Well, well, well… What have we here?
You've managed to survive yet another year?
A year of work, of screaming children,
A year of delving into things unbidden.
Oh? What's that? We shouldn't know?
All those terrible things you didn't show?
Of course we do. We are your friends.
Confidants. Allies. And more again.
We know the stories, even those you don't tell.
You see Gears… You give us our visions of hell.
Happy Birthday, oh Leader of men. We come to you again. Bearing tales. Tales of the third side of the mirror. Tales of the taste of the air when a child is screaming in sorrow. Happy tales. Sad tales. Tales of games that eat your mind. Tales of books that give you a black brilliance, the kind that gives answers, but only the kind without comfort. Tales of the song you hear when you sleep, but not when you wake again. Tales of the righteous throne of terrible glory. Tales about tales. Tales about you. Tales about us.
Some of them are even true.
Happy birthday…! And many more.
It's coming for me. I try to hide, I run and do my best to avoid it. But it is a patient predator, and I know that with time, it will catch me.
I can evade it for now. I still have to find a way to fix things. But I don't have long.
It has begun to consume my parents, my wife, one of my siblings…none of them even realized the end had come for them. Now it has begun, and they are all doomed.
I can see it, I know what it is doing. I have to stop it before it consumes the rest my family, my friends, my children….hell, the entire human race.
But it can see me. It knows what I am doing too. I am next. And it is laughing.
It knows it has found me, it mocks my futile attempts to escape, following my every move. And once it begins its work, it will never stop until I am dead.
It will decay my body slowly and painfully, withering my skin, tainting my hair, weakening my bones. It will rob me of my ability to run, to walk, to think, to breathe. It will slowly rob me of my sanity and my life, and all the while the world will think it normal, simply because they are used to it. Why do none of them ever think to look….
It is a predator. It found us on this world, and latched onto us. Ancient scriptures tell of the men it first began to affect, draining them of their eternal youth, unnaturally ending their lives. They invented other excuses for it, not knowing what was happening to them.
It grows more powerful every year. It has learned to begin younger, ever younger. Once you turn 30, it is too late. It has you.
But I still have time.
The light was out. It was her worst dream, having the light be out. They always came for her in the dark. The monsters, the bad men, the creatures who hated her. She waited for them, shivering, her eyes closed, as she felt the harsh, warm breath on her bare ankles.
They called her name, from the shadows. She crossed her legs, then pulled them under her, trying not to let tears drift down her face. Gentle, sharp claws traced indelicate patterns across her arms, no matter where she put them. She wouldn't call out. Not this time. She would be brave. She would be strong!
She would bite her lip to keep from screaming when a tentacle crawled across her leg. No. She had to call out. She had to call:
Andrew rushed to his daughters bedroom. Only two and she had such horrible nightmares. He flicked the light on when he came in the room, and scooped his little girl into his arms. "Aw, lookit that, your nightlight burnt out! Don't worry little lady, Daddy will leave the door open." After a couple of minutes reassuring her, he set her back in her bed, and walked back to his own bed.
He lay down, sighing at the imagination on his daughter, and turned off the light.
The last thing he thought before he fell asleep was to wonder what was slithering across his feet…
I'm sorry, where are my manners? I haven't said a word to you this entire meal. You can't really blame me though. This food is so delectable, so…exotic. It really is a shame you won't try any. Can I tempt you to take just a bite? No? A pity. You of all people would be able to enjoy it. Appreciate the subtleties, the textures…it would be so foreign, but so… familiar.
How are you feeling? You look a little pale. I know you are in good health, we made sure you were very fit. The sedatives might be causing you to be woozy, but you should have been used to it by now. I know this is a bit stressful, but you can't be sick at dinner. It would be quite sad to see your palette dampened by illness.
Let you go? But you've only just arrived! We barely even started the first course! By the way, your feet have the look of a traveler-a man who's been places, seen exotic flavors, trodden on strange and wonderful fauna. Where are you from? Ah, don't be like that. Please try to be civil at the table.
