Sunday, December 25, 2011

Behind The Arena

I think my name is Luke. Luke Valencia. I've probably spent hours now sitting, arms around my knees. It feels nice and warm to wrap yourself up. The storage room is so cold when they've been opening the doors a lot. I can smell other flesh in here, and it riles me up until I get used to it. It's worst when they take the others in and out, because when they come back, they always reek like blood. It smells like pennies and meat and tastes like memories.

I'm a bad thing. I know that much. I'm a Blighter. The cops would call me Bravo, I think. Other people say other things. Demon. Devil. Lecter, for your non-religious types. Killer, alien, beast, whatever you want. The Horsemen would tear you down for that stuff, but I don't care. I'm a monster. I'll call me what I am, all of it. I'm a man-eating freak of nature.

It's times like this I can think. I realize how dark it is in here.  The sun doesn't rise or set; it's all just a dim fluorescent haze. Blighters don't really sleep on a normal schedule. We kind of hibernate a while whenever, just shut down in whatever shape we're in. I don't bother looking human much anymore. I'm not human at all. I don't notice time passing; it's like I'm in stasis or something. Like in those books I might have read. Or was that one of the other ten or fifteen people buried in me now?

The short stocky man comes back, smelling like sweat, booze, and snuff. He waddles a bit; I can see the screwed up knee even before I can see his face. He's the kind of guy I'd pick out of the herd: the meaty guy with the beer belly who can't run away. I guess I still think I'm a bit human, because I normally have a real face. Right now my human mouth is a little open. That stupid thing cats do when they're watching mice. I used to be ashamed. Maybe I still am. Did my girlfriend have a cat? Or was she the allergic one?

He notices me staring. His eyes are the color of pond muck. Sounds more filling than what I usually get. At least there's a lot of it.

"Not your turn, Lucy. Give it a few days."

He spits on the floor. It smells like breath. I'm against the wire before I can think. He laughs at me, crouching down to leer into the cage. It's small enough that he'd have to crawl if he tried to get in here. I can't ever stand up, even on four human limbs. I can't remember the last time I had four human limbs. I mostly keep a face and some fingers. I can't talk these days. If I try, I just end up gnawing on something. I tried to eat myself once. It's not really satisfying. It hurts and makes me more tired. Something about conservation of energy?

I try not to stare at the pit master like a piece of meat. It's too hard, but sometimes I can look at the cage where I chewed on it.

"What's your problem, huh?" He talks to me like I'm a dog, in that overdone tone you use when something can't really understand your words. Lots of the time, I'm really like that. Not today. He's right -- it's too soon. If he wants me to act like the dog he thinks I am, he's got to wait.

I know it's coming back. I used to wish it didn't, but it always does. Wasn't there a dog that got shocked until it never got back up again, just laid there and gave up?

What does it mean, if I'm that dog?

There's a taller man coming in now. His air tastes like ink and smoke. He's got papers in his hand. They look tasty, too.

"Hey, I remember this one." He jerks a thumb at me. I watch it move through the dusty air. Sometimes I scrape the dust off the cage floor. It's not filling. The new human stands beside the first. "Lucifer, yeah?"

"That's the one. You were poking him with a stick the other day or something."

"Just looking."

"Yeah, well, here he is, look all you want."

The guy leans down. It's that man from the match, the one with the notebook. He gave me a cigarette last match. Didn't he ask me how to smoke? No. He asked me what someone did with a cigarette. Testing my thinking. Seeing if I could respond.

So I did. It looked like I might have gotten through to him, somehow. He doesn't look at me the way the pit master does. He's okay getting right up to the cage. He doesn't sneer or look nauseous. Lots of people are disgusted by the way we look. I guess we do look like bloody flesh. Well, they look like cooked flesh, so we're even. Just like a roasted chicken. Did I ever cook chicken? I might have been a vegetarian. Or maybe that was Anderson.

"So what would happen if he got out?" Cigarette Man has another of his, well, cigarettes, dangling in two fingers. I don't like smoke and fire, because fire is one of the few things that kills me pretty well. The pit master once threw some coals into my cage, when I wouldn't shut up. That hurt. But I watch Cigarette Man with what I hope isn't too bright a look. I can't resist his words.

"What do you think? He runs wild, eats both of us, breaks out, takes out part of a city block, the fuzz comes in and flames him out, and there you go."

Can I do that? I thought most Blighters could only sweep maybe a room or two. Close range type stuff. I don't even remember my infection. Usually you see what someone can do when it takes over everything it can in the first loss of control. Little numbers float around in my head about death ranges, whatever those are.

I dig around a little in my recent memories. "Has a death range of three times our ring."

Does that mean I can sweep up an area that big? I think the ring is an oval, maybe fifty feet across, thirty feet wide?

I'm not so small, then, if they were talking about me.

All that says right now, is that I can eat a lot. That probably scares them, though. The ring doesn't have any food, so I can't grow in there. Neither does the cage.

I don't raise my head, but I roll my eyes to look at Cigarette Man. The pit master has already started wandering around, going to the other cages. His friend jabs out the cigarette on the ground and pokes it through my cage.

I manage to hold off for barely a minute to stare at it before chomping it in half. Tobacco and a body a week. How long until I blow away like dust? Isn't that what happens when we die?

"Hey, Lucifer."

I look up at him. The air around him tastes good, this close. Like more than one person. Maybe his friends? I can't touch the cage wire, but I can sniff through it. My face looks vaguely human right now, not like the last time he saw me. He stands up after taking a long look at it.

"Hey, Cole, gimme that prod and go get a couple beers. You've been at this a while. I'll make sure they're all still alive."

"Thanks, man." The pit master -- Cole? -- throws something through the air that makes me skitter way back in the cage. I slam against the back wall and throw myself onto my face. The hot lines on my back burn like a shot of fire, and they hiss, and they smell like death.  I feel some powder crumble off. I scrape it up.

Cigarette Man leans closer. He has Cole's stick, the one he jabs me with when I'm too loud. When Cole leaves, he puts it down and sits next to the cage. He sounds nervous. He rubs at his neck a lot and doesn't look at me much. "Hey. I don't know your real name, but I'd call you that if I did. You hearing me?"

I manage a shaky nod. The clunky industrial fans are blowing stale air back and forth, and some of it has his taste all over it. It washes over my skin, and I shiver and clatter my teeth. He's got a cut on his lip. I want to lick the blood off.

"I got a present for you."

I jump up so fast I nearly bang my head on the cage. My lower body moves into action, tensing up as I pull it into enough shape to coil around on the floor. Like a kid waiting for his birthday. Or maybe a puppy waiting for a treat.

"Here." He reaches into his big duffel bag, digs around under some clothes that throw old stink and salt into the air, and pull out a couple of big black plastic bags. "You have to listen to me, okay? I'll help you out. I'm Bray, remember that."

I'm all ears. Not literally. I can do that, but I don't. It's silly, and I don't really know how to process more than two ears. But I lean my head near the cage to listen.

"I'm going to open this door."

My jaw hangs open, and I rise up in the cage, ready to spring. First him? Yes. First him. Then the pit man. Then -- then--

"But he said if you get out, you're too far gone to be set free. So I can't let you go."

I scream and throw myself against the cage. Teeth scrape on steel. Claws throw sparks. The grate fries itself into my face. I come back smelling like ash. Pain flies back and forth through my body like fire, or maybe one of the other Blighters' tendrils. I hunch down and glare at him.

"You idiot, look at you, that's exactly what I mean. Now shut up and listen. There are four other guys in here like you. If I want to get them out, Cole has to trust me."

That...that made sense. Right. There were others. They were like me. But were we worth getting out? I guess we wanted it, whether we deserved it or not...

"There you go. Listen to me. Calm down." Bray hefts a bag into his arms. I can't really smell what's in it. He covered it up pretty well. It mostly smells like old cloth. "I'm going to help you get your brain back enough for us to start a plan. But you've got to act like you're still in a bad spot."
I make my brows wrinkle up. That's what the others in me did when they were confused. What humans do.

