“You all knew? You knew, and yet you left me alone with him?”Lily smiled as gently as she could, her mandibles marring the effect less than one would imagine.
“It was inevitable, more than that, it was preordained. That was why you were chosen.”
Steven felt his intestinal tract convulse. Mandibles? No. Red, red lips. Lips like wine. That was what they said, the poets. He felt a pain which was more than physical, sweat broke out on his forehead, suddenly feverish, he felt drops of perspiration run down his cheeks, his nose, onto his lips, his chin.
Despite himself, his tongue darted out and intercepted a few drops.
It was sour, and yet so sweet.
He stared at his companions. “Meant to eat him you say?”
Krampus looked suddenly shifty, Odd Legs was busy tinkering with the doors of the van. Lily met his gaze, with eyes that were pools of deepest black, and nodded.
Somewhere, away in the darkness, there sounded a sudden cry, sharp and yet deep, the cry of a startled goose. Stephen watched in weary understanding as Lily’s eyes flickered, deep and black, then multifaceted, compound, her face twitched, melted, swam.
Lips. Mandibles. Saw edged. Brutal.
Bubbles for eyes, holes into the blackness, the blackness which went on forever. The blackness which would swallow him and everything he knew, without thinking, without caring.
His right hand made an involuntary movement towards his throat, caught on something.
Something sharp edged. He looked down. Something shiny. His badge.
Protect and serve the Chief had said. A buried memory from his youth leapt up. Protect and survive. The sirens. Paint your windows white. Sandbags full of your parents flowerbeds. Prize blooms, loam, manure. Protect and survive. Serve and protect. When you hear the four minute warning. An old punk song screamed in his brain “It’s too fucking late!”
He swallowed, tasting the citrus flavour of his frantic sweat. “I was supposed to eat him?”
The Lily thing nodded, almost like a prayer. Praying. Preying.
“So it was oranged?”
“Arranged, yes.”
“But the poor Chief, he had such a zest for life.”
“Yes. But it is the way. It is the way. And the sacrifice is made.”
Odd Legs turned away from what he was doing and stared at her. Krampus seemed to deflate.
Did in fact deflate, with a parping noise reminscent of childhood birthday parties. His body wobbled and collapsed in upon itself and with a final ribald toot became nothing more than a scrap of coloured rubber.
Steeplton’s right hand clutched his badge like a totem. His left felt in the pocket of his coat, fumbling, searching, until he grasped a small smooth object.
Pulling himself straight, he forced himself to look straight into Lily’s face, and worse, into what it became when it was no longer a face. Strobelike, it was a face, albeit buglike, then a warm and human face, with dark and imploring eyes, then the cold mask of the insect, then a cartoonish, mad, villainish visage, then something else, all of the above, and less, and worse, much, much worse.
“Protect and survive. Serve and protect.”
Steeplton’s left hand flashed out, he felt the dry, yielding chitinous surface, felt the thin glass of the vial shatter, the acrid liquid spray out, stinging as it touched the fresh tiny cuts on his skin.
The Lily thing screeched and threw itself backwards, flashing between its forms, legs, arms, flailing, too many legs, too many arms, too many everything.
Grinning savagely, Odd Legs leapt to one side as the thing thrashed about, twisting and writhing like a moth in a flame. His hand darted to his shoulder holster and came out with a wicked looking thing that gleamed dull orange in the faint street light.
One. Two. Three. Four times the weapon spat lurid flame before the Lily thing lay still on the ichor stained tarmac. Odd legs looked down at the sprawling wreckage of Lily the Midge, his flat features registering the minimum of surprise possible whilst still looking surprised. “So Ol’ Lil was a bug huh? It’s always the ones you least suspect. I should probably start suspecting the ones that I don’t suspect, but old habits die hard. What was that you hit her with?”
“Super concentrated Citronella. It was something I was working on for my old job.”
“Oh yeah, the Chief said you used to be a fighting magician or something before you joined the force. Sounds like a pretty cool job. Like in a film.”
Stephen started to correct him, but let the words trail away. What was the point?
“It was ok I guess. Lots of routine.”
“Like being a cop then.”
“This is routine?”
“Oh sure. Happens all the time. Bugs, Balloons, Sand Devils.”
“Sand Devils?”
Odd Legs pointed down the street, to where a whirling yellowish cloud veered and pirouetted towards them. “Best hop in the van till it passes, those beauties will abrade you down to a skeleton pretty quick. And there’s some toffee in the glove box.”
Steeplton did as he was advised, and the two of them watched the miniature tornado spin along the road towards them, a low spresh spresh spresh growing louder as it advanced. It enveloped the van like an overly keen carwash, seemed to dally for a few moments as if irritated that it was unable to abrade them down to skeletons, then rushed off all at once in a fit of pique.
Silence fell, broken only by the faint sound of Odd Legs chewing toffee.
He ate very quietly, for which Stephen felt irrationally grateful. With a final elegant swallow, he opened the door and jumped out. Walking round the van he whistled appreciatively. “That’s saved us a job Poc, Ol Sandy there’s cleaned up Lily real swell. Say Poc, you’re looking better, we’d better get back to the station and report to the Chief.”
“The Chief? But…”
“Oh there’s always a Chief Poc. Always. That’s how the job works.”
He delicately scratched his neck and peered into the darkness of the sky. The smears of cloud against the gloomy greenish blue gave it the appearance of a long uncleaned aquarium. “Gonna be a long night Poc. The enemy are advancing somewhere. Or retreating. Or staying where they are. Maybe all three. We’re gonna need coffee. And we’d best pick up a few tins of sardines for the Chief.”
He settled his cap more firmly on his head and cocked an ear as if hearing something on a frequency inaudible to Stephen, then slammed the back doors of the van. “Yeah. Gonna be a long ol’ night.”

