. It didn't help that, like Lazarus, like Everton, she had a wavery quality at the edges, like water on glass. A lion skin hung from the wall behind her, head still attached and mouth gaping.
"I'm sorry," I said, once again wiping my mouth on my sleeve. "Please don't call the cops. I gotta talk to you."
She giggled, a high-pitched, warbling sound, and stretched a leg higher up on the sofa.
"And why not? That was quite a show you put on there with Quincy. A girl could be in danger, here."
I guessed her age to be thirty-five, maybe forty. Hell, maybe twenty-five or sixty, for all I could really tell. Either way, "girl" seemed like a stretch. I also realized why she had a hardass stiff like Everton looking out for her: She didn't seem too capable of doing it herself. Suddenly I regretted the finger. An easy fix these days, but shit, that still had to hurt.
"Look, you have to listen to me. I..."
"Want to play a game first?" she interrupted. "It'll be fuuuun." She wiggled a playful finger at me.
"I, uh, no. I have to kill you."
"Oh don't be so serious!" she retorted in a lilting tone. I stared in disbelief. What kind of person acted like this to someone who'd just barged into their home? It was unreal. I simultaneously wished I'd taken more helio and not so much. The room was tilting. I couldn't handle this. Let me just pass out here and wake up in a jail cell. Surround me with cops and guards, let them punish me for my helio addiction. Lazarus couldn't reach me there. Could he? But even as I thought about it, I knew he could. I had to do it this way.
"Mrs. Partridge, I need you to listen to me." I spoke slowly, the way Everton had earlier. I was speaking to a child.
"Oooh, so forceful. Well alright then. We'll do it your way. I am your audience," she ended with a dramatic flourish.
"I've been sent here to kill you," I said, speaking quickly now while I had her attention. "I killed Richard Stallins yesterday, and you're next."
"Oh, despicable man," she said, seemingly oblivious to the threat I'd just made against her life.
"So you do know Stallins."
"I do. Well, knew him, apparently. And bravo for that, young man."
"How did you know him?"
"Oh, nevermind that. It must have been, oh, fifteen years ago. We were lovers, if you can believe it. Ancient history. Hardly worth talking about. But you...," she raped me with a glance, "...you are something worth talking about. Come have a seat." She patted the chair beside her and the motion sent ripples through the fat from her wrist to her shoulder.
"Don't you care that I'm going to kill you?" I asked.
"You and what army?" The giggle surged out again, though harsher and more raucous than before.
"You don't seem worried."
"If by worried you mean drunk, then yes, very," she burped. "But okay, I guess so, but who cares? Do it. I've been waiting for you – or someone like you – for years now. I deserve it."
"Why do you deserve it?"
"Oh, we all do. Richard, Exoria, Paul, Amanda, Damien, the whole bunch." Her giggles were losing their mirth and gaining a touch of bitterness. "They fucked me, I fucked them, who wasn't fucking someone back then?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, it was the big thing then. Just a startup of course, but we knew it would be big, all of us. I guess I got the longer end of the stick," she waved her arms in a vague circle around her, indicating the wood-paneled walls, the Eqyptian cotton drapes, the antique furniture, the God damn furs, not just the wealth but the natural wealth. The wealth that could no longer be bought. The longer end indeed.
"...the capital, Paul was the brains, and I was the face of it," she continued.
"The face of what?"
"Sensolife of course."
Partridge! Suddenly it clicked. The Partridge Foundation behind the system that sat in every home and office building across half the world. The feathered logo plastered on every set of hardware. The "Pretty Bird" commercials that used to air on the old-fashioned plasma TV sets, what, a decade ago at least. "Pretty bird, won't you fly back to me. Pretty bird, you're all I can see. Hyperlife, come on home to me birdy."
I must have been humming the tune because Amy Partridge threw back her head and giggled, all the bitterness gone.
"That's it! Gawd, it's been years since I've heard that. That was me, you know. I've changed since then. This fucking body has seen better days, but that was me."
I could see it, now that I knew what I was looking for. Beneath the folds of flesh and drooping cellulite of Amy Partridge I could see the fair-skinned blonde actress in the ad, a college girl in her dorm room using the first Hyperlife model to call home to her parents and tell them what a wonderful time she was having. "Pretty bird, won't you fly back to me."
