IN A NO-TELL MOTEL just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone.
Jack swallows down the bile rising in his stomach. Nowhere is safe. He sets the phone back in its receiver and walks out to the motel lobby.
“I’d like another room.”
The bored receptionist snaps her gum. “Is there something wrong?”
He gazes around at the tourist guides littering the cramped lobby. The eyes are everywhere. He closes his own. “The moonlight’s keeping me up.”
She rolls her eyes—normal human eyes, for now at least—and flips him another set of keys. Jack doesn’t find the new digs any more comfortable. He blocks his ears as a begging man is whipped with chains, or perhaps alien tentacles topped with metal, in the room next door. It sounds like it hurts.
Jack’s been driving all over Big Eye Country for weeks, warning of the coming infiltration of the Greatest Nation on Earth by the Alien Brotherhood League, but nobody listens to him. He goes to the parking lot where his truck, painted with a tableau of poked-out eyes, waits for him.
A hawk perches on the hood.
Paranoid Jack throws a rock at the bird, missing by a foot. He swipes another stone from the ground and prepares to aim again when the hawk turns its head. Within its beak is one bloody eye that stares right at Jack. It throbs, slightly.
Time to jet, Jack thinks.
Atlantis rises in Tampa Bay, on a baking hot Thursday without a cloud in the sky. Neptune, the King of the Sea, parades through the palm-lined streets of Tampa on a chariot drawn by oversized seahorses floating through the air. The people on the street might have been more curious about how the seahorses performed their locomotion had they not been distracted by the death toll wrought by the royal procession’s swinging tridents. Though some of the onlookers have fled to temporarily safe locations, most are petrified to the spot, wide-eyed terror engulfing their gore-flicked faces.
Neptune frowns as his own trident comes back with a beating heart speared at the end of it. He sighs and shakes it away, then wipes the tines with his silken robe. Just another day, he thinks.
He’s not the original Neptune. His parents, a triad of desiccated desert spirits, gave him the name ironically. They were disappointed when he took this job.
“I’ll be back for the holidays,” he’d said, and he’d really tried. But life under the sea had changed poor Neptune’s physiology in such a way that he can never go home without suffering extreme physical distress. His parents asked him not to return after he’d run up their water bill by taking eight showers a day.
“I am the mighty water god!” he bellows, though he can’t really claim the title. Another disappointment for his folks. If he’d stayed in the Painted Desert like they wanted him to, he’d have been at least a minor household deity by now, if not yet a true god.
Neptune bids his lackeys to set up his throne on the set of a Girls Gone Wild production, after flattening the director with a blast of his aqua-ray. He wonders if he’ll ever be satisfied with his life, or if he’ll just keep on running the same patterns over and over again.
He just wants to be happy. Is that too much to ask?
The citizens of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware are shrinking. It’s the only way to fit all fifty million of them in a plot of land as large as some billionaires’ backyards.
They’ve been hiding these extra people for decades, those crafty Delawareans. Each normal-sized resident of the First State keeps several dozen of the small people around his or her house: in the breadbox, in the closet, in the dryer. God help you if you forget to remove the small people before you run a load.
The small people are engaged in the creation of tiny tracking chips, which are installed in credit cards issued by the state to each and every red-blooded debt source in the nation. Day and night, they toil with their machines, creating chips no wider than a human hair.
Nona’s getting sick of the small people who live in her sock drawer. The buzzing of the machinery depresses her. Once, they started a fire.
She wonders what the chips are tracking. She’s asked the Grand Elders of the credit card company she works for about it, but she’s just a lowly data entry clerk and these things are not for her to know. Nona’s stopped using her own cards entirely, risking the wrath of the Corp Corps when she skips by them in her wallet on her way to the cash.
The small people are having a party. She can tell by their raucous voices. She taps on the sock drawer like it’s an aquarium.
“But this is my house.”
“And shut the drawer behind you.”
Nona slams the drawer. She knows the small people’s work is important, vital really, in some way she can’t understand yet. She knows that someday soon, the small people of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware will rise up and over the East Coast like an overflowing popcorn machine. As someone who’s shielded and nurtured them, she will survive the coming revolution.
She doesn’t know what to make of the fist-sized eyes she now sees in every reflective surface.
I am the switchboard, the awake man thinks.
He’s got ten thousand people jammed into his brain, this awake man, representing three hulking towers on a formerly-bustling Brooklyn block. Riding the thoughts like a cresting wave, he patrols the park with a truncheon in his hand, slapping it into his palm. The sound rings off the silent streets.
Behind a Dumpster waits an awake woman.