"You've got to act like you're still starving, and you have to fight your matches. And right now, I'm going to open this door, and if you kill me, you're doomed. Did you hear what he said before?"
I'm shaking in place so hard that I look like a bowl of jelly, but I nod. I start thinking, Don't go out the door. Don't go out the door. I close my eyes. I grab hold of the floor as best I can.

"All right. Here we go." He puts on some weird thick gloves and fumbles with the lock. "I stole the key from Cole and copied them after the match. He only keeps one on him at a time, just the one he's using for the match right then. I don't know where the rest are. But this one's yours." He holds it up when he's done, then jerks the lock out of place and swings the door open.

Freedom freedom freedom--
 

No!
I shudder back into the cage, dragging my head on the ground, and Bray empties both of the bags in front of me. Then he slams the door and locks it back.

The turkeys are gone only minutes later, every last drop of blood and flake of bone scratched up from the floor, and I truly look at myself for the first time in...weeks? Months? I don't know. But I can focus now, and I can see my vaguely human hands, and I notice the meaty flesh-pile body behind me, shiny and liquid and curled up tight on the dirty floor. Most of all, I notice Bray, look at him, not just sniff him out anymore. He looks human, not just edible. He's rough, but he looks clean, unlike what I remember of Cole.

I sink down onto what would have been my knees but is now just another part of the tangle of viscera and muscle that makes up my lower half.

"There, that wasn't so bad." He picks up the prod again and stuffs a cigarette between his lips. I shake my head. "Huh?"

I think back to the other humans, to what I might have been, and I let myself feel the way it felt to speak...and my throat rearranges itself into a familiar pattern. I draw some air into my chest.

"I don't like smoke." My voice sounds thick and wet, but it comes out.

He coughs a laugh and stares. "So you can talk. Damn. I thought for sure--"

"That I was a really smart dog." It takes me a lot of effort to squeeze out the words, but contempt definitely helps.

"Well...okay, yeah, fine, I'll admit to that." He adjusts his collar and glances back at the doors. "I'll drop in with more food between your matches. I can't do too much, or you probably won't act right. But if you can strip down two hundred pounds of meat out there, I figure forty or fifty more is a good snack. So I'll bring you about that much of whatever's on sale, okay? It's November, so you get turkey. Don't bitch at me or I'll poke you with this thing here, whatever it is."

I glare at him. He shrugs and pockets the prod.

"Look, I'm trying to do you right, you can tell that. You got a name?"

"Luke."

"All right. Nice to meet you, or something."

I shrug. It definitely is, although the circumstances could be far, far better...

"Cole's gonna be back soon. I want your full name and the name of the last--"

I can't think about that now. Not when I have this much clarity. It's too powerful. I just spit out the names and turn my head away, my voice all blurring together into something soupy: "Luke Valencia. Joshua Marron was a bouncer. Chinatown bars. Drove a pickup truck something like ten years old. I think it was a Chevy." I pause to draw in another forced breath; anger to grease the wheels or not, it's hard to manage that many words after not saying much for this long. Bray stops with his mouth open. As I focus, the memories dull to a low roar, and Bray's hand rushes over a page in his notebook.

"Joshua Marron, bouncer, next to Chinatown, drove a Chevy pickup, I got that. Luke Valencia, ah, anything more about you?"

"What's this for?" I sit back on my serpentine haunches. It's a nice pillow, at least, if you get over the slimy, fluid feeling.

"I'm going to see if I can dig up a pattern to who this guy's kidnapping for the pits. You know, do a little sleuthing. You know anything about the other poor bastards in here?"

"No. They don't talk."

"Right." Bray stuffs the book and pen back in his pocket. "All right, Luke, sit tight. We'll see what we can break open, yeah?" He turns to leave.

"Wait." I sidle up to the cage door again, barely missing it. Bray glances over his shoulder.

"What?"

"Why bother? Cole pays you."

"I don't know. Maybe I saw something funny in the way you looked at me. I didn't know you guys were smart. Or maybe I heard it, but I didn't believe it, and that Luthor guy shook me up a little, too. Joshua." Shrugging, he pulls a cigarette from the pack in his back pocket and raises it to his lips. "I think that if anyone's got half a brain to try, they should be given a shot at making it in the world. That's both people and creepy monster men, right? If you can think, you can live."

He lights the cigarette and strides away.


(I tried to bring out the inconsistent thoughts caused by Luke/Lucifer's chronic food deprivation. He has spurts of lucidity, but he's easily distracted. There's a method to the madness, though, and I'm trying to fish around for what that is.

I have no idea what this fascination with first-person-present is. I almost never write in it. I'm a die-hard fan of third-person-past.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Social Associates


Everyone calls me Sarah. It's a nice, all-American name, and I don't ever give out my real name anyway, so it'll do. It's something you have to do when you're in my trade, going by an alias. I have a few others, but I try not to let them cross paths. You understand.

I know it seems a little fake, maybe a little artificial to have no one know my real name, but I can't say that I chose a very well-respected career. I hear about that from my mother all the time -- couldn't you have been a manager, like your sister? Something respected and reputable? I'd sooner have you work in McDonald's than what you do now. Yeah, that kind of sentiment. It's really common; I hear it all the time, sometimes even from my clients. Those ones, they know what they're doing; they just like to feel morally superior and get on their high horse about having a "real job." Well, they should take a good look at themselves, you know? They're the ones paying me.

My most expensive client was one of these. Let's call him Jack -- you know I'll be changing names for this, right? Good. So, there's Jack, he's a bachelor with a really cushy loft down in the metro area. Nice place, big, he even has a full bar in there. Jacuzzi tub. Big screen TV. You know what he paid me? Six hundred dollars an hour, plus gas and parking. That guy could have anyone in the world with a snap of his fingers, and he pays me more for sixty minutes than most people in my line of work make in a day. Now that's what I call desperate.

Jack himself wasn't as much of a surprise, though. You know what really got me when I started this job? The married guys. I know, I know, it's really common, but I honestly figured that the guy has a wife, sometimes kids, what does he need me for? They're always there, why bother spending the money? I guess I never understood that -- not being a guy, or married, either -- but honestly I always found them to be the most sad cases. They pay a lot, and they want the least from me. Just something normal. Sometimes they even take me to dinner, wine and dine, the whole stereotype. It's kind of sweet, in a weird way. They're nice guys; they just have a hole in their life right now.

Do I ever stay with them after that? What's that mean? If they're paying, I'll stay.

Oh, you mean like that. You mean, do I sleep with them? What do you take me for, a whore?

No, of course I'm not. Wait, was that what -- never mind. Look, the whole "social prostitute" thing is really a bad way to phrase it. I don't sleep with anyone. I don't give blowjobs, handjobs, any kind of jobs, nothing like that. Not to say the guys don't sometimes ask for it.

We ran out of things to call ourselves, because the prostitutes took all the good names first. "Companion for hire" was a good one, until we realized people thought we were friends with benefits or professional arm candy. So we settled on "social associate." I don't really like it, but it was as free from innuendo as we could manage.
What do I do, if I don't sleep with the guys? Well, like I said, we're not whores. A social associate is a friend for hire. People pay us, and we do whatever friendly activities they want. Just yesterday, one of my clients paid me to go hiking with her.

It's not all it's cracked up to be. You get some pretty irritating cases sometimes. There was the one guy, a nineteen-year-old college student, who paid me to sit in his dorm room with him and watch him play World of Warcraft for four hours. I was having a low day, so I took the job, but I swear I nearly fell asleep.

That's bad protocol, falling asleep. You're supposed to look interested and intrigued at all times. That's the reason a lot of people hire me -- because no one else wants to buddy with them. Think of it this way: you hire a friend because you're one of three things. You're really boring, or you're annoying, or you're socially incompetent. I'll leave out the married guys and girls, because they mostly just want a break from family life, poor sods.

