by Lazarus Gray
The iridescent night sky does nothing to lend beauty to this bleak city.
The haze of stars glow vaguely green. I turn my face to them and cackle. I know their secrets now. We all know them. One hears, and grunts through a throat shredded by perpetual screaming.
I ignore the interruption.
The pain dazzles. Each breath brings fresh agony to my lungs, my trachea. I don’t remember screaming, though I must have, I must have. It feels good.
Soon, it will be light. We watch the stars, listening intently as they state their reason for existence, over and over; a Morse loop with a fractalous design, gradually decaying into aberrant abstraction. They fade as we slowly spin toward the sun. We understand their fear.
The light stings as the first stream of photons dart through the toxic atmosphere, making our skin burn with their tiny impacts, each felt individually, deliciously. None of us will go indoors. The pain is a necessary distraction. We await the gas.
Sergei—the thing that used to be Sergei—drags himself to the light, pounding his thin, bleeding fists on the gravel surface of the road. I hear his metacarpal bones snap, one at a time. Sergei goes on pounding. There are still hours to wait.
I cackle again, observing how very much like children we have become. Newborns, waiting only for Mother’s milk, knowing everything and nothing, screaming in frustration and yet fascinated by the process of perpetual wakefulness. We only know that the gas is coming, and that we must not fall asleep.
Life before the gas seems surreal, a hallucination, vaguely felt more than remembered. The absurdity of existence was lost on us. The walls around our minds were locked tight into external, endless routine. The gas released us.
The price of our freedom was omniscience. We are not ready. The stars know, but they can do nothing. We sing our own twisted Morse back to them, a lament for our failed species. The stars know, but they do not care.
We do not care. The city is falling to ruin. The corpses of those who have fallen asleep lie randomly, twisted into grotesquerie by their final efforts to stay awake. I step around one. It’s unclear whether the mound of flesh was once male or female. The skin is flayed in a thousand places. Dull, dry muscle peeks through the wounds.
Those who are able to stand do so as the jets appear on the horizon, glinting bright green as the sun flashes from their chromium fuselages. Sergei flails his useless hands in anticipation. As they approach, a deep hum moves upward into the atmosphere. It sounds ethereal, unreal, but I feel the pain in my throat as I join in raw harmony with the others.
Something is wrong—different. The hum subsides. The jets have not yet begun to release the gas, and they’re almost directly above us. As one, we feel their intent, and we welcome it. They release their ordnance upon us, and the city explodes in a gout of fireballs.
Sergei stumbles backwards, the left side of his face gone. The gleaming tendons that wire his jaw to his skull stretch and relax, stretch and relax. The other half of his face is twisted into a maniacal grin.
My hair is on fire. I let it burn. The pain is required.
For the first time, we consult. It takes only a heartbeat. Many have been killed. There are just nine of us left, from almost two hundred. The gas. Today, the gas will not fall upon us.
Panic sets in, and the screaming begins. Fatigue threatens to overwhelm us all, so we begin cutting. The pain releases adrenaline, and my heart thumps wildly. When it slows, I widen the cut until my head clears. The stars call to me, to us.
When the fires abate, the first of them appear. A bright yellow pressure suit with a plastic faceplate. hoses dangling from the sides and looping to breathing apparatus on the back. An AK-74M at his shoulder. Three more follow. Then five behind them, in a wedge formation.
We consult once more. Only eight left now. Enough.
The pressure suits fall to their knees, drop their rifles. Sprays of crimson wash the inside of their faceplates.
We await the gas.
Or the end.
In the interim, we listen to the stars.