They fight, of course. With snarling teeth and clash of limbs, each awake warrior fights with the combined power of their burden behind them, guiding them in their maneuvers. Clumps of hair flecked with blood drift to the pavement. An ear bounces off a sewer grate. They fight for what seems like hours, the twenty thousand and two.
When it’s all over, both the warriors are dead. Soft rain falls over their mushed bodies, cleansing and cool. Pungent steam rises from the offal.
In a building in South Brooklyn, someone wakes up.
In another building, somebody else does.
From this point on, nobody will die in Vermont, but they continue aging.
The desert stinks of creosote, and it is full of voices.
In the ghost town of Phoenix, a lonely widow turns on the generator-powered air conditioning to get her through another desert day. Heat hangs around her like a too-thick blanket. Her leathery skin, dried by the sun’s beating rays, is the same even brown as the foraged canned beans she uses in her stews.
Every night she inhabits a different apartment. A different bed to sleep in, a different kitchen to raid, a different closet to pick through. Tonight she wears a men’s double breasted suit and a tie with birds on it.
Come out, says the voice of the desert. Won’t you please come out and play?
The widow picks up her shotgun and cocks it, aiming it toward a cactus growing out of the barren garden of the complex across the road. This ain’t her first day at the rodeo.
Everyone’s here. We’re all waiting for you.
She’s far past reckoning how long it’s been since the day she woke up to find Phoenix deserted. She opened her eyes, and everyone was gone: people, pets, power. The voices had started soon after.
You’re the only one left.
“I know that,” she growls deep in her throat. She sticks the shotgun out the window and fires on the solitary cactus. A rain of green flesh and pink flowers spatters on the asphalt.
The dead city sometimes shows her pictures in her dreams. It shows her friends and family, her husband, out frolicking in some oasis. Water flowing down their bodies, their mouths filled with breadfruit.
Are you scared?
“Yes,” she says, aiming the shotgun at a graffito of an eye chalked on the bank kitty-corner from her borrowed apartment. She doesn’t fire. She’s already running out of shells.
Within the hour the air conditioning gives out. The widow tentatively steps through the front door onto the wide streets. The atmosphere wavers with heat like an oil painting splashed with turpentine.
The voices grow louder, speaking with the combined sound of everyone she’s ever loved, competing for air time with their pitiable screeches.
She’s been to the edge of the dead city, and she knows there’s nothing out there. Not just empty space, not just blackness. There’s nothing out there. Just a void.
We miss you.
“I miss you too,” the widow says, as she looks for another dead building, another live generator. She lives in the city center now, far away from the void. But it’s not enough distance for the voices.
We love you. Don’t you like us anymore? Come back to us. What’s wrong with you?
This isn’t Paranoid Jack’s first visit to the line that circumscribes and contains the rapidly decaying American heartland, but it may be the one involving the most shoes.
They drop their shoes when they leave, these faithless emigrants. Just slide right out of them. Rows of penny loafers, Mary Janes, high-tops, and cowboy boots line the border from Washington to Maine, toes to the north.
(On the southern border they leave small bundles of hair lovingly tied up with string, which seems somehow much worse.)
Jack picks his way along the mound of shoes, which comes up to his knees. He’s never left America before. Never wanted to. Everything he knows and loves is here. He’s even grown to love the Alien Brotherhood League, for all that he’s condemned them in his broadsheets.
But it’s time. Jack unlaces his threadbare sneakers and places them atop the pile, pointing them in the correct cardinal direction. Then he shucks off his socks and sinks his feet into the mushy loam.
“What are you waiting for, asshole?” says the little man who lives in his hair. He told Jack he was from Delaware, but Jack’s pretty sure he’s just a random misfiring of brain chemicals.
“Shut up,” Jack replies through gritted teeth. “This isn’t easy for me, you know.”
So much of his life spent to chronicling the manifestations. So many of his warnings gone unheeded. Perhaps up there, people will understand. Out there. What was the name of that country again?
He steps across the river of shoes and immediately collapses.
Professor Melody Zhang slides her camera into her satchel and calls it a day. She’s been out at the site for the past two weeks, and her team is no closer to discovering the origin of the ziggurat that appeared out of nowhere forty miles due north of Little Rock.
“Hey Doc, wanna hit the town?”
Melody rolls her eyes. She’s never been much for partying, and the closest town to the encampment is a little hayseed dump where Asians were almost as alien a sight as ancient Mesopotamian structures. “Pass.”
“Well, if you have some free time tonight, take a look at these rubbings.”
She took the paper from her assistant. The cuneiform wasn’t the same as that used by the ancient Babylonians, not even close. They still hadn’t worked out the phraseology, despite the presence of linguists from all over the world. “Okay.”