"Jesus Christ," I breathed, trying to work out how it all fit together. What did Lazarus have to do with Hyperlife? Something, obviously. Two people – Richard Stallins and now Amy Partridge – deeply involved in the inception of the world's largest corporation, it was too bizarre to be a coincidence. And then there was...
"Amanda, you said earlier. Amanda Seifred?"
"Oh sure, she and her husband put in the first $10,000 to get it started. It's not a lot now, hell, it wasn't a lot then," she giggled, "but it was what we needed to get the first prototype up and running. They were never interested in getting too rich, really just helping out a few plucky young kids, and they had some savings lying around to spare. It was all so serendipitous, really, how it all worked out. But then Amanda and Daryl sold their shares after the second or third Hyperlife model – we were big by then – got their investment back plus a few million, or hundred million, I can't remember, and settled down somewhere together. Up north of Portland, I think. They were so in love. It was the cutest thing." Amy trailed off in thought.
"Does the name Lazarus mean anything to you?" I asked in the lull.
Amy frowned, thinking.
"No, it doesn't ring a bell, no."
"Who was Richard Stallins?"
"He came in about a year after we hit it big. Head of security, but I'm pretty sure Damien had him doing more than just stopping threats. Anyway, he pretty much wormed his way up until he was brushing elbows with the rest of us, one of the 'Hyperlife Bigshots,' the news called him whenever he made it on, which he did a lot. Extortion, blackmail, contract hits, all of it accusations, it never went further than that. Never convicted in court, of course. The snake always shed his skin and slipped free when the pressure got hot.
"I think we all just turned a blind eye to what he was doing, but we all knew. We all knew. Shit...I was in his bed every other night. How could I not know? But business was good, you know? Let it happen, we figured. Maybe he's the reason why business was so good. We never got much competition, but again, we never let small details like that bother us."
I must have stopped nodding in understanding, because Amy got a pained look on her face.
"God, you must think I'm some kind of monster. It wasn't what we intended. Any of this. And then the world fell to shit. In other ways, I mean. The animals were already gone. Did you ever have a pet? I had a pair of golden retrievers. Lassie and Laika. Stupid, I know. Laika actually inspired the Hyperlife song. From the ads. It was an old pop song, 'Laika Come Home.' We just switched it to the bird because, well, that was our thing. Damien made the decisions, we kind of went with them. The money was...well, you know. And there was...other help. You wouldn't believe me if I told you.
"And while it happened, everything else happened. It was like we were standing on the ashes of the world. It got hotter. The trees started going. Did you see the pines in the drive? On your way in? Sixteen million apiece. I get so nostalgic sometimes, though. For the good ol' days. I had to have them. The rest of the animals disappeared. The otters, the squirrels, the cats, the birds. Well, not all the birds. Not Pretty Bird." The mirthless giggle returned, an obscenity clawing free of her mouth. "You could say we were the only animal left. And we just kept getting richer as the world got sicker."
The room lapsed into silence. The lion skin hung on the wall obstinately, a contradiction to everything outside this house.
"What did you mean 'other help?' " I asked.
"Higher help, I guess. Powerful. Like I said, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Are you going to kill me or not?"
The question caught me by surprise. "You mean you want me to?"
"I've been waiting for it for years."
"Look at me!" she said, her voice dry and cynical. "I've lost it. There's nothing left for me. More food? More liquor? More money? Ha ha, fuck it all. I've had it. All of it. Just do what you came to do and leave."
I slid the butcher's knife from my waistband, the same one I'd used to kill Richard Stallins, the same one I'd eventually take to Amanda Seifred's house. Amy's face looked startled for an instant, but then went back to normal. I had to admire her control. She and I were kindred spirits, really. She had her alcohol and I had my helio. Different addictions, same problem.
Holding the knife down at my side, I walked toward her. She didn't even tense in preparation, just watched me advance with something approaching joy in her eyes.
"I'm ready," she said.
