by J. Thayne
A man finds himself cast into conflict between the incarnate forms of Entropy and Creation
|((Author's note: Based on a vivid dream))
The worn, rusted fire-escape rang and croaked with every step he took, rhythmically making his way to the top, as he had done twice a day, every day, for the three years and change he had lived in this building. As he reached the last landing, bright, cheerful sunlight struck his head and shoulders, no longer obscured by the neighboring building.
Stepping down from the crenellation, he surveyed the greenhouses and raised beds that filled every available inch of space not used for foot-traffic. Julia was already up, he saw. Her details blurred milkily by the glazed greenhouse panes. The Halford's, always early risers despite, or perhaps owing to, their advanced age, were out as well, tending to some of the raised beds. He saw their baskets were already filling with fresh bean-pods and cherry tomatoes. He waved good morning to them before picking his way to the greenhouse.
The gardens were beautiful, but also necessary. The same scene played itself out on every flat rooftop in sight. If one were to look down on the city from a bird's eye view, it might resemble a checkered board of grey, glinting with bright emeralds. The food produced by these rooftop sanctuaries usually constituted the majority of the dweller's diets. The little food that made it this far into the city, from the microscopic farms representing all that was left of arable land not armored in concrete, was nearly devoid of nutrition. Barely enough to keep a body moving. With a population of nearly two-and-a-half billion, American citizens had two choices; grow enough food to sustain themselves, or descend into anarchy and violence, as hundreds of millions slowly starved to death.
Certainly Arthur Zatras was glad he lived in an area that embraced cooperation. Several times they'd had a crop fail at a crucial time, and called on the favor of neighboring gardens who had excess. They returned the favor when their own yields were abundant.
As he opened the door he was confronted with a wave of humid warmth, despite the early hour. Julia looked up as he closed the door and smiled, waving with her pruning shears, which she was using to carefully remove dead leaves and twigs for composting. Nothing was wasted, if it could be avoided.
"Mornin' Jules", he said, and returned her smile.
"Morning yourself. I've been up here for hours", she retorted in mock-accusation.
"Ahh, more like forty-five minutes...tops.", he countered, as he walked to the loevre controls to open them up for the day. "Your stomping around above me never fails to wake me up."
"Oh yeah? Well if that's the case, why are you always up here so much later?"
"Tea", was the simple reply. He would have preferred coffee, having had just enough when he was younger to develope a strong liking for it, but there was little opportunity to grow luxury items, at least in large quantities. By "tea", he simply meant any pleasant herb he could spare to boil in water, a habit he'd cultivated many years prior to moving to what had once been southern Pennsylvania, but was now Incorporated Neo York.
As Arthur understood it, Neo York had once been called New York, city within something called a State. In the last five hundred years, it had grown to encompass the entire northeastern projection of the country. Similar growth had happened with Atlanta, Seattle, and San Frascisco, the latter two kept in check eastwards by the Republic of Utexaco, commonly called the Salt Lands, deriving from the unlikely originator, Salt Lake City.
Julia snorted, turned back to her work, then seemed to remember something, "Hey, do you think you'd have time to take some things to Mallory's this morning?"
Trading between gardens happened almost on a daily basis while plants were being harvested. Also during late winter, shortly before planting season, representatives of every community attended a meet, where seed was traded on a massive scale.
"Sure. Is that what the Halfords are getting together?", he asked, poking a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the elderly couple outside.
She nodded, and he busied himself in the greenhouse, taking care of mundane things. Putting half an eye to inspecting plants for health, and the other to stealing glances at Julia. When he first came here, she was living with a boyfriend. While he had quickly developed a small crush on her, her unavailability quashed any designs he might have considered.
This past winter however, on his way as the group's meet representative, he had tried to cross a crudely crafted walkway set up between the roofs. The platform gave, dropping him two-hundred stories. The toxic miasma that obscured and made uninhabitable the lower half of the tightly-packed domiciles muffled his screams, and the impact.
Julia took it hard when the news reached us some two weeks later. Arthur would have tried to console her, but he was the replacement chosen to make the trip, and trade what he could with what little they had left to spare. It was six weeks before he saw her again, and she seemed back to normal, if a bit subdued at times. Apparently he had missed the grieving process entirely, and was a little regretful of that.
