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.
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.
"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.
"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