You have very muscular legs. Probably from all the travel and training. Interesting tidbit, the exercises we had you do were to keep your muscles firm and lean, not too tender and not too tough. The pinnacle of physical perfection. If you weren't being so modest, I'm sure you would agree.
You know what they say about a mans heart? They say it holds out a mans secrets, and all the things that he's experienced in his life. Everything touched by his blood flavors the heart, and keeps it unique from any other. No two hearts are the same.
On my 21st birthday, my sister gave me a Chinese wall scroll. A mountain view, simply done is strokes of black and green and purple. Spare and soothing, I keep it in a prominent place in my living room: a moment of peace in the turbulence of my life.
A couple of years later, I noticed something new in the scroll. A lone figure, perhaps a scholar, small but somehow exuding a sense of purpose as he trudged up the narrow, winding path towards the mountain. I wondered at how I'd missed it before. It filled a space within the scroll and provided a measure of balance while adding a slight note of tension to the scene. But overall, I forgot about it as I dealt with my troubles in work and school.
Last year, a friend was looking at the scroll and asked me about the figures and what I thought they were doing. Figures? Yes, another inspection showed the same scholar, only further up the path. And standing in front of him was a large creature, an oni, all done in swipes of intricate red and black. The scholar's back was to us, but the oni's face was almost… quizzical, rather than the twisted scowl they traditionally wore.
I kept an eye on the scroll ever since, but nothing else changed. Yet somehow, the tension in the scroll seemed to ooze out and inhabit the entire living room. Sitting in there, even walking through the room, filled everyone with a sense of… horrible expectancy. And somehow the thought of removing the scroll seemed even worse. ANYTHING could happen if it wasn't watched.
Today I looked at it and the scholar lay sprawled in the path, his robes askew around him. The oni is almost at the bottom of the path, at the edge of the scroll, claws lifted as if to rip at the edge of the scroll. And its face is looking straight out of the scroll at me.
I can't even touch the scroll now; when I lay hands on it, it feels like someone is stabbing my arms with knives all up and down them.
Last week was my birthday.
I have a year left to do something.
Ah, you're finally here.
Come on in, have a seat. Want anything to drink? Some wine? Whisky? I have a great Scotch that you might love-
No? All right, but you know you can mix buisness with pleasure, right?
White or black?
E7 to E5.
D8 to H4. Mate.
I'm disappointed. I thought you would have learned, after all these years. A fool's mate is unbecoming for you.
Now, what'll the cost be? Something extra for that pathetic performance, at the very least.
Let's say, a year from you, and a year from your child. That should be acceptable.
Better luck next time. I'll always be here if you need another match.
I am in Hell, I am sure of it. The place where I am made to walk, with no control over my movement, looks like a city, but it is empty of life, other than the unspeakable things that share its roads with me.
There is no sun, only black holes in the sky, eight in all, that stare at me. I fear that they are the eyes of indescribable gods waiting in the darkness. Waiting for the strength to leave my legs, for my arms to be burnt to useless crisps. Then they will pounce quickly, and there will be nothing left of me but a scrap of clothing, or perhaps a single rib.
The train passes me, a reminder of my sins. In its windows are the faces of children, their faces accusing. Water pours from their mouths and their empty eye sockets. They are the children that plumetted of the bridge that I built, formed from fragile wood and hollow beams. Are they crying or screaming? I cannot tell, and I suppose it no longer matters.
The train is but the kindest of my torments, and as it speeds away, the car comes around the corner, my wife at the wheel, There is a butcher knife protruding from the back of her head. She stops the car a short distance in front of me. I pray she will not speak, but God still gives me no compassion.
Her neck twists and cracks as it turns to me, her head soon facing the other direction from the rest of her body. Rats are eating her eyes.
"Curtis." Her voice is the sound of uncivilized feasting, of the drip of rainwater and of a final, dying scream, repeated over and over for eternity. She waits for a reply, but my condition prevents me from giving one. She smiles, and her teeth are small, sharped and barbed.
"You deserve this, you know." She explains, and speeds off.