So the World of Warcraft guy, that's all he wanted to talk about. He sat there for four hours just telling me all about how fun the game was, what kind of raids he went on. I prep for every appointment by reading up on what the client likes to do, and not just skimming it, either. I have to learn about it. If they play basketball, I have to learn to shoot a basket. I actually played the game for probably twenty or so hours and figured out how it worked, leveled up my character some, so I could talk shop with him. But it turns out that was all he wanted -- someone in person who could talk about his hobby with him to no end. Guy didn't even let me play a while.

Your normal friend doesn't put up with that. You have to put effort into a friendship, and that usually includes shutting your mouth when the other person wants to say something, or talking about something they want for a change. Not so with me -- I'm every fanboy's dream, because they can go on and on without me so much as opening my mouth if they don't want me to, and I say all the right things to them. I guess I'm the world's worst enabler, telling them that all their social screwups are the right thing to do.

I study the cues, you see. People who actually want a two-sided conversation act very differently from people who don't. You can tell by the flow of their words and the look on their face. Some people want real conversation. Some people, they want me to talk about them, ask them questions about themselves, give them excuses to do all the socially irritating things they have to keep away when they're with normal friends, like talk endlessly about their own life. It's all the indulgence minus the guilt and consequences. Some people want me to shut up because they just want a body to talk to. I swear, sometimes I could put a cardboard cutout of me in the room, and the client would just sit and talk to it without getting bored.
I can't read or text, though, because that makes me look distracted. I have to sit and be attentive, nod and say affirmative phrases at the right time. You have to look like you're genuinely enjoying the situation, no matter how dull.

What's the worst situation I've been in? Well, you won't believe me if I tell you, but here it is.

I was paid a decent mid-range price -- 150 an hour, not bad at all -- to show up at this really nice suburban house for a little while one afternoon. I showed up to see a sparkling white fence, a paved stone driveway, two garages, nice four-bedroom house, the works. There was a basketball hoop outside that actually looked used. It was a real cozy family place. Even the bushes were neatly trimmed and looked like someone tended to them on a regular basis. I can barely remember to do my laundry; who has time to painstakingly trim the hedges?

I knocked on the door, and a woman answered me who looked about fifty, a young fifty, but still over the hill. She motioned me in. Mom must have been a real late bloomer, or she adopted, because the kid playing inside looked about ten, eleven if you squinted hard enough. Her husband, she said, was at work. Dad worked overtime while Mom stayed home most days.

She took me into the kitchen, offered me a sandwich and some juice, and I asked when we were going out. Usually in these cases, you get the situation where Mom is sick of babysitting, and she wants some time off with another female, so she calls me in.
Nope. She pulls me gently into the living room and introduces me to the kid. Mutters into my ear not to talk about my job, just about what he wants to talk about. Then she scoots out the door and leaves me alone in her pristine whitewashed house with a very confused-looking kid.

I introduced myself the way I usually do for people with limited faculties -- I get hired sometimes to help out the mentally ill, and don't you laugh. Something like, "Hi there, I'm Sarah. I'm a friend; what's your name?"

I can't tell you his name, but we got along pretty well. He had some really nice train sets, those old heirloom types that you get for real collectors. My brother had one of those. They're really high-quality, and it takes a long time to wear them out. So we played with the train set while Mom went to the theater.

He was a pretty ugly kid, I'll give you that, but in the end we got along pretty well. He was smart, and he had a lot of good books, and I've got a weakness for a great read. He always had a sad look about him, though; I figured he was just tired from doing his normal kid-ly stuff, and that this was Mom getting her time off by hiring a babysitter. Still, it was a little confusing that she couldn't just take him to Grandma's, or call in a local college student to watch the kid.

A few days later, she calls me in again, this time for the better part of a Saturday. That's really expensive, you know, renting me for a day. Well over a grand in fees, and then you have to feed me if it's a situation where I can't take a lunch break or go eat with you. Junior wanted leftover lasagna at home, so I had some too, and we played in the kiddie pool Mom kept in the back yard. He was a good kid, always polite, and he even knew what to do when I slipped and skinned my knee on the back porch. He was out the door with some peroxide and a big Bandaid before I could reach for the hose to wash the scrape. Didn't even flinch at the blood, brave kid. I was scared of blood when I was little. He kissed the bandaid and called me his "best friend in the world." Can't say I wasn't a little flattered; I mean, who thinks their babysitter is that awesome, right?
Anyway, a few weeks went by, and I paid a lot of my rent off Mom's fees. To this day I wonder where she got all the cash; they seemed like they were reasonably well-off, but not filthy rich. Certainly not the types to blow a couple thousand a week on a fancy babysitter. I wonder how many pennies she pinched to pay me. Still, I was confused as to why she needed such an expensive nanny, so I finally did what I almost never do -- I cornered her and asked why she hired me in the first place. That's kind of crass, you know? You don't ask someone why they're desperate enough to hire someone like me.

Turns out the kid didn't have any friends at all. He was the really awkward type, and he got picked on because he was short and not particularly appealing to the eye, you know what I mean? No one liked him at school; kids beat him up for his lunch money; that sort of thing. So his mom did what a desperate mom might do -- she paid for him to finally have a friend, a real one who knew all the right words and who could make him feel good about himself. And then, of course, she didn't tell him that I was paid. And instructed me not to talk about it.

I couldn't tell Junior; it was bad for business to not listen to Mom after she paid me. She could go off and tell everyone I ruined the experience and wasn't a good associate. So, I had no choice but to treat this kid well in silence, and he thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. He was so thrilled to finally have a buddy.
We played with that train set so much that its wheels fell off. I glued them back on more times than I have fingers to count with. When they wouldn't glue back, Mom got him an RC car, and we played with that. We couldn't go to the park -- for some reason he didn't like it there, I think it was the bullies -- so we mostly stayed in his yard. Once I came around and his dad was building a swingset, from scratch and all that. Two by fours everywhere. He was putting all his soul into every hammer swing. I found out later that Dad was getting money from some guys at work to pay for another one like me, a younger man this time, to hang out with the kid once a week for a little while. Pity money, really, and gifts from his boss for good work and overtime.

It was heartbreaking. I mean, what kind of kid grows up only having paid friends? His parents clearly wanted the best for him, and they loved him a lot. I remember his dad worked all night on that swingset. Every time the kid said he wished he had more friends to come play on it, I saw Dad tear up. It was so hard to watch, really, it was.

I couldn't help wondering every time I drove up the nice stone driveway, what happens when he Googles my name and sees my website and my ad? When he realizes that his best friend in the world, really doesn't care very much about him, just about the cash?
It sounds terrible, but it's true -- you can't care about people in this line of work. You have to get used to dealing with the most teeth-grinding specimens of humanity, and you can't get emotionally invested. You have to act the part but never be it. The second you start caring, it will screw up your schedule, you'll relax prices, you'll do more than you were paid for, you'll act inappropriately, you'll take everything personally. You won't deliver the experience you promised. It'll all go downhill.

What happened to the kid? Well, I'm not sure if this is a happy ending, but the whole family up and moved to New York. I don't know if it was the city or what. I bet Mom hired another like me there. I wonder how much the kid cried when he saw I was replaced. I still think Mom had the wrong idea. I got letters from this kid to the PO box I use for client mail, but they stopped after he moved.
I tell you what I'll do, though. If I ever quit this job, I'm going to find that kid and see what happened to him. Maybe he got his teeth straightened and his face restructured and looks like a real beauty now. Maybe he found friends who like him just the way he is. Maybe he's crying alone in a corner.

Maybe we can be friends, this time without the money.




(This is not in the Light universe.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gladiators

"Hey -- hey! You! Ten for five!"