I pointed the tip of the knife at her, its blade still stained with Stallins's blood. This had to be perfect. I didn't know what Lazarus could see. Doubts clouded my thoughts and I struggled to walk straight. What if I really was wrong about all this? What if Lazarus was a hallucination? I could have found the Hyperlife connection between all these people after a few hours browsing the Internet, then created this entire scenario in the midst of a mental breakdown. How could I be sure? I couldn't, that was the hell of it.
I leaned in so close I could smell her body odor. Propped my knee onto the couch between her thighs. She was crying. And laughing. They were tears of joy, streaming down her sagging face. She had been waiting for this. In a way, that made this whole thing worse. The razor tip of the blade snagged her nightgown. I was so close I had to lean on her a little to support myself around her bulk. Was the knife even big enough? It didn't matter now.
With the knife between my body and hers, I came in close enough to feel her breath tickle my cheek. The tears had turned to sobs. She was talking about something, confessing something. It was hard to hear between the choking pauses. Lee-ens, it sounded like. Another name? Another "Hyperlife Bigshot?"
My cheek was pressed against hers, and my body was humped uncomfortably around the knife; the handle dug into my belly, the blade dug into hers. This was good enough.
"This is your sacrifice," I began, voice loud and clear, letting it fill the room.
"Thank you...thank you," she murmured.
"With it you save the world."
A low moan escaped her lips. She wanted it to happen as much as Lazarus. I was only starting to get the faintest shadow of an idea of what these people had done, but I knew more than I'd known yesterday.
Amy's eyes were closed. She was still waiting for the blade to slice through her heart. I almost hated to disappoint her.
"I'm not going to kill you," I whispered. "Listen to me now. You have to fake your death. At least for a little while. If you can trust your servant out there, let him in on it. If not, I'll lock the door from the inside when I leave. Just don't answer his calls. Just for a day. Please."
I leaned back slightly and found Amy staring at me with wide, tearful eyes.
"Why?" she sobbed.
"I think I can stop all of this. I think I can bring it all back. Please. If you don't do this we'll all die anyway."
"Asshole," she whispered. "Fuck you, I want to die. Why won't you let me? Who cares if it's all better? What we've done..."
"Can I trust you? Please."
She searched my face, looking for something. A sign that I'd do it, maybe, a glimmer that showed I could kill her if I wanted. I don't know what she found, but after a moment she let out a deep sigh that I could feel all the way from her chest. She lowered her eyes.
"I'll do it. But promise me," her thick fingers gripped my head and fire filled her eyes, "promise me you'll see it through. Promise me."
"Promise," I said, then pulled myself off the sofa, off her, and walked toward the door.
"Asshole," I heard her whisper behind me, and then I was through the door, thumbing the lock on the inside as I passed. I'd picked up Everton's finger as I passed and I looked for him, but he wasn't in the foyer. I laid it gently on the floor outside Amy's door, then walked outside to my car and drove away.
Lazarus had powers I didn't understand, hands and eyes that reached farther and deeper than I could fathom. The chilling question that nagged at my thoughts unceasingly was: How deep? How far? The fact that I didn't know set my teeth on edge. Did he know? Did he know that I hadn't killed Amy Partridge, or Amanda Seifred, or Paul Buchman, or any of the names on the list after Richard Stallins?
Had my ruse worked?
I'd already figured out that the parrot was probably more than the messenger that Lazarus claimed him to be. He was more likely a chaperone sent with me to ensure I did what I was supposed to. Did he report back to Lazarus? Or did Lazarus see through the parrot's eyes, use him as a walking video feed to keep tabs on my mission? I didn't know the answers to any of these questions, and it was the unknowing that plagued me. He could be around any corner, inside any door. How do you deceive a shadow? How do you run? How do you fight?
I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of it all, but somehow I stuck doggedly to my plan, and each sacrifice I visited filled in the gaps just a little bit more. Only they weren't sacrifices anymore. Now they were, I don't know, liabilities? After Stallins, I hadn't killed a thing, but in my paranoia I had followed through with his instructions down to the last detail. Except for the detail where I was supposed to actually kill them. I imagined eyes in the sky, in the walls of their homes, watching and observing everything I did. I kept up the facade even while alone; I wept in grief at the blood that had spilled on my hands; I feigned the fight for my own life.
