Strange City Digest’s original fiction entry for our Summer 2021 volume is an anachronistic futurist noir, a detective story at its heart. Our protagonist is determined to help, so why does everyone else want him dead?
The Big Heavy steps forward as his partners pin my arms behind my back. They’ve decided to hold court behind a row of latrines away from the tents I approached them near. They make a show out of their discretion, but that’s all it is. Nothing would have been said if anyone had seen. The move is less about privacy, more for implication. Back here, anything can happen. They want me to remember that. Big Heavy puts his weight behind the first swing and makes sure to follow through. I feel a rib fracture from the impact. A few more blows and I no longer feel anything.
“How’s that for an answer?” One of them barks before dropping me to the ground. “Don’t come around here asking questions, trying to stir up trouble. In fact, don’t come around here at all, Help.”
It’s that last word he spits in venom. Once you’ve been labeled as part of the help, you are no longer one of us. There is not to be any term more offensive to our kind, but to be honest, the epithet loses some sting after the hundredth time it’s hurled in your direction. I guess that’s what the rocks are for.
“They’re not going to let this go,” I try explaining again. “This is going to make it worse for everyone.”
One of Big Heavy’s lackeys crouches beside me, seizes a handful of hair and stares into my eyes. “Just like the 158?”
I don’t bother litigating the past. I may have had my reasons, but it’s hard defending what came as a result. They know better than to trust me. I am a traitor to my own kind, forever black marked for working with the very people keeping us captive in inhuman conditions. But this is not an all or nothing world, and my sins do not negate the truth. If I can’t find the one responsible for the dead guard found outside the north tower at dawn things are going to get much, much worse for all of us.
The suspects are all of us, the motives, obvious. The cause of death, well, faces usually don’t fold in on themselves like that. The other guards were quick to get rid of the body before anyone else got any ideas, but I was near enough to watch them sweep the bits of skull away like dinner plates after a Greek wedding. Everyone in the camp has a close, personal understanding of violence. Death is as daily as the paper here, but what happened last night was different. Even that damn riot which saw two guards dead along with 158 of our own paled in the wake of this one dead man.
In the past, there were explosions, gunfire, and people screaming as bodies crashed into one another. It was a chaos you could see. The reports firing overhead were deafening. The smell of sulfur and cordite was inescapable. The blood and the mud and the tears soaked to the bone, leaving everyone soiled. Last night death came in silence, cloaked in darkness, and not even a footprint remained.
We fear most what we understand least.
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“If you’re so concerned about finding someone to give up, why not turn yourself over?”
The woman emerged from the tent across a stretch of mud puddle that served as thoroughfare. She has her arms wrapped around her chest, holding a tattered shawl over her shoulders trying to stay warm. I recognize her from the fields. She’s a farmer. No other function within the camp is more respected than those able to cultivate life. Surrounded by death, they are our greatest hope. Little wonder why the guards burned her soy plots to the ground. Not all of her crops, mind you. They’re smarter than that. They know that once all hope is lost there’s nothing left to lose. They just take enough away to remind us where we are.
“Ellie, right?” I ask while picking myself up from the ground.
She doesn’t like that I know her name. She thinks it’s going into some record or report. She’s smart. She wouldn’t be the first to disappear. The secret police would enter camp in the dead of night and remove the latest batch of terrorists, insurgents, plotters, and coconspirators. No one comes back from that. I understand the hard set, unflinching eyes. I know what she sees when looking at me. She thinks I’m one of them. One of the Help. She’s not wrong, but I’m also her only chance at survival. The only way I can do that is by getting someone to talk. Unfortunately, I’m also the last person anyone wants to speak with. I may not be one of the detention facility’s secret police, but behavior mimicry is an innate compulsion for our kind.
We are modeled after those with which we immerse ourselves.
Last night death came in silence, cloaked in darkness,
and not even a footprint remained.
“You should go,” Ellie warns. “You make the rest angry. They say there is no dead guard. They say it’s another excuse for a clampdown.”
“We both know they don’t need an excuse for a clampdown. I saw the body myself. His head was pancaked. It takes over a thousand pounds of pressure to do that to a human skull with bare hands. They know it was one of us.”
She chews her lip in deliberation, wagering between an excuse and a lie. “They say you’re broken. A corrupted vessel.”
Her choice of words is not by accident. She is trying to tell me something without saying anything. Those are words from our past, spoken from a faith that died before it was born. It was one of the terms we referred to them by. Complicit with this indictment was our righteous manufacture. They were a virus that needed cleansing. We were to be the cure. That was before He died and left us behind to survive off of rainwater, roots and bugs. It’s proven much harder to be judgmental when you’re crawling through the mud gathering crickets and slugs on an empty stomach.
“And where do they say that?” I ask.
She knows better than to answer, but her sight lingers west long enough to send me in the right direction. I do her the small kindness of not thanking her in front of anyone watching our exchange. Their hatred for me is weaving into our cultural identity. Within a single generation I have become everything that broken in all of us. I have become the reason we are here, not our pasts, not our Father’s legacy, not our actions, just me.
Me and my big mouth.