Another fist shoving money at him. Bray yanked out the bill and jotted the drunk's seat down in his book. A lot of people had confidence in this Luthor guy, but Bray figured he wouldn't last two minutes, let alone five. The odds were already pegged at 10:1 in favor of a loss, but the audience was convinced that he'd hold up.

That would be the day. Bray had seen Luthor in the prep box. He wasn't any different from the hordes of other scrappy street-fighter types that were dragged in for a cheap thrill. Lied to, kidnapped, whatever they were, they ended up in the Gladiator pit not to win, but to live as long as they could.

It was so stupid, watching a losing fight, but one Brayden Olson got a cut of every bet these drunks and junkies and sadistic bastards lost, and he really did need that cash.

He pocketed the ten and sauntered down the aisle to the edge of the ring. Not even glass here at the Dragon Pit, just that electrified chickenwire. It was up to the losers watching the fight not to get themselves fried on it or get their fingers eaten off.

Better that than to be the poor bastard about to get thrown in the pit in -- he checked his watch -- about three minutes, now. He guessed that judging by the guy's bodybuilder look, he was going to be easy prey. Fighting a Light was all about your speed and unpredictability. Strength couldn't help you much, and you certainly couldn't just punch it into the ground, although he had seen a few epic fights where the challenger had thrown the thing across the room.

"Send 'em in!" someone shouted from the stands, waving a beer. Bray riffled his pages and added how much cash he expected to bring in. Once Luthor got axed, carry the two, that would be a pretty nice haul for a single night.

"Are you ready for blood on the floor?"

Screams from the stands. Bray pocketed his notebook and sat in the bookie's seat, right on the front row, elbows on his knees. Crazy fuckers, the people that watched this, but he was here too, so maybe he was just as looney as the rest of them. He twiddled the end of his pen between his lips as he waited for the booming announcer to finish.

"Tonight's challenger is a real fighter, weighing in at two hundred fifty-one pounds, standing tall at six feet four inches. He's bald, he's brutal, and he's ready to take on the boss of this ring! Give it up for Luthor!"

The man was already covered in sweat as a couple of guards threw him into the arena. Faded tattoos cut across his gleaming shoulders like black scars in the dim light. As he scrambled up off the ground, his eyes flicked around with the telltale sign of death -- the wide-eyed look of overwhelming fear. Bray wondered if Luthor had been told just what he was getting into before ten seconds ago.

"C'mon, Luthor! I got forty on you!"

"You got this! Take 'em out!"

"You ready to die, bitch?"

Bray tuned out the crowd as the opponent descended from the ceiling in a wire cage. The announcer's deafening boom returned.

"In the opposite corner, we have a beast picked out just for our challenger -- Lucifer! Hauled straight from Hell to our arena, this monster has a death range of three times our ring. Let's hear it!"

Boos from the crowd. Bray always thought that was strange, the way the onlookers howled at the monster as if they wanted it to die. Maybe they did, but that's never what happened, and he wasn't sure if it was even possible. Lights never lost.

Ever.

That was the point. No more, no less. No one in that arena was coming out alive besides the red monster. As the cage settled to the ground, Bray lit up a cigarette and leaned back to watch the match, staring for a moment into the darkness past the mesh.

Ding.
The cage opened, and a red blur swarmed out, sprawling out onto the floor and rising up into a crude head and a set of arms. Jagged teeth ripped through the front of the face, bursting out into a half-made snout. Long knife-claws tipped the fingers, three on a side. The rear half was just a snake's body, a bloody red mass of something thick and liquid and trailing out over the dirt. It rolled over itself until it reached the side wall of the arena, and its cage drew back up into the ceiling.

Luthor charged the Light -- Bray sucked on his cigarette and gave the man points for sheer balls. Balls didn't win bets, though. He puffed some smoke.

The beast slashed out, and Luthor jumped in deep and caught the arm in his hands, feet dragging in the dirt. Oh, big mistake. Always the musclebound types that do that. Inhale, puff, puff.

With a howling cry, Luthor dug in and ripped the claw clean off, throwing it away with a wet slap as it splatted on the ground. Bray paused between puffs. The audience roared. Shit, not bad. He leaned forward in his seat as Luthor scooted back, dragging his hands on the dirt to scrape off the enemy's flesh.

Diving for him head-on, the Light peeled open its jaws and snapped for Luthor's leg. Missed. Hit the ground. Damn, the man was fast, especially for a big guy. Bray hadn't seen that one coming.

Snap, swing. Luthor feinted left, hurled himself right, and dealt the beast a driving punch to the face that bent it over backwards like rubber. Diving after it, he jumped in the air and came down on its other arm, tearing it free at the shoulder as his feet crashed to the floor.

Long wet whips wrapped around his ankles, and he dropped to the ground and rolled, scraping and kicking them away. Just as he came to his feet, he saw the tail coming from around the back of the ring and dove over it as it swept past.

Bray barely noticed the cigarette fall from his lips until it had burned into his pants. What, had this guy fought Lights before? No mass in the arena meant that the monster couldn't grow, so it was reluctant to spread out -- made for a slower fight -- but in the end, most people made the key mistake and got themselves dragged in close. Luthor was fighting hand-to-hand and making it out. If he could pull it off, it could win, because the beast had no way to regrow itself if Luthor kept ripping parts of it off.

I might not get my money.
Maybe he would, though. Luthor was tired, and the tail came round for another hit that took out one leg and sent him stumbling back in pain. He dropped to one knee, and the red splash behind him wasn't enemy flesh now.

The arms were growing back, too, the tail shrinking and withering. Lucifer flung itself into a tackle, Luthor ducked, and claws caught him across the hip. Blood splashed out onto the dirty floor, drawing screams from the crowd.

Come on, man, you got this. It didn't look deep. Bray checked his watch -- almost two and a half minutes. Why was he cheering for the guy? Luthor was doomed either way.

Lucifer screeched a challenge, its chest blowing up huge and liquid, then squashing down and shrieking like a siren through the jagged teeth. Bray covered his ears, and the monster hurled its tail all the way around to take out Luthor's knees from behind.

Luthor stumbled, kicked out his legs, and managed a rough roll backwards and up onto his feet. There was the tail again--he parried it with his arms and rushed in.

Bray's mouth hung open. Oh hell. Oh no, man, look at your--

The Light mess was still stuck to Luthor's arms, though the tail was mostly gone, and it ripped his flesh away down to bone. Luthor shrieked and dove in like a madman, powered by adrenaline--

So close.
He tackled the Light, tearing its face open, ripping into its head, squirming red mess thrown all over the ground and the walls. It didn't even have time to react until its neck was split open, its face all over the dirt.

Bray wanted to think that would work. Really, he did. But in the end, a Light's head was just another little piece, like an arm or a finger or something, and you couldn't just take it off and win. Luthor's arms were covered in the stuff now, and his blood was feeding the beast as it wrapped up around his shoulders.

With a monstrous yell, Luthor tore off the Light's feelers and backed up, bleeding all over the floor. Bray's jaw dropped.

The man had not much left of his arms now. A stump of one, a couple fingers on the end of the other, that was all. But somehow he was still going, dizzy and sweaty, stumbling now, losing it but managing to keep his feet on the floor.

The guy was going down, but Bray had to feel for him a little. He had tried so damn hard.

"C'mon, Luthor, suck it up," he muttered. "Die like a man. Whatever your real name is."

Four minutes.

Luthor cast the audience a quick glance, one that seemed far more coherent than it should have been, and Bray felt as if he were looking right at him. What kind of sicko watches this? said the look, or did it? Bray found something else to stare at for a moment.

Stumbling away, Luthor leaned on the wall of the arena and waited for the inevitable. Lucifer rose up, serpentine, and howled its challenge as it dove in hard--

Luthor fell aside, and the beast smashed headlong into the arena walls, sending Bray leaping out of his chair along with most of the front two rows that crashed down onto the crowd behind them with a collective yelp. Light flesh fried on the fence, filling the air with a dull reek and shriveling up like overcooked meat. The chickenwire hissed and sparked, and the Light was already dripping through, ash and sticky withering mess gluing itself to the steel. It smelled like boiling blood, and Bray clapped a hand over his nose.