Because when it came down to it, I couldn't trust Lazarus wholeheartedly, even with my life in the balance. I couldn't kill so many people just to save myself. One was too much, and I regretted Stallins every second. I regretted it in the day, and in the nightmares that haunted my fitful nights.
I was doing more helio than ever now. I couldn't stop. It was the only thing that kept the violent, razor edge of my guilt from tearing into me.
So I slipped another tab into the coilgate and steered my car into a head-on collision with fate.
I was on the way to meet Lazarus for the final time. The parrot was still in the passenger seat. It was more grotesque than ever. Its feathers were now completely gone; my trunk and passenger seat were littered with them. Its wings had lengthened and narrowed, and small, slimy nubs were growing out at the ends. Its beak had shortened and, yesterday as I'd driven away from Amanda Seifred's house, a hard crust had fallen off of it like a molting locust skin. The fleshy bump left under its eyes was soft and pink, a snail without its shell. The underpart of its beak had widened and resembled a thin, lipless mouth.
Its eyes had grown as well. The injured eye now had a permanent scab over it, but the edges of it were now almond-shaped instead of circular. Its good eye had a dark black pupil set inside a distinctly brown iris, and the sclera was whitening, although still bloodshot. The entire topography of its face seemed to have shifted. Its eyes now looked more directly to the front; the ridge that had run from its forehead down to its beak was receding, making its face flatter.
It didn't stand on its claws anymore, either. Its mottled, featherless ass now rested on the cushion of the car seat with two thick, stubby legs propped up in front of it. Like the beak, the scaly skin of its legs had hardened, gone brittle, then fallen off in big, whispy flakes. I was pretty sure there were four talons at the ends of each leg instead of three, too, and the claws themselves had sunk down into their softened ends.
I wouldn't let myself form the most fitting description for it, because I already knew what that was and it terrified me.
It had been silent, for the most part, ever since Lazarus had stopped me on the way to Amanda Seifred's house and suggested that I take it out of the trunk, but there were occasional outbursts. All day yesterday it had been, "Please! Oh my God, I'll do anything. Just make it stop...oh God make it stop!"
They seemed to switch as regularly as clockwork. Every twenty-four hours or so, the parrot would crush the silence around me with a new wail or scream or plea for mercy. And it would go on, piercing my eardrums and rattling my soul until I felt like ripping the damn thing's head off its shoulders and tossing it out the window. But I never touched it. After Gammans Park, I never touched it again. It belonged to Lazarus.
And tracing back the outbursts, they almost seem to tell a sick, disturbed story. And after the second day, I'm sure of it, the perspective of the main character had switched. When I'd found the parrot on my porch, it had said, "Good day to die." After that, "You have to kill them." At least that part made sense now. But then the screams. The terror. The horrifying shrieks of agony. Those were the victim's, the ones I was never able to sweep out of my tortured thoughts.
And today's cry had sent a chill deeper into me than I ever knew something could reach.
I looked in the rearview mirror and got some comfort from the small, silver square lying on the back seat. It had slid up against the knife, but the blood was too dry and flaky now to leave a smear.
Some comfort, but ultimately that meant nothing.
The sharpest terror comes from the unknown, but somehow Gammans Park looked even more foreboding now that I knew what was inside and waiting for me. An aluminum can crunched between my tire and the road's asphalt surface as I rolled to a stop along the curb across the street from the park. I cut off the engine. The lumpy half-parrot reached over with a thick, sausage-like wing and hooked a nub around the door handle, pulling it open. I prayed for a truck to come screaming out of nowhere and tear the door off its rusty hinges, crushing the parrot beyond repair, beyond Lazarus's power to heal, but the door simply creaked open and the parrot hopped out, then pushed it closed behind him. I lit a cigarette and followed suit.
The park entrance yawned before us in full tangled glory, beckoning us into its maw. I don't know why I'd chosen this place other than that it seemed somehow fitting. Kill the messenger, kill the harbinger. Don't litter.
I was halfway across the street before I remembered. The parrot-thing waited patiently for me as I ran back to the car and leaned into the back seat, then trotted back to catch up. There was a muted agony in its eyes, the only expression I'd ever seen it give. I didn't feel sorry for it. How could I?