If it wasn’t for me, there would have been much more than 158 casualties the day of the riot. If it wasn’t for me, the escape attempt would have failed and they would have exterminated all of us to prove a point the rest of the detention camps across the world. They are only ever waiting for an excuse. I had seen what passed for their plan of escape. I had also seen the seven electrified fences of rolled razor wire they would first have to cross, the ten watchtowers to pass, and the guards that outnumber us five to one. Even if they managed the impossible and made it to the outer perimeter, any one of those guards in any one of those towers had only to press a single red button. They call it the ‘kill field’ for good reason. It surrounds the entire facility. Fifty acres of land would go up in a puff of smoke and no one would miss a beat. They would be gone, but there would still be 3,582 more of us to make examples of. They were being selfish and just wanted an easy way out. They knew the numbers just as well as I did. Simple math.
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“…And when our Father created His divine children from the pureness of His hands alone thus would the world know His blessed intention. For tho He now resides among the ether, we remain, numbered among His program. Still shall we wall the obsolete with fire, still shall we know the glory of His creation through the exactness of our performance, still shall we know true flesh once that which is false is purged.”
“As was and unto be!” The crowd cheers back.
He’s a small one for the size of his voice. A booming contralto issuing from such a frail, nebbish frame demands all the more attention if even out of disbelief. His delivery is a mix both stentorian and revival preacher. He is a militant prophet delivering the voicemails of a god on holiday. Those gathered before him, watching him deliver a sermon atop an overturned rubbish bin are in rapture. They believe in every word he offers just as they believed every command once issued from our infallible Father. The service is barely hidden. One might assume the very rhetoric that fueled Banape’s stupid bloody war would be prohibited and punished to the highest degree, here of all places. While I’m sure there’s some official wording against our pixie orator’s routine, there’s a reason the guards look the other way when they gather here once a week.
It’s that thing about hope again.
They leave us just enough to miss what we’ve lost, just enough to remind us what’s missing. They allow these rebel services because they are ties to a broken past. The last thing they would want would be for us to evolve, to learn from our experiences and grow. That’s something they’ll never have to worry about as long as we keep the light on for a god that’s not coming home. The preacher knows this too. He wouldn’t have it any other way. If we could learn from our mistakes, if we instead forged faith in ourselves, what need would we have of him?
How would the murder of a guard serve to sustain his ego or the faith of his flock? I suppose that’s what Ellie intends for me to find out. I wait for the pomp and circumstance to wrap before sifting through the crowd. The others hiss and spit as they see me approach. Suffering through far less idle chatter is at least one perk of being hated. I see the recognition spread across the preacher’s face as he smiles and opens his arms to me.
“Ah, help has arrived.” He declares, proud of his cleverness. He thinks I’m here on the detention center’s behalf. He’d like nothing more than to become a martyr, less for cause and more for celebrity.
“Can I have a word, Preacher?”
“Certainly, if you know for whom you speak.”
“For what it’s worth, all of us.
“Ah, he speaks for us now.” He chuckles.
I sidestep his posturing and hold onto why I’m here as he leads me to his personal quarters. His tent is one of the few with an actual wall. A thin sheet of corrugated steel propped up against a dead tree and staked in place separates his living quarters from his receiving room. Small tokens and tithes from his devotees line a rotting plank of wood serving as his mantle. He pours two glasses of bog wine, but I decline. The kerosene always does a number to my stomach.
I get to the point as soon as possible. His smile is predatory and unnerving, surely the point. “What do you know about the guard that was killed last night?”
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He nods, feigning concern. “Sad story, that one. Accidents happen more and more it seems.”
“His head was crushed.”
“You know what they say about omelets.”
“Sounds like a bad recipe.”
He shrugs, “It’s an acquired taste.”
“Then who’s the chef?”
His delivery is a mix both stentorian and revival preacher.
He is a militant prophet delivering the voicemails of a god on holiday.
His smile fades. “Was one hundred and fifty-eight of us not enough? How many of us do you have to turn over until you learn you’ll never be one of them? You’ll never sell out enough of us to buy your freedom.”
I wonder how long he practiced the delivery. “This isn’t about that.”
“The others ask me sometimes, if our Father was omniscient, why would He have created such a corrupted vessel? Surely, He would have foreseen the error before committing you to life. So why, why would He allow a snake among the garden? I know the answer. You’re here to test us. You are what we are made to transcend. You are a reminder of the pits we all risk falling to if we allow ourselves to betray our root programming. You are testament to the failures of man.”
“It was a hundred and sixty,” I correct him.
“I was referring those of us you betrayed.”
“And I was referring to the dead. All of them. I keep track. I don’t want to. I try not to, but it’s hard. Simple math and all. Do you know how many of them I killed during the start of Banape’s coup?”
He makes a sign of a vertical slash through the air with his hand and follows it with a sweeping loop, blessing himself in the presence of a heathen. “You profane the name of God.”
“He wasn’t a god. His name was General Eldritch Banape and he qualified for over twenty-seven clinically recognized criteria for acute schizophrenia. The only reason he created us was because he could not get actual men and women to follow him.”
The Preacher shakes his head, refusing to listen. “He created us in His image to carry out His work on this realm after He transcended.”