It is my turn to move. I am walked up the street and turn the corner. As I take each step, I can hear blood splashing against the lumps of skinned meat that were once my feet. I hear a smashing behind me. I already know what it is, the worst of these terrible apparations. The only thing I can describe it as is a hat, but a hat it is not.
It stops next to me, and as it brushes against my hand, I see horrific images. Men thrown into pits to die, a child being strangled by a man with many hands, and those are the best of those visions. The hat speaks in its terrible, alien language. Does it offer sympathy, contempt or indifference? I will never know, and I do not wish to. I wish only for my existence to cease, to be no more. Finally, I am allowed to move again in the slow, plodding pace that is forced upon me.
I pass go, and collect two hundred dollars.
"The end has come, at last. Tonight Montségur will fall, and we will be released from the demonic bonds of flesh, free to join the true god in the spirit. Do not weep, my child, for this just death spares you for a fate most cruel- living in the flesh is a sin even the best of us cannot avoid, and only the clean death hold salvation. In a way, we should be thankful to the crusaders, for their cruelty releases us from the necessity of abiding the devil’s work any longer. In killing us, they are only proving how false their way is. My only regret is that when we, the last of the true perfecti, die, there will be no one left to free the souls of man from their bonds. Our holy words will die with us, and humanity will remain in this false world forever. Such a shame."
"It is an act of desperation, in a way. The devil must have been so afraid of us."
"They are growing closer, and time has run out. I will release you now. It is fortunate you are old enough to understand the words."
"Only in a world of demons would I have to perform the rite of Consolamentum on someone so young."
I wake up, but I don't want to open my eyes. No light reaches them, so this makes black my color.
I groan, tired. I really don't want to get up, but it's morning already and I must move.
My sky greets me as I open my eyes.
And this makes blue my color.
I groan again. Why does it always do this? It makes my head dizzy. It makes me shudder.
All the earth rumbles as I rise from my ditch.
Standing, I brush my hands over my body, removing the dirt from it. I raise my eyes and then look at my fields.
And this makes green my color.
Walking around my fields, my mind starts working. I start thinking of important things.
Like… if God is my father, and also their father, doesn't that make us brothers? I shudder at the thought.
I mean, just to think I could have anything to do with—
I see something in the distance. Two small shapes. Two small, deformed, monstrous shapes.
Standing on my fields.
So I walk…
"Hey… hey, Simon. The hell is that?"
"Dunno… don't like the way it's moving, though…"
"It's… it's getting closer."
"Yeah, maybe we should—"
Now red is my color.
"Oh my God, what the hell is that thing?"
Ugly, but still, those things…
"Shoot it! Shoot it, dammit!"
"Run! Run, go get help!"
"What about you?!"
"I'll try to ho—"
I don’t know why my mummy screams. She just keeps scratching me and yelling and crying. It makes me feel sad. Is it my fault? I thought she liked having me here, I thought… I thought…
Why doesn’t she love me? Is it something I did? She keeps… she keeps saying that she’s not my real mummy. But she raised me. I don’t care who put me here. My mummy is my mummy. She’s warm and nice and lovely. I love my mum
She doesn’t really have any other children. I’m her only daughter, and I have her all to myself. I think she’s all alone. Nobody else ever comes here, not since what she told me about my other mother’s arrival. I don’t like my other mother. She abandoned me and left me. This mummy gave me a home. It’s a good home. So big and comfy. I just wish she’d stop scratching. She’ll hurt herself.
Ahhh… she keeps… she keeps doing it to me. Why? Why does my mum keep hurting me? I thought she loved me… I thought she…
I’m just trying to rupture. Doesn’t she want me to leave her body?
Should I stay?
New York, August, 1911.
He had never liked birthdays much. Every year people had asked him how it felt to be sixteen, eighteen, twenty. And his answer was always 'the same as it felt yesterday'. It nonplussed him that people couldn't see that time existed irrelevant of human demarcations. But then, he had always viewed the world differently from those around him. They had stopped asking after twenty-two, as though one ceased to acquire new experiences or change one's perspectives after that date.