As of late, however, he had been able to look at her with a somewhat new perspective. He still felt uncomfortable making any kind of advances, but he did go out of his way to find excuses to work with or around her, or to consult with and ask her opinions on trivial matters. Just to talk with her, see her smile and hear her honey-laugh, while the bright sun illuminated her ginger-blonde hair, was a joy unto itself. It was a constant battle not to grin idiotically at her every time she made eye contact.
She was still on his mind, an hour later, when he was on his way to Mallory's. Moving across the rooftops via an intricate and long-standing network of improvised bridges. With each roof crossed he exchanged friendly waves with the dwellers.
Mallory's was of course a community garden, like theirs, only much larger. Their total area was upwards of eight acres, and was a popular trading locus. During busy times, there could be upwards of fifty people working the rooftop. To distinguish one place from another, they were traditionally named after whomever had planted the first seed. The real Mallory had long-since passed and been composted, and to Arthur's knowledge, her surviving family had moved elsewhere.
He was picking his way across a plywood bridge when a sharp, actinic light in his peripheral vision caused him to stop and look. It was an indeterminate distance away on the horizon of rooftops. Looking at first like a welding torch, Arthur became transfixed as what had been a sharp pin-point grew quickly into a dome of blinding light. In the clarity and perception of adrenal rush, Arthur watched, as if in slow motion, as a shockwave lifted him off his feet and threw him backwards into a row of tables filled with seedling flats.
He was briefly knocked unconscious by the impact, and with the realization of waking, he also felt pain. Every second it increased, from an ache to a sharp burning in his back. He tried to push himself up to a kneeling position, but quickly discovered to his horror that he couldn't move his legs. As he looked around desperately for help, he saw something that, ultimately, made his injuries a minor complication.
Everything, as far as he could see from his supine position, was destroyed. Tables and planters overturned, their contents thrown clear, crushed, or torn apart. Crops in raised beds were snapped in two, their fruits torn away and dashed against the ground or walls, coating the grey concrete and metal with multicolored splotches. Greenhouses were shattered, their metal supports twisted and ripped apart. The glass had shattered and become airborne, and as Arthur's hearing slowly recovered from a high-pitched whine, he could make out the screams and sobs of agony from the throats of unseen people who'd been in the path of shrapnel. Nowhere near, he was sure, the number of people who'd been lifted clean off the rooftops, and thrown into the bottomless spaces between structures, silenced forever.
He collapsed in horror and pain, his head ironically cushioned by a mound of overturned topsoil. Involuntary moans escaped him, while in his mind he feverishly tried to think of what to do. He didn't hear or see anyone on this particular rooftop, and he was sure that a number of paths had been destroyed. His only hope was that someone who had been inside would come to the roof to investigate, and find him, and...and then what?
His clenched his eyes shut, and a wave of morbid futility washed over him. He was paralyzed...probably. Who knew if he had other serious injuries. He could be bleeding out internally and not know it. Arthur knew which garden communities housed doctors, and most people could take care of routine problems with herbal know-how. There was no doctor here, and herbs couldn't fix a broken spine.
A few minutes later, a new sound made him open his eyes and search for the source, desperately grasping at any thin thread of hope. It started low, almost a vibration, powerfully thrumming inside his chest. It grew louder, closer. The vibrations threatening to send his heart into arrythmia. It grew so bad that he had to clamp his eyes shut, still aching from the sunspark that preceded all this, now doubly worse from an inimical harmonic that threatened to tear his body apart one cell at a time.
When he thought he had long-since passed any human threshhold for pain, he experienced a soul-crushing horror unlike anything he could ever have imagined. For a moment, he was no longer human, but an animal possessed by fear of the powerful and quick predator. Guided by a twitch-survival mechanism of avoidance and alertness. Beheld in wide-eyed, mute terror, the source of the malevolent vibrations revealed itself as it bounded from several rooftops away and landed with a shuddering impact amid the debris strewn across the roof Arthur now occupied.
The thing's form was humanoid, in the sense that it was upright and bipedal, symmetrical, and had instantly recognizable trunk, limbs, and head. Beyond those purely morphological aspects, the thing was decidedly non-human. It's body was made of segments of black, chitinous substance. The edges of these plates and rings were spiked or serrated, giving it the aspect of a kind of hyper-agressive insect, evolved to fight to the death over resources on a constant basis.
What pulsed between and inside those plates, however, was not flesh, but a seething and turbulent outpouring of magenta flames. It was as if the chitinous segments were simply there to give physical form to what would otherwise be formless energy; malevolence incarnate. It radiated anathema to life and living things. It's mere presence hindered intelligent thought with an oppressive tonnage of ancient and entropic psychic pressure.