Where was Luthor? He scrambled over a fallen drunk and eased up to the fence.

Four and a half. The fighter was on his knees, slumped against the side of the wall, having exhausted all his energy just to lead the beast into his trap. Blood mingled with sweat and dripped down over his body and legs, and his eyes were barely open as Lucifer shuddered and inched its way back from the fence.

Come on, get up, you damn fool, Bray found himself thinking as Luthor raised his chin and then let it drop. No, there was no more life left in that. The crowd was already howling for death, and the clock was still ticking.

Four-forty. Lucifer dragged its blistered body -- what was left of it -- away from the fence and seethed back into a coherent shape again. Forgoing arms, it funneled its stripped-down self into a malformed serpent's shape that snaked its way toward the fallen man.

Four-forty-five. Luthor raised his head long enough to stare down the beast. Past the point of fear, his eyes rose to meet the dull dark pits behind all that bone and tendril.

Four-fifty. Bray's book slipped from his fingers and into his lap as Luthor's arms reached out. The bookie's eyes darted back and forth between Luthor and the clock.

Four-fifty-five. Lucifer's head shot out with such force that the rest of the body rose off the ground, the coiled form stringing out into a spear that dove headlong for the man's throat.

Four-fifty-six. The serpent's teeth clamped down around the pale neck, the rest of the body whipping about to surround the torso beneath it. Luthor's eyes rolled about to stare at the crowd, glazed, dull. Bray swore the man looked his way again.

The clock stopped at four-fifty-eight.

Though the crowd erupted around him, Bray barely heard their voices. As he sat still, he couldn't take his eyes off the lifeless body, skin dissolving away into flesh, Light tendrils chewing through it and tearing it down from a human body into some butchered carcass lying in a meat market window. Even as it disappeared into a shapeless red mound, Bray saw the eyes looking back, blank and yet living, nothing like the soulless beast in the center now. Even with no body, Luthor was still watching.
Pleading? Raging? Maybe none of that. Maybe just accepting.

Or, maybe blaming.

Bray riffled through his book without looking down, fumbling for his pen, a blank and empty nothing filling his chest. As he stared past the chickenwire, he saw Lucifer crouch onto newly formed forelimbs, shaking as if panting over the floor.

The announcer said something -- he wasn't even sure what -- and the crowd began to trickle away into the arena's lobby to collect winnings, drink, and hoot about the match. Their dull roar faded as Bray approached the edge of the arena. Bray put his arms on the rail in front of the fence.

"You're a real bastard, you know that?" He said the words to himself, but Lucifer's serpentine head rose to watch him, little beady eyes in a skeletal snout.

Was that thing ever human? Bray had a hard time believing so, although that was how the story went. He folded his arms and pressed his face so close to the fence that he could feel the buzzing near his nose. The Light rose up onto its coiled rear, extending and slithering toward the fence.

Human arms formed out of the shapeless claws, then pressed against the lower walls of the ring, below the wire. Though the head remained the same, Lucifer hauled itself up to watch Bray at head level.

Cole, the pit master, yelled from across the room: "Bray, what are you doing over there? You antagonizing my monster? You have two minutes before we sweep it back up, so don't get your fingers bit off!"

Bray waved a hand in Cole's general direction and turned back to the Light. He managed a vague chuckle.

"You are one mean motherfucker." The bookie fished out a cigarette from his pocket and poked it through the gaps in the fence. "And you know it, don't you?"

A hand came up and swiped at the fence, grabbing the cigarette away and hissing against the wire.

"Whoa!" Bray jerked back and rubbed his fingers together. "What, you can make sense of anything I'm saying? I'm damned if you're smarter than a dog..."

Lucifer hissed at him, less of a snake noise than a garbled snarl, and hoisted itself back up against the arena wall. They sat there, nose to nose, for a good twenty seconds before a trembling hand rose and pressed itself as close to the wire as possible.

"Shit. Okay, I'll bite." He glanced around; Cole was pacing in the rear of the room, but the crowd was long gone. Lowering his voice, Bray gave the creature a suspicious glance. "Do you know English?"

"Bray! Get your ass off the fence so we can put this thing back in the box!"

"Hey. What do you do with a cigarette, Lucifer?"

Shaking and fumbling, the fingers managed to twist Bray's cigarette around and jam it between two teeth, where it stuck out at an awkward angle. Lucifer only managed a few seconds before chomping down, shredding the paper and sending tobacco everywhere, which it scooped up flake by flake with the painstaking air of a starving boy licking the edges of his plate.

The bookie stared, mouth open. "Food. You want food, right? That's what you all want."

Lucifer clanged back against the wall, expectation in his eyes.

"Hey, Cole!" Bray cupped a hand to his mouth. "What do you feed these bastards?"

"Not much!" Cole jogged around the side of the arena, watching Lucifer glare through the mesh fence. "What, I never gave you the lowdown?"

"I never asked, really. I usually stuck to the boxing matches, right? I've only been down here a few times."

"Well, they're more vicious when you don't feed 'em." Cole picked up a straw and poked it through the chickenwire, jerking his hands away like he had touched something hot. Catching it in midair, Lucifer stripped the paper off and tore the plastic to shreds, licking up the little white flakes like it had the tobacco. "The right amount of time's about...two and a half days, if they're used to it. First time you get one, you have to keep them for a week in the cage, then turn them loose on the first person they see."
Bray put on a cool expression and shrugged, jerking a thumb at Lucifer. "So, you gave this guy a taste for blood like that?"

"Oh, that part's just something they do. They like flesh. Don't you?" Cole picked up a gnawed chicken wing, broke off one of the bones, and stuck it through the fence; the beast inside nearly threw itself into the mesh trying to catch it. "But they don't usually eat people unless they're desperate. So you make 'em desperate."

Just an animal. Bray glanced at the serpent-man as it backed away from the edge, human hands still dragging the ground beside it. But I never met a dog that could tell me what you do with a cigarette.

"How many you got?"

"About five. Lucifer's the newest one, so I figured I'd show it off, christen the new ring, all that, right?" Cole turned and brought both hands to his mouth. "Hey guys! Pack this boy up! Let's close down for the night."

Crane-arms lowered from the ceiling, sparking, driving Lucifer back into the corner where its -- his? her? -- metal box sat open now. Bray kept a straight face as the Light inched back into its holding cell, curling up inside, melting down into a quivering pool and allowing the door to be shut.

"So you feed it people and nothing else?"

"That's right. Keeps the guy on his toes. Trains him to know that the only food he's getting, is what he goes and gets himself, right here." Cole pointed at his notes and pulled out a checkbook. "How much I owe you for today?"

Bray thrust the notebook into his hands, and while Cole wrote out the money, he watched Lucifer's cage rise into the upper reaches of the arena.

"Here you go."

The bookie stared at the check in his hands. "Right. Hey, Cole?"

"What?"

"You want me to stick around, you know, someone who knows the routine? I make a good buck around here, so I figure I'll keep the bets down here." He gave the pit master a nonchalant smile and pulled away the notebook.

"Yeah, sure, old buddy. No skin off my back if you stay, better than explaining this shit to more people. Glad you had fun." Cole pocketed his checks and set off for the exit. "Let's get going, right? I have to get up early and set up the boxing ring upstairs. Go get yourself a beer from the lobby or something, catch a cab, head home."

"Right." He watched Cole fling the doors open and waltz past the few people left from the night's audience, but his hand felt glued to the arena, and so he stayed until Cole disappeared from view. Behind him, the arena's sprinklers flicked on, hosing down the floor and sweeping the blood away.