Krampus pats Stephen’s shoulder in an attempt to cool him down, but the touch of his colossal hand does nothing but adding some epinephrine drops to the cocktail shaking in his brain. He appears to be in shock, paper-white face, incapable of emitting a sound. So much ingenuity wasted in flattering the arrogant bureaucrats from General Citronics! Krampus asks some help from Odd-Legs to get Stephen into the team’s black van.

It won’t matter how far Stephen goes; for better or worse no one will listen. The collected data will be archived, and there they will remain, encrypted, hidden —it’s not a question of certainty but just some additional information. Let others navigate the rough asphalt as Stephen did in the old times, when there was nowhere to go and no one but Derleth awaited his return. Both Derleth and himself got a generous sum transfered to their bank accounts, although they were pre-allocated funds which can only be spent on certain things, like the monetary garbage provided by post-governments to simulate that “the economy” remains a thing. Stephen and Derleth wanted to ensure a minimum of lifestyle, much less than others, or perhaps very different, nothing like possessing the space surrounding them, only a few objects that would fit, only those they could easily get rid of. Stephen would rent a cabin on an island in the middle of a lake, something to set on fire without threatening neighbors or forests, all his things there, even himself, burning on the pyre as a heretic. Hot vibrating air would be inducing a mirage of navigation, as if the island slid slowly on the surface of the green lagoon, smoke mingling with the fresh breath of water.

The nagging vinyl stench of electrosuccubes wakes Stephen over and over from his false sleep. The beautiful arthropod in a purple gown could well be the effect of entomophiliac self-hypnosis. He feels his own body as a repetition, a chemical reputation, a constant reconstruction of cycles —polenta, pasta, rice, wheat… Instead of trying to continually think about the past, when the team was a congregation of perjure larvae devouring the tree of life, they should start doing something, go out on the street or make a phone call or search for information on the internet —but the plague is too pure and they slip on its varnished surface. Lily is unbearably bright under her purple dress, her exoskeleton still but flexible like walls enduring the shaking of the earth. Charioteers of chance, the team go hunting imaginary elephants to provide ivory to the tower. They are adorned with calculation and weighty military reasons.

Magnolias fall in a junkyard like rusty guns, the alkaline rain of chestnut pollen, the grass that knows how to keep itself always damp and disheveled as if to refresh the cover of a magazine. The nameless creeks are forest animals with a life of their own, mineral, composed of other small beings, as every life is made of lots of other lives. Withered roses in the garbage can. There comes a time when the body only feels itself in words, which is why Stephen understands those infected by the cunning citrovirus, which, in addition to transforming human tissue into plant thinking, blocks nociception and corrodes the nerve terminals, plunging the hosts in a peripheral anhedonia that ends up seeping into any sensation or idea. The body does not feel the ravages of deformity, as if deformity was nothing but an anamorphic projection —the lack of a proper mirror. Stephen does not perceive what breaks and twists and burns from within as result of his citrophagia —although, unlike opiates, there is no euphoria imbibing the flesh; that intoxication which favored dreams and had taught him the patience that lies at the heart of deep anxiety. Citroviruses have learned to turn human beings into their fruit, rolling spheres, feeding them at their convenience, keeping them alive instead of simply consuming them —that is why they look like a weapon or a work of art, the most sophisticated among artistic armament; the most demonic one; the one that, instead of killing, rebuilds at its convenience; the one that is capable of possessing… The most terrifying destiny conceivable: being possessed by abstract and absurd intelligences without a hint of melancholy.