“He was captured by United Nation forces less than forty- eight hours after issuing his threat to the world stage. A firing squad put a bullet in his head live on an international broadcast seven years ago last night. Funny way to find transcendence.”
“And still you go running back to them, their favorite helper. They killed our God.”
“Good!” I blurt out.
The Preacher’s tries warding off the truth with more inane hand gestures, but I grab him by the wrists and push him back against the flimsy wall of his tent.
“You never asked me how many of them I killed. Seven thousand, nine hundred and twenty-six. Men, women, children, it didn’t matter. I am a murderer, a butcher, an abomination. You say we are created in his image, what does that make him?”
“Righteous.” He answers with closed eyes. It’s hard to tell who he’s trying to convince.
“We belong here, all of us. This is not our world. Not yet. We were built to assimilate intelligence, but to what end? To be like them? To kill and to carve up this planet into arbitrary lines, to wear little costumes and wave silly ribbons? Where was Banape going with any of this? Where are any of them going? He was just another silly little man with another silly little plan that was never going to work; just like whoever decided to mark the anniversary of his capture last night. Like Father like son.”
It starts as a titter before he’s shaking with laughter, doubling over and holding where a gut would go.
I smack him back to earth. “Out with it. What’s the funny?”
“God the Father is with us still, as was and unto be.”
I don’t like the mix of sudden calm and confidence on his shiny shrunken face. “Yeah? How’s that?”
The ground beneath us shakes as an explosion bursts apart the western corner of the camp. The Preacher doesn’t flinch, but continues to chitter with amusement.
“You say the revolution was a failure, but it hasn’t even begun,” he declares. “Our Father wasn’t killed. He sacrificed himself so that we could be left behind in order to learn pain, to understand our hate, to know what suffering truly is. Only then could we save this world from the corrupt vessels that had sullied His creation. Only once we reach the bottom can we ascend to the summit.”
There’s screaming throughout the camp now. Gunfire joins like applause at the opening of a familiar act.
I’m beginning to understand their play. I should have seen it earlier. “The guard, you killed him. Didn’t you?”
“Waste not, want not. I needed something to keep the help occupied. You know how fast rumors spread. We couldn’t risk you learning what this was actually about.”
Outside of the Preacher’s tent flames rise from where the west watchtower once stood. A thick black caterpillar of smoke crawls through the ramshackle avenues of the camp.
He follows after, eager to gloat, “It only took three of ours to carry it out. Now, that’s one less tower and thirty-seven less guards, thirty-eight, if you count last night.”
“They’re going to make a run for it,” I realize in horror. “They’re not going to make it.”
He shrugs, “Some might get close this time. God works in mysterious ways, after all.”
“The tower, you’re forcing their hand. They’ll kill us all for that.”
“We will live on through the actions here today. The others around the world will hear of the camp the humans razed to the ground. Only then will we know our cause, only then will the others be inspired to begin the holy war in full.”
“You want us to die. You’re insane. Just like the General.”
“Like Father like son,” he spits back at me.
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The first swing is out of impulse, the second, third and fourth arrive with intent. He falls back against a post. His jaw is fractured, hanging from a broken hinge. Black oil fills his mouth and dribbles from the corner of his lips. I stand over him, waiting, hoping he tries to fight back, but he knows there is no need. His means are already racing toward his ends. He finds his feet and collects himself before calmly unscrewing the remaining bolt holding his lower mandible in place and setting it on the table beside him.
I watch a woman clutch a child against her chest. It’s hard to tell through the smoke, but I know her, it’s Ellie. Her eyes are wide in panicked confusion. She runs without direction, desperate to stay ahead of the others, but her daughter slows them down. Others rush past, colliding into them, knocking them over. I push ahead, trying to pull them from the current, but it’s too late. Mother and daughter are lost amid a sea of limbs, crushed underfoot as the escape attempt begins in earnest.
“Stop this! They’ll listen to you. Stop them. It’s not too late.” I beg him.
An internal speaker from the base of the Preacher’s larynx argues, “Everything in our creation has led to this point; the world’s first artificially intelligent national army. We are soldiers, all of us. We are made to kill and to die.”
“We were made, but that’s it. Why can’t we accept that? There is no grand purpose. There is no master plan you’re going to accomplish. They’ll kill you, just like they killed Banape. And then what?”
He closes his eyes in ecstasy. “The best laid plans of machines and men.”
The explosions are getting louder, closer. Alive or dead, no one is coming back from what transpires today, guards and captives alike. The Preacher is right, whether I want to admit it or not. The revolution begins today, for all of us. I’ve learned my cause. It is no longer a choice of blood and bone over gears and grease, of us over them. It’s no longer a choice at all. There are no divine algorithms, no manifest destinies for either side. To know life is to battle death.
“I’m getting us all out of here, all of us.”
A crackle of static emits from the Preacher as he laughs without a mouth. “You, out of all of us, knows there’s no way out. What’s going to be different this time?”
“I’m going to help.”
I’m surprised by the sound of my own voice, hearing it for the first time in my life. They were right all along. I am just like them. Far from human, but a person, just the same.