He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and, with a glance over his shoulder, lit it and took a long drag.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Assassin

"Brian?" Nagare leaned over its engraved wooden desk, resting on its elbows. Its long black hair fell loosely over its shoulders, pooling into puddles of oil on the old mahogany.

Brian Aronson.

Lines on the man's face. Looks 45--no, 50--no, 48.

Tension in his smell but also in his body language, and a certain way of carrying himself and looking about. He's angry, no matter how scared he may also be. He's out for blood. He came here not because he can't kill, but to keep himself out of trouble. He's still too afraid of me to try anything here, though.

A fresh suit, cheaper fabric, but clearly an attempt at sharp business clothes. Looks like a middle-class type, heading upward, or aspiring to it. Nagare searched its mind to pinpoint the brand, triangulating from several foreign memories.

Popular in England. He came a long way just to see someone dead, but he's not British, so where is he originally from?

No one within Nagare knew a Brian Aronson. The trail grew cold.

"That's me, yes." A middle-aged man with a briefcase in tow pushed the rest of the way through the door.

Nagare eyed the bag. Leather. It could smell the skin from here. Dried, tanned flesh, though, was not at all as appealing as the musky organic smell coming from the human himself, smelling of nervous sweat and living cells. Despite Brian's heavy coat and hat, the odor still wafted across the room, and the warmth from the body was near-visible as he drew nearer. Nagare's hands flushed hot and writhed in frustration, keeping their tension barely under the falsified skin.

It forced the fibers back into stillness, calming its body, slowing the motion under its palms to a crawl and then a stop.

Be still.

Its gaze rose to meet Brian's, just a little too calm to be human, and it let some red bleed into its cold brown eyes. "I see you're already serious about this. Many start having second thoughts about now."

The man shook his head, pressing his lips into a thin line as he hefted the briefcase onto the table with a thump. "Ten thousand up front, in cash, just as I was told. Keep the case."
Nagare let its eyes slip into a deep red shade as it reached out a hand.

Brian stared at it as if it were covered in poison. A tiny bead of sweat gathered at his graying temple, and Nagare could smell the salty fear all about him. Little zaps ran through its body, palm to palm, head to feet, flicking across like electric arcs.

"Let's be civilized about this," it said, extending its fingers.

"Is this some kind of test?"

The Light kept its eyes locked onto its client's gaze. Brian's hand trembled, then rose for the shake.

"There. Now you know there's no need to fear me." Nagare leaned back in the chair and motioned to the single seat on the other side. All that show tended to have the exact opposite effect, which was what he wanted. "Here, sit."

"Check it." Brian turned the briefcase around with a shove of his hand, then crossed his arms, statue-still. "I don't want anything to land me in hot water with someone like you."

A tendril snaked out from Nagare's right leg, seeping across the cold wooden floor, rough old scars catching against its slick length as it twined toward the smell of cloth and leather shoes. Raising itself up like a cobra, it crept onto Brian's jeans and branched up his leg.

The color drained from Brian's cheeks.

"I said," Nagare tensed the coils, and Brian's leg buckled, "sit down."

"I can--"

"You can't take your business elsewhere, or you would have. No one comes to me unless they have plenty of money and more than a drop of," it slipped a hiss into its final word, "desperation."

"Light, are you going to take the job or not?"

"My name," it stood and thumped its hands down on the table, "is Nagare. Know it, and use it."

No response. Brian's face was so white that his mousy hair looked black by comparison, but still he straightened his back and soldiered on. Courage is not the absence of fear? Or is he simply faking his way through?

"Now, then." Nagare let its expression relax, loosing the fibers, stretching its fingers across the desk and honing them into sharp tendrils that stretched to the far edge and stopped. "Your target?"

The human motioned to the briefcase. The surge of heat and narrowed eyes reappeared, latent rage rekindled. "In there."

Nagare opened the lid and peered at the money inside. About ten thousand, good. If there was any less, it would have a word with the man later. As for the information, there was a yellow envelope strapped to the top of the box, and Nagare reached out, wrapped around the paper, and tugged it free. A long red strand held the envelope high.

Watching Brian try not to fidget, it pulled off the top of the envelope and reached inside to lift out a set of photos and a pack of paper.

"Your data's all there. The guy's name is Ashton Ballard. He works for Alethea Scientific. He's a," he paused for just an instant, "researcher. Chemistry."

Nagare wasn't going to ask why the man wanted this Ballard dead. No one who came to an assassin wanted to tell his story. They had already decided it was worth it, or they were insane enough to pony up fifty thousand dollars on an impulse, and as such the Light decided it wasn't enough of its business. Just the name, the information, and any relevant details.

"All right, Brian Aronson." Nagare finished riffling through the papers and set them on the corner of the desk, covering them in a gleaming red web. "And what would you like done? It's quite a profile, but there's nothing in here about the man's fate. Do you want him simply killed? Or..." He let the word trail off, dripping down its tongue, seeping out into the air and hanging there. The slight raise of its brows drove home the point.

"Or." Brian's jaw set.

The Light leaned closer, its eyes a little wider. The tendrils sprawling over the front of its desk ran down toward Brian's chair, slithering in front of the man's shoes. This time, he didn't twitch.

"Enlighten me."

The fear boiled down into determination, a lowering of the brows and a setting of the jaw. This one was a fighter; Nagare watched in satisfaction. Better that than a scared little mouse. It always liked to weed out its clients by who could withstand working with its Light nature, and who couldn't -- staring the beast in the teeth was the best way to know, or conquer, fear. Brian looked like the type to push through, regardless. Danger brought out the force in a man.

Brian's voice was even and flat now, though his hands balled up in his lap. "Ballard was working on a number of research projects. I want everything about them that he knows."

The viral threads crept up the chair and climbed onto Brian's arm, sweeping down to his hand.
"You understand that this does involve his death, whether you like that, or not."

"Yes, I know. Do whatever you must," he raised his hand and let the biomass crawl back and forth between trembling fingers, "to pick his brain. And after that, I want him destroyed. Not just killed -- make sure there's no body."

Nagare watched the fingers close over its tendrils. Human warmth, close against him, drowned him for a moment in ecstasy. Flesh, so near, so close--

Be still.

The hands squeezed, and Brian gave a slow nod. "You're welcome to have him." The faintest hint of a smile, or was it grim resignation? "Take your time with it."

There, out came the bloodlust, that was it. Nagare slipped its tendrils away onto the floor again, withdrawing over the panels and back up the desk and into its arms, where they reformed into fingers. It stood, sweeping briefcase, money, and folder into a corner near its hand.

"I'll take your job. You know the payment conditions, yes?"

A nod from the human. The fearful, sweating smell drifting about him was dissipating now. "Forty thousand upon completion, within a week. If I bail on you, I cease to exist."

That was a polite way of putting it. Nagare smiled, this time showing too-white teeth. "Yes, you have it right. Now, leave me be."

"Two weeks."

"Hm?" A raised brow, carefully arched.

Brian stood and motioned to the papers. "Ballard is only in the area for two weeks. After that, all bets are off, and I take my forty thousand elsewhere. He'll be under so much lockdown that I wouldn't trust God himself to get the man out. Right now, though, he's in transit, and he's out of his home country, so this is your best shot"

"You know my terms."

"I know Ballard." Brian stood, fists clenched by his sides. "You have two weeks, Nagare."

"And will there be anything else?" A smile and a lacing of the fingers, and Brian was stopped in his tracks halfway to the door.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, there are many who like a trinket or two from their target. Both ears and the tail, perhaps?"

"Ha ha." Brian glared at him a moment, then glanced off to the side. "Actually, yes, there might be. He has a picture with him, a photograph. It's of a woman. His wife. Bring it back. Proof and all that."

"Of course."

Sometimes you could just tell.