Although Gammans Park covered less than an acre, the overgrown path we chose seemed to wind through the briars and trash heaps for miles. More than once I wondered if we were going in circles, but something guided me through the turns like a dark hand. With every step, I felt him more strongly. His presence was a physical weight pushing down on my shoulders, making it hard to breathe. My muscles seemed to shrivel and my bones felt rotten. I was brittle, as if the smallest breeze would shatter me and carry the pieces away. He enveloped me.
Beside me, the parrot-thing walked with faltering steps. It didn't hop or waddle anymore; it wasn't even a parrot anymore. It was something much more monstrous and familiar, a small, disfigured version of the most recognizable shape on the planet.
Ahead of us, the path widened into a clearing that was ringed by a thicket of petrified vines and thornbushes. Now the parrot-thing stumbled ahead of me and I walked the last few steps alone.
Lazarus was waiting in the middle of the clearing. The burned out jungle gym towered behind him like a dark, skeletal guardian. Moonlight and malice shone in Lazarus's eyes. The parrot thing had stepped up beside him and the two of them watched me emerge from the overgrown tunnel of dead foliage. Lazarus had a hand on the back of the parrot's bald head, his fingers absently stroking the sloughing folds of skin that hung from its rounded pate. Two rotten peas in a pod. Dr. Evil and Mini-Me.
"So glad you could make it, yes, so very glad," said Lazarus. "You have done well, very well indeed."
I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or sincere. Something glinted in his dark eyes, and I doubted it was humor.
"I'll do it! Whatever it takes! I'll kill them. Whatever you want!" The parrot-thing shrieked, almost mockingly. My own words to Lazarus. Except the voice wasn't mine. Except the words weren't quite right.
"Yes, quite so, Damien. Quite so," purred Lazarus, his fingers still stroking the thing's head. "And so I believe he has, as you yourself did." Lazarus looked at me. "Have you enjoyed your time with my messenger? My little pet? Has he shown you the path?"
"I don't think I'm a parrot person," I said.
"Humor, yes, yes. This is good, very good. And you have, ah, completed your task, yes?"
"Don't you already know?"
"Ah, it is not what I know, not what I know, but what you choose to tell me, yes."
Was he testing me? Did he know I hadn't killed anyone else? Shit, could he read my mind? I tried not to think about Amanda or Amy. It wasn't hard; they slipped away on the sea of heliocaine sloshing through my skull.
"Yes?" He was waiting for an answer.
"...yes," I said hesitantly, then more confidently. "Yes." It was a gamble, possibly the most important wager I'd ever make.
Lazarus frowned, and the expression seemed to suck the light out of the clearing. My hands were sweating so much that I almost dropped the thing that was clasped under my arm. I gripped it tighter.
"It is, ah, important, I feel, for us to trust, yes, trust one another," Lazarus began. This was it. Shit. He knew. Shit!
"I wish things were different, I do. So very much," Lazarus continued. "An amiable path is so much more pleasant. It pains me, it does, so very much, to have to do these things. To have to treat your species in this way. But, ah, unfortunately, it seems the only way. Such obstinate creatures. So, um, stubborn, all of you. Ah, well, so it goes, as one of you once said. So it goes."
I waited, ready, for what I knew was coming. As Lazarus finished speaking, he cast his gaze sorrowfully on the parrot-thing waiting silently at his side. It was coming. I held the silver square in front of me with both hands. I had to catch him off guard.
There was no way I could have been prepared.
Lazarus moved faster than anything I'd ever seen. My eyes couldn't catch up. His hands were pressing into my temples before the image of him standing a dozen feet away fully changed. I lost my grip on my only weapon and it tumbled to the gravelly dirt unseen. My insides were fraying as Lazarus ripped at my spirit. Agonizing heartbreak filled me to the brim as every sorrow and deep isolation was revisited upon me, every wound ripped wide to the burning ocean spray of reality. Lazarus's ethereal fingers dug deeper, gouging the skin of my soul, penetrating it in bloody spurts that streamed through my skull and whisked away any and all sense of pleasure. I was falling, tearing, plummeting into a terrible void. Sinking like a stone. My back arched. Ligaments popped in my legs from the tension.