Today he woke, as was his custom, one minute before the bell in the alarm clock beside him burst into life, and flattened the brass pip with the ball of his palm. He was twenty-nine years old. To be accurate, he thought, he would be twenty-nine as commonly reckoned at nine thirty-five this evening - until then he was merely a spritely twenty-eight. But as far as he could see, the conventional way men measured their ages was incorrect anyway; everyone was nine months older than they thought.
He rose, lit a cigarette at the window then went over to the washbasin, regarded himself in the shaving mirror. He saw the same long, lugubrious face with dark eyes he had seen for as long as he could remember. I have not changed, he thought, though he knew it was untrue - you just changed more slowly than you could perceive it. Those near you were under the same glamour of repetition - they would remain convinced that time had no grip on you, until the day they noticed you were losing your hair or wearing your glasses all the time or were suddenly struck by the way your eyes creased when you smiled. Death would sneak up on everyone, he thought, and there was something beautiful in that thought. Death the Great Leveller. The movie stars, the debutantes, the great and the good would all collapse and putrefy one day at a time, and they would adapt to and accept it, just like everyone else.
He went over to the ice-box and took out a bottle of Pemberton's cola, pressing it against his forehead. One product of this country he could live with, he thought. He could already feel how unconscionably hot it would be today, and the docks would give him no allowance for the day of his birth. Soon he would have to go and clock in. Things could have been different, he thought. He could have applied himself at the little rural school back in England and pursued a career as a doctor, or lawyer. Or perhaps that would have only increased the world's demand on him - to shut down his mind, to stupefy him. At least engaged in the menial task of loading and unloading the lifeblood of world commerce he had some time to think, to construct edifices and structures of cognition. When five years ago he had crossed the Atlantic to make his fortune in America he could not have imagined that he would have come to this, slaving fourteen hours a day in the hot sun, cursed at by his mental inferiors.
The letter on his doormat as he made to leave took him quite by surprise. In the first instance, the room he rented for eight dollars a month didn't even have a postal address - it was a cramped box that had been half a parlour, subdivided by his landlord to fit in another credulous wealth-seeker from England. He picked it up - the envelope crisp, white paper of a sort he hadn't seen before - an ornate cartouche on the upper right hand corner. There was no stamp or postal mark, so it must have been delivered by hand. He turned it over and saw his own name in a swirling, faintly familiar hand on the front. He had a minute or so, he thought, closing the door again and slitting the letter open with a breadknife. Inside was a small bundle of letters, tied together with a deep crimson ribbon. He untied it, carefully. Was it too much to hope for deliverance, that someone had seen him and believed in him, his power to change the world - that he might have a patron? He lifted the first sheet and read what it said.
I am most apologetic for the delay in sending these documents - I could inform you that the method I have discovered of transmitting them did not allow them to reach you prior to this point. That, however, would be a lie. And we must never lie to ourselves, must we? I have chosen this day and this moment because you are ready. You have seen what I have seen and are mentally prepared to act upon it. Do not consider me your master or a tyrant; I am simply accelerating the process that took far longer to reach fruition in my case. It may well be that you never discover yourself the means by which I prepared or sent these documents - I have prepared for this eventuality and in these papers you will find guidance that will serve you through the coming decades.
At this time you still harbour dreams of industrial prowess - of making your wealth in oil, or gold, or the railways. I have something grander in mind for you; an empire. There are partners you must seek out and persuade - their counterparts have persuaded me of the dangers of too great an interference of my part, so these documents are to remain secret from them at first. In the nineteen-thirties you are to write out some of the information I provide to you in this document and share it with them; instructions on what to copy and when are provided therein. If you heed my advice, your empire will expand over continents and encompass Presidents, Prime Ministers, the law and police - I bequeath this to you. I think of you as a son, though of course this is entirely inaccurate.