(I'm only partially happy with this, but I wanted a sketch of Nagare, so here it is.)
Type of piece: Character sketch

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Monsters

Someone bolted a metal sign to our gates today. “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” We took it down, of course, although Takashi kept it as a morbid trophy and hung it up crooked on the side of his house. Sometimes we get a kick out of it. Sometimes a few people stand and stare forlornly at it. Sometimes the kids throw eggs at it. Either way, it sums up what the world thinks of us.

We’re the first Light city in the world, and certainly the largest. There were little pockets in Toronto, but half of those were Horsemen gangsters, so it’s not like those did us any good. The Texas enclave didn’t last long at all, since it was mostly the Lights getting pummeled by police and burned out of their homes. I’m not sure we had any survivors, but you never know with our kind.

We decided to set up in the Appalachian Mountains, because it gets cold but not too cold, and all the untouched forests are good places to blow off steam, if you catch my drift. The founder, Takashi, is this Japanese guy who called the place Akakyo. Red Capitol. We all thought it fit, and it’s not too obvious unless you think about it.

When the city was under construction, we first broke ground about sixty miles east of the coast, where we were away from the metropolis but accessible to anyone who wanted to visit. One side effect of living in the mountains is that it’s harder for normal humans to get here en masse, because they can’t get their cars up the mountain in packs. It’s one by one, so in the end, you get screwed if you try to lead an army up the hillside. Then again, the US Government could knock us off the map easily. We're more worried about civilian lynch mobs than them.

I sit up here a lot, up on the summit, looking down at Akakyo from above. Technically the mountaintop is still part of the city, but we haven’t expanded there yet beyond some anchors and tendrils. The basic foundation is here, just not the more elaborate infrastructure. The bloody color stands out against the browns and greens. Gaps in the grass show up around the fleshy cables, where the matter eats away at the local biomass. What you don’t see are the ten or so guys living in the shacks about fifty feet below them, the ones actually growing the cable work. They go in shifts, and really, it’s an easy job to just maintain them unless the weather’s bad. Sometimes you can detach and leave them behind, but we like to have people up here to make sure they get fed and taken care of. Sometimes I stop in on them. They get bored if they’re not the indoor-hobby type.

The city is redder than usual, today. We try to keep the buildings a sensible color, but we’re Lights, what can you do? Some of us don’t even keep human form very much inside the city gates. You can tell from above which houses are owned by types like that, because they’ve got roofs the color of raw flesh. They only have buildings so they don’t freeze in the winter or be washed away when the heavy rains surprise them.

Anthony’s up here a lot. He leaves me a flower every so often, a real one. Today, it’s lying on a stone near the eastern corner of the flattened summit, and the end of it is chewed and torn. They look like that when he’s having a hard time with himself, so I gather up my journal -- a bundle of papers with ragged edges -- and head back down the mountain.

It’s a quick trip, because we zipline down. It’s easy stuff to just wrap your hands together over the line and skid down into town. No one takes impact damage from landing on the ground at 40, 50 miles per hour anymore. That’s a slap on the wrist. I’m not thinking too hard about my landing this time, so I go flying down the spillway at the bottom and splash against one of the walls, my back spreading out under the force and plastering me cartoon-style against the brick.
I gather myself up, peeling off a little brick dust into my body as I reform my shape, coloring it back into the shades of human skin and clothes. The dust, I slough off onto the ground. I head to Anthony’s place, a very traditional-looking suburban house.

Anthony is still trying to convince himself he’s human. It’s the only way he deals with being a Light.

I knock on the door, and the heavy oak panel swings open.

“Hey.”

He stands there in silence, then waves me in. His hair is a little shorter than usual, and more ragged; I know he cuts it himself instead of just retracting it to whatever length he wants. It’s another of his habits.

He sits down on the couch. It’s a real couch, an expensive one. Something made in Europe, I think.

“You’re pretty early today.” He cracks open a peanut from the jar on the table. There’s a napkin with a few shells on it, beside the jar.

Waste of biomass, I think, and I pickup one of the shells and pretend I’m just fidgeting with it. It slowly disappears into my hands.

"I figured I'd come see how you are. I got your flower today -- you were nibbling off the end, and I know you only do that when it's getting pretty bad." I sit beside him on the couch.

Anthony is attractive, with straw-gold hair and large eyes the color of melted chocolate. He has a sturdy, broad-shouldered stature that a lot of men would die to have themselves. Back when he was human, I expect he had a lot of admirers. Now, he probably gets spit on more than hit on.

"Eh, I'm all right." He shrugs, looks up at me, smiles. He never shows his teeth when he smiles. I wonder if he always used to smile that way.

"You should get out more," I say, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder. It's usually impolite to just touch a Light without their permission, but Anthony prefers to act human, and have everyone treat him as one. We try to oblige him. "Just go have a week at home. Vacation. I don't know. How was your trip to the city this weekend?"

This time, he flinches as my fingers make contact.

"That bad, huh?" I look him in the eyes. Most Lights don't think about keeping their faces blank, so they default to human motions, and right now his is one of deep despair.

He looks away now, his shoulders slumping. "I came close this time. Saturday. Just before I came back." He bows his head, turning toward the back wall, trying not to see me. "I--yeah."

"You what?" If he doesn't say it, he'll keep denying it. He needs to understand that he isn't human, and that that's okay, but it's hard for him. His hands are latched onto each other in his lap.

"This guy. We met up in a bar." He laughs, but it's a forced noise. "He was trying to pick up someone. Screwed it up bad. It was funny. We talked about the Patriots game. Had a few beers. You get it."

I nodded, with a mental wince of my own. Meeting romantic targets, that was hard now. Lights can date, love, kiss, have sex -- any of that, if they still want it, but humans aren't so convinced that we're safe. There's still the dreaded "death during orgasm" situation that happens sometimes, usually to prostitutes, but sometimes to normal lovers. Strong emotion can screw up our sense of control. Let the instincts out.

Even I try not to think about that part. I haven't slept with anyone since I was infected.

Anthony manages to let go of his hands long enough to fling them up. "Look, I don't know, it was bad once I got there. I figured I'd head out for a bit, take a walk in the woods, but he dragged me off to some party on Saturday. I thought it'd be fun, that I could handle it, and I didn't want him to know."

Now he turns to me and stares me in the face, his big liquid eyes dry but holding enough pain for a storm of tears.

"I was shaking and all by the time I left. Told him it was a twitch. He saw me to the bus stop. Shook my hand. I nearly took his arm off -- no, I nearly took him, all of it, just -- just right there. Right in the middle of town."

That was...bad. Anthony should have known that he couldn't last that long without food. Lights have incredible metabolisms; we can't get by on three square meals a day, not if they're human-sized. Our idea of a meal is maybe an entire goat. Maybe part of a tree, if you're still stuck on being vegetarian, but it's not as fulfilling as something with flesh. We like those. If we don't get something, well, it takes over. We're starving monsters. The virus wants food.

"Anthony, the D sign exists for a reason." I flash him the symbol, index finger pointing up and the others curled lightly to the thumb. "Use it. Get out of there and deal with yourself. You should know this by now."

He covers his face and leans down again. "I know. I know. But-- I can't. I couldn't refuse the invitation, and I didn't want to freak him out. I--I wanted him to think I was just some guy, you know?"

I pull his hands away and grab his chin, hauling his head up to look at me. It's time to be blunt.

"You can't just be walking down the street and consume some hapless guy. You have to take care of yourself, or this is going to get horribly out of hand."

He hates that word -- consume. He says it's too scientific and cold, that it's a sterilizing word for what we really do when we tear apart a human or another Light. That's why I'm using it -- to get him to snap back to reality, to stun him. As I grip his shoulder, I can see that he's shaking all over now, and his gaze travels down to my fingers.

I knew it. Something in the back of my mind kept telling me this entire time; I just didn't see it until now.

"You idiot." I stare back, and I can feel my eyes getting wider. "You haven't eaten a thing since then, either. You didn't even stop over on the way home. You've just shut yourself in."

He doesn't speak.