“And try not to work too hard. We’re all worried about you.”
“I’ll be fine.” She slips the paper into her satchel with the camera and walks to her scooter. Not for the first time, she wonders at how calmly the people here have taken this. When the ziggurat appeared, everyone had freaked out…except the locals, who regarded it as a sight no more interesting than the opening of a new discount store. They’d been more disturbed by the scientists sent here to study their structure, and agreed to outside interference only under duress.
Weirdos. Melody sticks her key into the ignition and turns it.
Then a warrior clad in bronze armor steps up behind her and slices her head off with his sword.
In a bunker buried underneath Chimney Rock, a man tortures another man until he dies. The first of these people strikes a fearsome pose, seeing as how he is nine feet tall, and his face has been replaced with a metal grate.
In fact, the first man is two people sewn into one body. The two men sealed up within the skin used to fight all the time, but now realize they must work together if they’re ever going to find a way out of this mess.
Each one taking control of a trunk-like leg, the grate-faced torturer lumbers over to the phone bolted into the wall of the bunker. He/they place a call.
“The sparrow flies at daybreak.”
A wet thick sound like spaghetti being dragged over a linoleum floor echoes from the other side. “Show me.”
The grate-faced man angles the receiver toward the ex-human. An eye extends from the mouthpiece on a thin stalk.
“This is acceptable.”
The grate-faced man knows there’s no release from this place. Even if he/they were to escape from the bunker, where was there to go? Back to the streets of Omaha, to be stared at and taunted by young children? The reconstructed being can feel the utter wrongness of the fused body beneath the skin and the grate. Even if the grate-faced man separates, life will never be simple again.
The eye blinks, snapping the grate-faced man back to attention. “There is another.”
There is always another.
The house always wins. So does the Autonomic SmarTrak DwellingUnit 3.0.
Step inside. Allow the polished servo-mechanisms to lift you up, float you through the air like a luck-kissed cherub. Spin the wheel. Roll the dice. Make merry. Have another scotch. Ante. Raise. Call.
Later, when the lights go dark and the thrill of winning is gone, sink into the luxurious honeycomb of the fully furnished basement. Order some room service. It’s on the house.
In the middle of the night, you wake to find the meat of your legs stuck to the Egyptian cotton sheets. You pull, and there’s a sick tearing sound.
You free yourself and head to the bathroom, but your steps are labored, as if you’re stepping in tar. You pull the light cord and find small bits of sheet nestled in and among the raw muscles on the back of your legs, products of a fusion, a melding…
Above you is the unmistakable sound of digestive processes at work. You didn’t notice it before. But now it’s all you can hear.
Revival night. The line of sinners snakes like a broken ant trail into the tents pitched on the outskirts of Lexington. Unlike most revival meetings, there is no mention of Christ or God, no complicated hosannas. What there is, is the shredder.
Pastor Dan doesn’t know where the shredder came from. He woke one day in his double-wide trailer to find it sitting at the end of his fold-out cot, one corner of his bed sheet in its gaping maw. Dan leapt from the cot, grabbed a yardstick, poked the shredder, all in one fluid motion.
It continued to chew the sheet, unabated.
Experiments were conducted. Through a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences, Dan discovered that one’s sins could be erased from existence by feeding them into the shredder, allowing one’s deepest shames to scatter at one’s feet like confetti.
He doesn’t charge for use of the shredder. Wouldn’t feel right. The index cards and ballpoint pens to write down the sins, though, they’ll cost you.
A young woman approaches the podium with her infant son in a sling. When the shredder pukes out the remnants of the index card, both sling and child dissolve into thin air. Pastor Dan has to concentrate to remember what was there before, and by the time the next parishioner comes up to the podium, it’s already gone from his mind.
After the services are over, Pastor Dan sits in the green room with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Across from him sits the shredder.
“What are you?”
Of course, there’s no reply. The sin-eating shredder is an inanimate object: it does not feel, it does not love, it does not care about its small amount of regional fame. It doesn’t even acknowledge its frustrated owner. Dan has fed six hundred and twenty-nine scrawled index cards through the shredder’s gold-plated teeth. He’s become a rich man, all thanks to the shredder. It’s not enough. He needs to know.
He places a fingertip into the shredder. The pain is staggering, immense. The white walls of the green room spatter with blood. He bites his tongue to keep from screaming.
“I’ll figure you out,” he says, focusing on the pale yellow light that sits square in the shredder’s control panel. It looks almost like an eye.
He shoves the arm in up to the elbow, then the other one. The shredder almost seems to expand to accept him. There is so much pain that he has forgotten to even register it as such. He has been inside this moment forever, it seems, in the pain of the sin-eater there is no beginning and no end.