Your first task, Bartholemew, will be to pen a letter in your own hand. It will seem to you of a most strange and troubling character, but you must deliver it to an organisation whose name will become familiar to you in the years to come. You will establish yourself in their trust and what you obtain from them will furnish the beginnings of your work. It is to be addressed to Dr Hermann Keter and concerns recent events in the country of Guatamala…
Bartholemew read on, eyes widening. At the bottom of the letter was the same swirling signature he had seen on the envelope. As he looked at it it resolved itself into letters. They said:
I try to be good in small ways. You know, doing little things that brighten someone's day. Sometimes I go a little overboard, but that's a learning experience, is all. And hardly anyone is around to complain.
One day, many years ago, I was walking around a college campus when I overhead a young woman crying at a picnic table outside one of the dorms. Listening in, I overhead that it was her first birthday away from her family (only 17! Such a precocious young thing!) and that no-one here had wished her a happy birthday or gotten her anything. She sounded very, very sad and lonely. Poor thing, all alone on her birthday.
So I wandered away for a bit, keeping my eye on her in the meantime, and took a birthday card from the campus store. I wrote a birthday wish in it, in my elegant handwriting, and sealed it with a smile and a kiss. She didn't even notice when I slipped it into her backpack as she passed me on her way to class.
I didn't follow her ALL of the day (that would be impolite), but I did return to her side when I felt her touch the imprint of my kiss on the envelope. Graceful fingers and a gentle touch. She seemed hesitant as she opened the envelope, but she seemed so surprised and happy when she opened the card and the spray of light erupted from my writing. Seeing the tears of joy roll down her cheeks, I was so happy to make her feel better, and took my leave of her to spread goodness elsewhere.
May your eyes ever sparkle and your voice ever soar.
May your pockets never empty that you never shall be poor.
May your lovers find you winsome and your husbands treat you kind.
May your womb ever quicken with the children of your mind.
Happy Birthday, dear one
Enjoy your gifts well.
"D-class subject number 1243." That was what he had been called for the last 39 days. Twenty nine days of "community service", following ten days of transfer and orientation after he signed the form that got him off death row for a charge that was trumped up anyway. That was what he said and stuck by, it couldn't be first degree murder if he never met the other guy before, and besides that guy was the one with the gun. Not his fault he was just quicker, nor that the guy had such a short temper that the gun was pulled to start with.
So strange that someone in his position could get off with "community service", but then again this was a strange community. His first three days involved cleaning some awful sludge out of the holding pen for some sort of statue. Just once, someone blinked a split second too early and 0781 fell right on his ass, due to the concrete hands an inch from his neck. Then it was a week watching a television that kept playing some kind of footage of Ronald Reagan; he had to write down all the horrible ways the tape kept changing, and man it was horrible. He actually kind of liked the couple of days that he got to spend with the bugs, the researcher involved with them was so nice, especially since he wasn't one of the poor saps who got bit.
Yes, D-1243 was a lucky guy. Bouncing back and forth between tests because of minor contrivances, being part of the group (or only one of the group) to unexpectedly survive, or just get an easy one. D-1243 had seen other men in orange jumpsuits beaten, shocked or outright gunned down because they wouldn't cooperate, but he hadn't been hardened by prison enough to think "sticking it to the man" was more important than seeing freedom.
That morning, D-1243 woke up in the dormitory with the same three men he had shared it since D-8775 got stuck in a hole in a wall. Today was the day. They would be given drugs that would make them forget everything they saw, and be released back into the world. It was an extra special day, and few things were as disturbingly heartwarming as seeing former-death-row-inmates gathered around singing "Happy Birthday." They were all happy though, they were getting out too.
"So how old are you, anyway?"
"Man, what a birthday gift!"
The five D-class subjects were eventually gathered up and moved by armed escort through the wing. The room they were led to was small, with smooth metal walls and no windows. The door made a distinctive clang as it closed shut. D-1243 then heard the slight hiss of gas being released; that must be how the mind-wipe drugs worked, he thought. The five men got sleepy fast, and laid down on the bare metal floor. The last thing D-1243 thought before his mind shut down was that he hoped he would wake up soon; he wanted to be able to have some cake on his first birthday as a free man.