And as I sunk into the inky depths I saw the world open before me, cracking apart like a corpse and letting the maggots and rotten flesh spill into the light. The breath left my lungs and my chest caved. I was dying, dissipating, flying. Stretched into infinity I saw the universe, the visceral, endless scope of all we were and would ever be. The bitter isolation of existence. The world was a spinning rock wracked with cancer careening unguided through infinite space. Nothing mattered. The entire thing, every city, every home, every garden and monument and achievement and all the people in between who spent their lives toiling and sweating and bleeding and carving away each vein of happiness with blistered fingers would eventually plunge into the flames and disappear with a wisp of smoke and it would all end; and nothing would change; and the universe would go on, unheeding, unfeeling, and all of life was simply a hiccup in the vastness of it all and...and...
"And why do you care?" I surged out of the chasm Lazarus had driven me into and pushed him away from me. His fingers ripped away from my temples with a sucking sound. "Why the fuck do you care? You know, you know all of that, but you're still pissing around with individual people like it fucking makes a difference!"
Lazarus was caught off balance. For once, he had to think about his answer.
"Why don't you guys just blow us all away? Huh? I know. It's because you're not with the rest of them, isn't it? This is just you. Just you and your lies. You're not as strong as you want us to think you are, so you have to lie."
"A lie is perspective, yes, that is it. It's all about perspective. You see, we are not so different from you, yes, not so different at all. We are the same, just shifted, yes, you could say that."
He was still trying to reason with me, but I was past that.
"I know what you did with Hyperlife, what you did with all of those people. And I think I understand why. You're trapped here, aren't you? Kicked out of the flock. Amy told me some of it, and Amanda and the others filled in some of what she didn't know. And most of it came back to one person. Someone who wasn't on my list. Damien Wells. Seems like he went missing about ten days ago and nobody's heard from him since. See, here, on planet Earth, it raises some eyebrows when the CEO of the world's largest corporation just up and vanishes.
"But I went a little deeper than Damien. He wasn't the only Hyperlife employee who met an unexpected end. Five other people turned up dead in the next five days. Something familiar about all of that, isn't there? You've got a little string of killers going. So what went wrong? Hyperlife wasn't working for you anymore? Did Amy find out about you? What you were doing? Did Amanda? Is that why you wanted them dead?"
"Different directions, that's all. Different directions. These people were nothing to you. You had only to follow orders. But that time is over, yes, sorry for you, but life must go on. The job must go on, and I still require your servitude."
He'd caught me unprepared last time, but I was ready now. Before he finished his last sentence, I dropped to the ground and scooped up the sliver pad and flipped open its lid. The Hyperlife sequence I'd programmed last night streamed to life and Raymond Wilson's head floated like a ghost above the swipe pad.
"LAZARUS," boomed Ray's voice. His face contorted to a twisted scream before blinking into an absolute lack of expression. "YOU WERE WARNED NOT TO MEDDLE."
With that, the screen went blank. No more Ray. No beams of light from the sky. No salvation.
Lazarus seethed with rage.
"You don't know what you've done!" he shouted at me. "You don't know the powers you're fucking with!" His lilting, stop-and-go expressions were gone. In their place was pure wrath. I unconsciously stumbled backwards with the force of it.
"Damien! Hold him! You are released."
The sluggish, greasy parrot-thing sprung toward me, and as it came, it changed. Its legs grew longer. The talons sucked into stubby white toes. Its wings lengthened and thinned into muscular arms. Black hair streaked with white and silver burst from the top of its head. Its thin, lipless mouth bulged and stretched into a sneer beneath a bubbling mass that quickly coalesced into a nose.
I was spellbound by the hideous transformation, and by the time I tried to run Damien Wells was already barreling into me. We both tumbled into the rocky dust with his naked body pinning me down. He grabbed a patch of my hair and slammed my face into the ground. A jagged sliver of glass sliced my cheek into two dangling flaps.
"Payback, bitch," he whispered into my ear, his breath hot.