Pastor Dan inserts a foot.
Now you see, the shredder says, now you see inside.
When Dan’s agent jimmies open the door two hours later, she finds a foot on the ground and a star-shaped hole in the windowpane. She packs her bag that afternoon and moves to Germany, where things make at least a sliver of sense.
From his lair in the furthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula, the mighty Elf Lord defends his realm.
“Come on, Dad. Gimme my Nerf gun back.”
The Elf Lord has no such time for such trivialities. He slings his weapon across his back and, listening to the voices so many people across this nation can hear now, strides down the gravel road to stake his claim of the Lower Regions.
“Mom? I think there’s something wrong with Dad.”
All across the Upper Peninsula, war rages. The Elf Lord, once a lowly insurance salesman named David Wright, hops the fence of his neighbor, the Cleric Prince. When they’d first started this divine mission, there’d been snickers from behind the fists of everyone who roamed the cubicle kingdom of Northeast Insurance, Incorporated. They’d thought the men in the office were playing a new sort of game. A nerd game.
It was not a game.
“Hark!” the Elf Lord bellows, rattling the screen door of the Cleric Prince’s keep. “Dost thou wish to ride thy trusty steeds into yonder village? There is plunder there, and treasure.”
The Cleric Prince’s concubine answers the door. She sighs audibly, breath pluming in the crisp breeze. “Those are the same thing.”
“Vile woman, let me through.”
“Sorry, Gary can’t come out to play today.” She starts to close the door, but the Elf Lord shoves his fist in the jamb.
“Play? This is not a game, wench.”
“He’s not here. I sent him away.” She’d been begging him to get help for years, even before the game started. The Cleric Prince had never been a fully sane man. He’d filled his days with useless projects: resurfacing the blacktop on the driveway until it was perfectly level, organizing his books by smell, optimizing his health by taking all his sleep in the form of catnaps. He had seen no problem with any of this.
Honestly, when he’d started playing the game, the Cleric Prince’s concubine had been glad. At least he was out of the house, with other people. But enough was enough. Better to kick him out than to allow the crazy to rub off on her.
She wonders if she should do something to help the Elf Lord. Even now he stomps and whines, certain that the Cleric Prince is within the walls of the keep, hidden from view.
“Hey,” she says. “You want me to call your wife for you?”
“Temptress, do not vex me.” He spins around suddenly, smacking her in the face with his Styrofoam broadsword.
She grunts, pushing the neon weapon away. “You’re not even using those words right, David.”
By that time, he’s already halfway down the street. She rubs her belly, thick with life, and sheds a tear.
Paranoid Jack’s had quite an adventure, but now it’s nearly over.
He could have lived quite comfortably here in a land called Canada, a place where the Alien Brotherhood League has made only minor inroads on their quest for global domination. Hardly any strangeness here, aside from the occasional sound of crying babies emanating from prairie snowbanks.
As the months pass, the dispatches from home grow more crazed and urgent. Jack can’t stop collecting the American newspaper clippings, pasting them up on the dashboard and windows of his new ride, a fuel-efficient sedan bought at below market cost from a desperate Saskatchewan salesman.
He has to get back. He has to warn people. It’s just his nature. He peels the taped-up report of a man-eating shredder from his rear-view mirror and lights out for the most distant region of his shattered place of origin.
Jack might miss the Delawarean most of all. The little man couldn’t take the cold. Or the sanity.
That makes two of us, he thinks sadly as he guns the sedan’s practical motor as hard as he can.
In Whitehorse, he stops at a diner where the waitress takes pity on him and nestles a few extra strips of grease-flecked bacon onto his plate. She stares blankly when he talks of the aliens, the eyes, all of it.
“Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you heard what’s going on down there?”
“All Americans are crazy,” she says as she fills his mug with Bible-black joe.
Kilometers flip to miles, and now he’s in Alaska. Denali National Park. In the shadow of the great mountain he brings out the clippings and spreads them across his lap.
No link between events, and no reason to believe that the aliens who have been on his tail for the past twenty years of his life are behind it, but he knows they are. He can feel them tear across the entire blighted nation, sparking chaos and seeding madness.
He sleeps fitfully and wakes with the sun. He kills a squirrel and eats it, roasting it over the charred remains of the last of the clippings. As he sucks the marrow from each and every tiny bone, he looks over at the great mountain that towers above him. It’s already beginning to explode, long tendrils of liquid fire reaching toward his grizzled face.
Above him, the great eye winks.
Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Queers Destroy SF!, Daily Science Fiction, and Clarkesworld. When not writing, she works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College. She lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and three needy cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.