As it stood there, it's "head" smoothly swiveled, as if surveying it's handiwork. Transfixed, Arthur saw how the leg segments expanded, parting at the seams as the magenta maelstrom inside swelled and grew in brightness. The beast turned slightly, as if choosing a new trajectory and crouched. Arthur was blinded anew as it discharged the accumulation in a miniature nova, carrying it out of sight.
The vibrations mercifully faded, as did Arthur's consciousness. The one coherent thought that broke surface in his panic-frozen mind was that the monster had just turned to face the direction Arthur had traveled from. It was headed towards their garden.
Julia! He cried out silently. This thought restored some order to his chaotic, fragmented sanity. Struggling back to awareness, he had cause to question it once more when he heard a voice. Small and thin, a soprano whisper, seemingly in his ear.
"We will help you.", the voice said. In the background, quieter, a chorus of help him, yes we can help, we must, help him. A chatter of resonant voices, echoing and fading into a final pure note. The effect was not unlike a wind blown through a field of tinkling windchimes, receding into the distance.
"Who...", Arthur half-formed the question while he searched fruitlessly for the owner of the voice/s.
Immediately he heard he does not, cannot, perceive, see, understand, he is broken, damaged, fragmented, we must, we shall, repair, make whole, improve, help.
"Look then, and perceive us. We will make you whole, and help you." see us, look and see, know, understand.
Impelled by a compulsion he could not understand, he turned his head where it rested in the dark, loamy topsoil, and saw a group of bean-seedlings, standing straight, in orderly formation, despite the chaos that must have uprooted them.
I've lost it, Arthur thought. I'm dying in agony, and I've lost it. I'm going to die a lunatic.
"You will not die. Look and perceive us." look look look look looklooklook
He looked at them again, trying to convince himself that the bean-sprouts did not just speak to him, when he thought he perceived a glimmer around them, just on the edge of perception, like the heat-waves rising from hot concrete in the summer. As he watched, the shimmer took on color, seeming to become more tangible, until it looked to Arthur to be similar in substance to the energies that boiled within the black-armored beast, except where those had seemed to be a distillation of timeless evil, these emanated an immense feeling of well-being and altruistic intent.
he sees! perceives! begins, approaches understanding!
As the voices echoed into the recesses of his mind, he felt a force infuse his body, like a liquid poured into an empty vessel, filling every curve and contour, evacuating it of everything but itself. Arthur closed his eyes and sighed, as he allowed himself to relish the cessation of pain, the purging of fear and worry and doubt.
An instant or an eternity later, complete whole sound repaired ready "We have re-made you. We have helped you. You must now help them." help them, you must, can, help her, her! julia, jules, HELP HER!
Still bathed in a serene afterglow, Arthur sat up, rolled onto his knees, and stood up. He brought his hands before his face. Feeling neither confused or afraid, he studied with a mild curiosity how the turquoise flames languidly rolled and undulated, flicking tongues tasted the air between the silvered and mirror-like plates that formed his gauntlet-like hands, arms; indeed his whole body seemed to have been transformed.
As his mind adjusted to this new state of being, he became aware of the presence of a malevolent pressure, and the situation solidified. Without the slightest contemplation of how, he concentrated a portion of his power into his legs, unconsciously mimicking the dread-beast before him, and with another micro-nova, launched himself directly towards his opposite. It was an enemy not only as a result of it's actions, but as result of it's mere existence. The being that Arthur had become, and the dread-beast, were diametrically opposed, one representing entropy in it's purest form, the other representative of the raw stuff of creation itself.
Like magnets repelling and slipping around each other, Arthur found his progress similarly hampered as he closed the distance to his quarry. Many times he could feel himself being shunted in mid-air, as if he'd hit a sharply angled surface. A few times it was enough to send him between the thin spaces between buildings, but this proved to be no real obstacle. It seemed he could scale walls just as easily as he could leap several rooftops at once. He pressed doggedly on, increasing in speed as he became more accustomed to this new form. He didn't allow himself to dwell on it overmuch, knowing that if he did, his ignorance of his new state and powers may sap the confidence and determination he now held.
The chase had brought him into territory that had been mostly spared by the shock wave, and finally into untouched garden-rooftops, but there was no activity. All the people that had been passed by the dread-beast were now sprawled among their plants, either mercifully unconscious or gibbering. He had no idea how much, if any, permanent damage had been done.