"Quite enough, Damien," said Lazarus from behind us. "Hold him."
Damien pinned my elbows behind my back and sat on them, tearing a muscle in my shoulder.
Lazarus drifted to the ground beside me.
"Clever, yes, more clever than the rest. Now, relax. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't going to hurt, but, ah, as you know, trust is ever so important if you are to be my new messenger." Lazarus sounded more in control.
"And time is short."
As he said it, he held his hands over me and I began to change. Bones crunched in my legs as they grew shorter. Wiry black hair sprouted over my body. My torso compacted in on itself and my hips and knees and elbows twisted around. The pain was excruciating. I could hear Damien laughing as I screamed.
So subtly I didn't notice the change, my screams became howls. My face burned and itched and I could see the tip of my nose, black and furry.
I think I passed out in the middle of it, but after what seemed like millennia I felt the pressure on my back fade away as Damien stood up. It didn't matter; I didn't have the strength to move. I was shattered.
"Let's go." The deep voice was a million miles away, a thunderclap from a cloud still over the horizon. All I needed was this rocky dirt. I could lie here forever.
"Let's go, Pringle." Closer, more insistent. Pringle. I was seven again, playing in the backyard with the black lab my parents had bought me for Christmas, its feet clumsy and too big for its body. It dropped the ball I'd thrown in the snow and licked my cold nose. I was eight, and Pringle was growing every day. He whined when I left for school and jumped on me when I came home. We played until dark. I was eight, and people were scared. Animals were disappearing. Pringle didn't jump when I came home anymore; he licked my hand and limped into the living room to curl up at the foot of the sofa.
I was eight, and Pringle wasn't there that day after school.
So what if it was all for nothing. So what if we were spiraling as a species into an inevitable death, riding our big blue rock with reigns gripped in white-knuckled fingers. It was the ride of a lifetime. It was a ride Pringle had been part of, whether or not he was there until the end. Who was? All you could do was capture the glimmers as they came and love them while you could.
"Come!" It was a command now, and I couldn't ignore it any longer. I lifted myself wearily off the ground and looked up at Lazarus, now impossibly tall. Behind him, Damien, still naked, stood patiently. A pink scar gleamed on his white chest in the pale moonlight.
"Let's go, Pringle." I shrugged out of the loose clothes still draped around me and stepped over to Lazarus on padded paws, my shoulders hunched and tail between my legs, and licked his hand. It tasted evil. It tasted like home. I would follow him. He would instruct me, tell me where to go. I already knew. I'd show up on someone's doorstep. Watch them while Lazarus watched through me. The next step in the ineffable plan.
Lazarus ran a single finger along the ridge of my neck, then turned to Damien and grasped his face in his hand. I saw a puff of smoke, inhaled the acrid scent of burning electronics, watched a surprised eye widen between two thin, black fingernails, and Damien was dead. He dropped heavily to the dirt, his face a charred mess. I whined, and Lazarus again stroked my neck. This was good. This was right.
We walked, and Lazarus talked.
"Quite the trick back there, yes, quite the trick," he said. "And one that will no doubt, ah, hinder me for some time. But not forever, no not forever. How you figured it out, ah, I don't know, I'll admit. Hyperlife is the only way for me to communicate with my people, yes, as you seem to have guessed. No trouble, no, no trouble. I will erase that link soon enough, yes, yes. Soon enough.
"And yes, you deserve to know. Why the animals? It is not always this way, no, but usually, yes. A surprising amount. You create it, you see. It is your, uh, purest memory. The easiest way to go. Usually an animal, I have seen. Usually a pet. I have many uses in store for you, many, many uses. You will serve me well."
Around us, the sky was lightening. Lazarus talked on, unaware. He explained that now that he could communicate with his race, he had reached a few kindred souls and they were planning an evacuation. For him. He'd been here a long time, he said, centuries, guiding our technology toward his end. A few years in his lifespan, but even a year in a prison is hell.