I know better than to do some stupid movie trick like slap him to get his attention. He's on the edge right now. The way he's looking at my arm -- it's like watching a pit bull stare down a steak.

Lights tend to be wary of other Lights. A Light is like a wolf -- it would rather bring down a sick deer than risk its life fighting a healthy one. There are rare Lights that can suck the life right out of a city block -- people, animals, trees, grass, everything. Just strip it bare and move on for more. Something like that, you don't want to bring down on yourself.

I don't think Anthony is one of those horribly overpowered monsters. Still, he could easily overwhelm me if I wasn't watching. If I just sat back and let him, he'd rip me apart and absorb me and that would be the end of it. It's not hard if your target isn't resisting, or at least that's what I hear. I've never done it to a real person before.

"Anthony. Look here." I point at my face. "Come back to me."

Slowly, the eyes roll upward to focus on mine.

"I know it's pretty bad right now." I'm making a gamble by not moving my hand. Any physical contact is horribly tempting when you're like this, but he has to learn to resist. We don't have to eat with our mouths -- except to assume a coherent form, we don't even have mouths. He could rip off my hand by opening up his arm there and clamping down, if he wanted to. Or, rather, if he lets himself. He definitely wants to.

"It's bad," he mutters under his breath, in that low horrible voice we get when our voices fail. His chest cavity is sinking in on itself, choking off the words, all the mass condensing now that he's not bothering to keep it in place. "It's really bad."

His left hand wobbles more, and I snap my eyes across to watch it as it rises just a little, then an inch--

I get scared just as it thrusts out to grab at my shirt. I pull back enough for him to miss, but he's not going for my clothes.

I groan as the arm stretches out, skin breaking into shiny liquid shades of red, and plunges into my chest. It stabs through my left ribs, goring the air cavity there, but it doesn't hurt.

That doesn't mean it's not terrifying.

"Anthony! Wait, wait, you don't want to do this." I grab hold of the tendril mass with both arms, pulling hard, trying to haul it out. A bloom of my own matter comes with it, red on red. I can sense what's mine as it entangles with his, and the end of his arm branches out and latches in like roots.

"I can't--"

"You can, just think! Let go of me. It'll be okay." Keep talking to him, that's right. He's panicking. It's taking over his mind. He can't think about anything else than hunt, kill, eat right now.

"It won't--I can't do this anymore." He stares up at me, and his eyes are round and full of fear. "Can't hold out."

I can't feel parts of me anymore. Bits of biomass -- they're gone, first enveloped, then destroyed. It's like pulling taffy, stretching, then coming free. For a moment, I'm not sure what it is. I look down, and the dusky red mass is pulsing, ripples shifting through it and back toward him. The flow outward is slow and steady.

If I had a coherent bloodstream, my face would have blanched.

"Stop -- stop, look, you can't do this, you--"

I'm scooting back now, trying to force his arm to tear out, but that's a stupid move, all it does is stretch. He's still on the couch; I'm against the wall now; between us is ten feet of twisting tendril pumping mass out of me.

I take hold of the arm in both hands. The sucking sensation in my chest, the pain of life ceasing at the edge of his hold, and the slow surges along the cord make me shiver.

"Anthony. Let me go. You have to..."

No, he doesn't. He knows it. I know it. I don't want to scare him, make him speed up the process. If I try to do anything stupid...

His face is still fear-stricken as he stands. "I'm sorry," he whispers in that strangled voice. His skin is flushing, his hair melting together. He's losing form, and losing himself. "I'm trying. I am..."

That's why it's taking so long.

He shudders and brings his free arm to cover his eyes. A sudden stab of pain, and the tendrils gouge out a chunk and devour it. A fist-sized piece of me disappears. I throw myself back against the wall and clutch at my chest -- how it hurts.

I have to do something. My hands clutch the cord, wrapping around it, clamping down. There's a trembling along it as the new surge of mass widens it.

My fingers shoot out into points, slicing through the tendrils, tearing them off where they meet my chest. I fly forward onto my face, the arm flailing around like a dying fish, but both my hands are stuck in the mess of roots at the end, so I can't let go. The chunk of him still stuck in my body is thick and heavy and rattles my chest when I fall.

My own instincts are flaring now, sensing my reduced mass, driving me to recover it. It's not enough for him to look like food, not yet, but there's something in me now that I can use.

The mass disappears as I pull it apart and absorb it. That fights the impulse a little, but I'm still stuck to him, and the matter is flowing out again, this time through my trapped arms. I could do this crap all day, the cutting him off part, but he's got me pinned so long as he can touch me, and I'm not willing to jump in and fight him.

Truth is, I've always been smaller than him. I'm easy prey. He always had me if he wanted me. I preferred a little form, and now that's back to haunt me.

I'm scared.

"Anthony? Are--are you sure you want this?" I stare up at him, shaking in fear. The red channel looms in front of me. I couldn't stop him if I tried. Maybe I could run...but in the end, he'd just go find someone else. Better me than them? I don't know. I freeze up like a terrified mouse.

"I don't. But I do. I do. I have to." I can barely hear him through the mess in his throat. The cable rises over my hands and traps my wrists, getting a better hold and dragging me closer to him.

My hands disappear into him. It hurts enough for me to curl up, trying to pull away, failing.

"You'll--you'll still be with me--that's how it works--right?"

That's when it hits me.

He doesn't want to consume me; I'm just the best target in the room. He's not going to take anything else for an answer. It has to be the sentient thing, the highest animal in the room. He's not able to redirect that desire.

If he won't be satisfied otherwise, I have no choice but to give him what he wants.

I kick my legs out, shoving the feet down into the floor, clawing up the hardwood. My lower body flattens, sinking in, chewing into the boards, sweeping them into me as fast as I can manage. The sense of flowing food jacks up my instincts, sending them to the front of my mind, and I give them a little mental nod.

Then I let go.

The tendrils dig into the floor, spreading, tearing through the wood, reaching now into the nearest furniture, stripping it down to bolts. As much as it hurts for him to devour me, I'm replacing the mass as fast as he can take it, so I'm just one big channel between him and the house around us. I drown the pain in hunger. I rip apart his spartan living room and feel my branches reach farther. The viral instinct still wants to dive for him, but I shove it at everything else, and it's all too willing to oblige.

He notices the destruction and gapes at me.

"Well, come on, then!" I flap my arms at him, shaking the cable. "Have at me! Let it out!"



Ten minutes later, I'm still alive, though it feels like someone ran me through a meat grinder. Anthony -- well, the monstrosity that doesn't look at all like Anthony anymore -- is three or four times his original size. There's not much left of the house now, just structural parts like concrete and brick and steel.

I have about the mass I did when we started, and I'm lying on the floor in a faintly rippling heap. My body has mostly fallen apart into a mottled red pool, but the vague shape of a human still remains, and I'm still shuddering from the pain.

Anthony reaches down with his huge, clawed arms and scoops up the jelly that is my torso. It keeps together enough for him to hold me against his chest and bow his heavy jaw onto my shoulder.

I pull in some air and form up my throat again. "You're not human, Anthony."

His shoulders tremble. It's the closest thing we can do to sobbing. A whimper slips through his jagged teeth.

I form my torso into its usual colors, shape my head and face right, and nest my head against his slick chest.

"That's okay, though."

He peeks down at me, eyes wide and confused, teeth still strung with what's left of the mass he took. I reach up and rest an arm against the side of his jaw.

"It's okay. I'm not human, either, but you like me anyway. So we're all right. You just have to believe that."

I feel a rush of air as he draws in a breath. A mangled voice comes from the huge mouth. "But...look at me. At what I did. I--I almost--I can't--"

"You don't have to say it." I press my ear against his body, and I can hear the soft motions inside. They're oddly comforting -- the sounds of life. He's still alive, and I'm still alive. Thankfully.

We sit there for a long time, the monster and I, and I hold his big head in my arms.




Type: Character snip/Worldbuilding