Presently he sighted it, and his home-garden. Another couple vectors would bring the beast down right on top of it. Thankfully it's own movements seemed just as hampered and erratic as his own had become. How was he going to get close enough to this thing to deal with it, when it came down to it.
we will help trust have faith believe, the wind-chime voices said. It seemed there were less now than before his metamorphosis, or they may have been muffled by his proximity to the foul presence. He tried to lay aside his doubts and concentrate on catching the thing before it reached his garden. Then, a flash of inspiration made him re-think his immediate strategy. They were effectively repelling each other, he being hindered the most, as he was trying to get closer. The beast, on the other hand, while still being pushed laterally, had actually been gaining small boosts, Arthur being the wind at it's back.
Cursing himself for not realizing that sooner, he aimed his next vector diagonally to the beast, and launched the instant it did. The result was not as impressive as he had hoped, but it did serve to knock the enemy off-balance, while Arthur, prepared for worse, landed lightly and pressed the advantage, aiming for a tighter angle. This had the effect he had looked for. Before the beast could pick itself up, it tumbled and slid several yards before grinding to a halt. He could ward it off, or at least stop it's progress, if he only stayed between it and his home-garden.
He wanted desperately to look for Julia, to make sure she was alright, but he didn't dare take his attention away from the jousting match now taking place. The beast rose, and seemed to notice Arthur for the first time. It's magenta flames doubled in brightness, erupting from the seams of it's dull-black armor as it cast a withering gaze at him. The "head" was featureless, lacking eyes, or any other discernable sensory-organ. Two bulbous growths sprouted from behind where, on a human, the temple would be, widening into a kind of thick, massively spiked crown at the back of the head; like some dark, twisted version of a halo.
Instead of charging at him, the beast probed his defense and reflexes by quickly vectoring to the sides, forcing Arthur to react in small increments to keep from being swept aside. The dread-beast halted it's sparring, non-plussed. It seemed to consider for a moment, then it's body went slack. It swayed a little on it's feet, as it's inner-fire was stoked and amplified.
Arhur realized what it was doing. This was likely how it had caused the explosion that had paralyzed him. He started to panic, not knowing what he should do. The memories of the direct aftermath came flooding back in a staccato flash of jumbled images that brought him to his knees.
"You have to protect them, her. You will overcome. You must." There were no twinkling echoes now.
Julia, he thought, I can't...can't let this happen. All these people. Her. Us.
The Arthur-form, Creation incarnate, filled with righteous anger. His will was clad in armor just as his body, and as his anger grew, so did his power, until the world around them became shades of neon, eye-blistering pink, and hot blue turquoise.
The two entities detonated simultaneously, energies clashing in a maelstrom of primal energies, of the kind never seen since the explosive birth of the cosmos themselves.
Arthur found himself in a blinding whiteness, immaterial. He perceived himself as nothing more than a self-aware point in space-time. No noise, no activity of any kind encroached upon this nothingness.
He had no way of measuring time, and no need. When something changed, it surprised him. The whiteness slowly transitioned to turquoise. He remembered vaguely, that it was a good thing, but it was marred somehow; blotches of darkness grew, closing out the light.
As his eyes focused, he saw that the turquoise color was in fact the sky, and the dark blotches, plants. All around him, plants were growing at exponential rates, putting out leaves and buds, flowering and fruiting in seconds.
Shaking and weak, Arthur stood on legs made of jelly, and haltingly made his way to the edge of the rooftop where he could look through the vegetation. Everything for dozens of blocks behind the dread-beast had been decimated by it's own power, while, as Arthur found out later, everything in a similar radius behind himself had spontaneously generated life on every available surface, and caused it to grow monstrously.
Of the beast itself there was no sign, and Arthur was not surprised to see that he was no longer a being of light and elemental power, but a normal, healthy human being once more. Nothing more, nothing less.
"Is that it then...is it over?" he asked the voices, but there was no response.
"A-arthur?" A girl's voice asked from behind him. "What...happened?"
He turned to see Julia stumbling towards him, a hand to her head, and looking in nervous awe at the virtual rainforest that had just sprang up around her. He hurried to her and, after making sure she was unharmed, helped her to a bench, which he hastily cleared off to make a seat.
She massaged her bruised head for a second, then opened her eyes, gave an unsure half-smile and said, "Arthur, why are you grinning like an idiot?"
To which he replied, "Let's go inside, have some tea, and I'll tell you all about it."