This was the second time he'd tried to leave. The first attempt had been catastrophic, by our standards. A mass extinction event across the northern hemisphere. It had taken about 13,000 years for him to recover. Preparations for the second attempt had begun fifteen years ago, when Lazarus had begun to draw energy from the planet to fuel the transition. Biologists had looked at tissue samples from the dying organisms and had detected something they'd never seen before tearing pieces out of certain cells. They'd called it different things – a new form of rabies for the mammals, another outbreak of avian flu for the birds, various blights for the trees and vegetation – but it had all been one thing: Lazarus, seeping into the structure of our world and taking what he needed. It was difficult, he said, to draw the right type of energy. Like building a computer out of twigs. Things could go wrong.
I padded robotically by Lazarus's side as he talked, the will to fight gone. The sky was still brightening, something was humming, but above it all was my master's voice. I would serve him until the end of time. He was better than helio.
Lazarus rambled on, almost to himself. We'd left the park and were strolling through the city now, the streets deserted in the dead of night. Lazarus told me that asking people to follow him was easier if he changed them first. It took away their personal identity, made them more acquiescent, easier to persuade. As for the list, the victims, he'd eventually found that a person's mind will eventually rebel at something that goes against its nature. Five victims, that was the most he seemed to be able to get out of his killers. Each murder seemed to unravel the psyche a bit more. But Lazarus hadn't always known that. His early slaves had waged wars for him, but after a time they got sick, disturbed, began eating each other. Eating themselves. Their spirits self destructed.
He'd used mankind like this for centuries, but he always needed more. Batteries, he called us. They always needed to be replaced. Always ran out of juice. He used us for what he needed, then disposed of us. The Sensolife five on my list had begun rebelling against him, so they'd needed to be dealt with. Those ones, he said, had never been under his direct control. They were the best kind. Greedy, scavengers, willing to burn the world for the right price. But they were getting penitent in their age, and now they too needed to go.
It was through them that he'd completed the only piece of the puzzle still missing, that one final detail that would ensure a welcoming party: Hyperlife. It wasn't, he said, a matter of beaming signals into space. No, no, much more complicated than that. It was more like beaming a message through matter, to the other side. He wasn't what we imagined, he told me, through all our books and films. When I'd gotten a message through to someone from Lazarus's side of reality, I hadn't realized what I was doing. I just knew that there was someone on the other end of the phone. And I'd been right: They were cosmically pissed at him because of something he'd done.
He never get the chance to explain what. Suddenly, he stopped talking and looked around. The moon was still up, but the sky was gleaming a muted silver that bathed Portland's skyscrapers in soft, fractured shades of gray. The buzzing sound – more a sensation than a sound – was growing. Chips of concrete skittered across the sidewalk like water in a hot pan.
"No...no!" Lazarus shouted. "Not now!"
As if in answer, the sky flared a dazzling white. Lazarus screamed. It was everywhere, more luminous than a nuclear blast. With it came the buzzing hum, steady and strong. The buzzing filled my body, seemed to come from everywhere. The ground beneath my feet and the air around me hummed at the same frequency, became the same, the same as me and everything. It felt as if the molecules in my body would simply scatter and stream away to join the cacophony.
Something took shape in the glaring white nothingness. A pulse of white on white that was impossible to fix your eye on. Lazarus was fading, disappearing into the infinite cloud, while the white shape grew and grew until I must have been inside it but it was still there in front of me. The hum seemed to emanate from the shape, and I was floating in it. There was no ground, no sky, no forward or backward, no past or present.
Just here. Just here.
I woke up naked on the rocky ground somewhere in Gammans Park. There was no one around, and the sun was beating mercilessly on my bare back. With a start I sat up and felt my shoulders and chest. No hair. Just good ol' human.
I wandered around for a few minutes hoping to find my clothes, but soon found myself crouched behind the No Littering! sign at the entrance to the park, waiting for a slow Hyundai Hoveranger to drift around the corner at the end of the street. Glancing both ways to make sure nobody else was in sight, I sprinted to my car, thumbed the lock, and slid my naked body into the front seat.
I took a deep breath as my hand went automatically to the center console for a helio tab. I stopped it. The sun was bright, and beautiful waves of vapor drifted off the pavement as the morning dew turned to steam. Miniature rainbows danced through the mist like a shimmering carpet laid across the surface of the world. Maybe later. I could wait.
It was a good day to live.