Stuffed animals are so much better than people. Just like Mommy said. When a stuffed animal rips, you just sew it back together. Stuffed animals always listen to you talk and never tell you to do anything you don't want. Best of all, stuffed animals are with you forever.
Daddy said that seven is too old to still have teddy bears and stuff, but I think he's wrong. Other than you Freddybear, there's Buttons the rabbit, Millicent the moose, and Socrates the squirrel. I've had just about all of them as long as I can remember. And they've never broken. Well, too badly at least.
But apparently, there's this thing called a "prostate" in Daddy. Or, well, there used to be. They said that "luckeemy" or "lookemiaw" or something like that got to his. They said Daddy would be taken away from me and I wouldn't see him any more. They would never say something like that about you or Buttons or Millicent or Socrates. You'll be with me forever. I guess all you need is thread and stuffing to really change someone.
And I got my way, Freddybear. Now Daddy can be with us again. Mommy was so right. I haven't seen him look so happy since he got sick. I'm tired though, I think it's time to go to sleep.
Good night Freddybear.
Good night Buttons.
Good night Millicent.
Good night Socrates.
Good night Daddy.
The wretched creature was alive once. Before it - she, then - walked down the wrong back road, stepped into the wrong copse of scraggly trees. Something laid in wait there in the backwoods, a tiny monstrosity nesting in a hole in reality. A flytrap.
It's important not to misunderstand the nature of this tiny monstrosity. It was hardly unique. Nor even at the top of the food chain. Nor was not even preying on this woman, at least not in the way we might understand that term.
It was aiming to reproduce.
The flytraps catch many things, but their favorites are the thinking ones. More suitable for the precious eggs desposited in its carapace. The flytraps fear the eggs, as the eggs are not their own. The eggs are not dangerous, but their layers are, and the flytraps know that the thinking things make better minds to add to the embryos in the eggs.
This flytrap caught the woman in its snare, and injected her with its venom. The venom would keep her alive for eons. Paralyzed, conscious, fresh.
Once the eggs were implanted, the flytrap spun her up into the cocoon of rock and dirt and crawled back through its hole. Back to its cold, black, infinite den, from which none escape.
It arranged the woman and several other victims in a careful circle around a tiny flame. The tiny flame would provide enough light and heat to keep the woman alive in her prison, with the venom doing the rest. The flytrap spun carefully, gently. After all, this was a nest, and these were its charges, the children it would raise for its masters.
The flytrap watched the woman for a time, to ensure that the temperature was right and the woman would not wake up before the eggs had grown into her.
The flytrap was very patient, and it watched for a long time. It watched the boils form on the rock prison as the woman tried to scream inside it. Tiny rivulets of melted rock run along the prison's surface like tears. The prison trembled, and the flytrap watched with concern.
A tiny part of the prison broke off, taking a piece of the woman with it. The flytrap shuffled the broken part back into the nest next to the imprisoned woman. Maybe this extra piece would form a child too. It had been known to happen. The woman's torn body writhed in agony for a long time after, but the prison held firm.
The flytrap waited until the woman's screaming cooled to a silent insanity, and the prison cooled with it. The broken piece was forming into its own, smaller, cocoon as well. By now, the eggs had grown into the woman so much that they could no longer be considered separate entities. They were now a child in a cocoon.
Then the flytrap crawled away, satisfied. Soon enough, now, the creature would be ready to be born, and more eggs were waiting to be laid. The woman's quiet, undifferentiated, mindless fear would be just right for the fledgling child. The first few eons were so critical.
So the flytrap missed what happened next.
The cocoon became infected.
Boils spread again across the woman-thing's cocoon, and burst to form rivers, lakes, oceans of pus. A haze of gas clouded over the cocoon's once-pristine surface. Tiny parasites swam in the infected swill and multipled. The woman-thing struggled anew as the parasites swarmed across the cocoon's surface, biting and crawling like an army of fleas. The woman-thing's quiet, sleeping insanity became a mad existence of paralyzed torture.
Floating in its solar nest, in the corner of the flytrap's den in the vast expanse of space, the creature called "Mother Earth" by its parasites waits in increasing madness to be born.