So it was conjectured that citrosophy itself could have self-organized and spontaneously become a bioinfectious agent; that the very possibility of possession had materialized, coalesced, precipitated, coagulated; that it was a counter-simulation generated by simulations, crystallizing souls in minimal bodies, in just tangles of filiform molecules like the old paper tape impressions of telegraphic messages. Stop, stop, stop; thus the pause of the incessant phrasing is punctuated. The immortalization —or almost— of the metamorfruiting flesh had to be compensated with the destruction of supposedly imperishable objects —monuments, bridges, towers, cathedrals, artifacts from extinct civilizations. All their castles are made of cards or sand. There must be a balance in the time that happens to things, a recoil of the chronometric cannon.

They walk over the rotten waste of a light that once illuminated life. Immediately, as soon as Stephen got down to it, he detected the first publications describing the cheerful infection, considering that if Derleth —or someone else— had invented the agent which had citrofected the chief, they wouldn’t withstand the thrusts of academic vanity. It would be a matter of reading between lines until discovering the traces of a pinch of pride, of parenthetical parental love.

Long ago, Stephen’s father had gotten himself a tape recorder, but Stephen hated to hear his own child’s voice play back so he used it to pick up any other sound in the house or the garden: dishes crashing in the sink, birds screeching each other, the drumming of rain’s fingers on the wooden ledges, the vibration of the trucks stuck in traffic, the distant cries of other children playing football, the crickets chirping… He tried, unsuccessfully, to record softer and more subtle sounds, like leaves falling from trees or the buzzing of bees and flies. He hid it in the cemetery at night in the hope of capturing psychophonies. Ghosts, however, were mute, or they fell silent in the presence of that device that emitted its own purr of a small mechanical mill when dragging the tape. Perhaps the dead were impregnated with the almost imperceptible screeching, perhaps they could not avoid behaving themselves like tape recorders. Vibrations pierced them, remained permanently attached to the ectoplasmatic garments. Perhaps it was the noise what parasitized the spirits and not the spirits a parasitic noise, and that is why they pursued the most absolute silence and never materialized to Stephen’s crude and spectacular invocations.

The dead of this world do not find enough warmth in the souls of the living and fly away to orangination. But that is what the real dead do, not those who, for the moment, only imagine death from the outside, like a concert they have not managed to enter, with their faces glued to the cold window. Although the living are being invoked as if they were dead; although the chief is now nothing more than the wrinkle of a shadow, a crack in a ray of light.

After curling her antennae with a rusty fork, Lily lights a bonfire on the sand and stands still, listening to the lament of an instagrammatic sea she barely glimpses, a goldbergized variation on the constant bass of the abyss. Only the reflection of the dance of a thread of fire could be seen, as a ray of water, as the magnetic clamor of a wire threatening to pierce the night with the slightest carelessness. She didn’t learned the fear she should had, when everything seemed to consist on being properly scared. She didn’t perceive the horror on other people’s faces, only a pareidolia of fearlessness, the rise of an exhausted sun on the desert horizon right before the curtains were incapable of stopping the stab of light. She’s the corollary of an oasis. She does not grumble, she simply follows the instructions of a fiction that seemed kind and adequate to her, although she always kept herself on the margins, on the unwritten banks of the rivers.

The surface of a planet that could get rid of anyone with a slight tremor has just begun to scratch, and the team already think about themselves as demons for having displaced a little carbon. Such is the case with every new arrangement—putting things here or there seems essential, like ants obsessing over a grain of sand. Stephen remembers hearing the chief say that freedom is holding the reins of self-destruction, and thinking that he was right. The team stop the van in front of a shopping mall looking like a place of worship and commotion, a temple for their depraved practices. Odd-Legs helps Stephen out. He’s getting sicker, but they won’t take the risk of going to a hospital. Contrary to what Blanchot wrote, they’re pushed back by their determination to move on, simultaneously chased away and drawn, waves of electrons in a fermionic sea, like insects repelled by the perfumes of bystanders.

“Don’t feel guilty, sweetheart”, Lily whispers to Stephen, “we knew you were supposed to eat the guy.”

www.jimmeirose.com 

T’ Theoreticals of Dr. E. M. Fuselage -Jim Meirose                             

Comes storm in my life Pop. F. Dr. Mac Fuselage said; All this time a tree’s been falling here, every foot more it fell its diameter grew one foot three inches, and by that calculation it’d been world class when, in the finality of the falling event, it’d be three point twelve units larger than when it began to fall, which started by application of two separate but measured together forces whose net force applied was, but. O. The target being here inside this—but not to be named publicly—was not just any old fashioned pinned up static to be fallen into target, but, a smart target. L. Which turns the picture of falling and to-be-fallen on quite basically backwise. L. Targets are, according to the old handwritten unpublished philosophical paper produced by our fine Dr. E.M Fuselage, on the Mapled-down route, past that last wall out there somewhere we quite frankly, have never troubled to witness, of two kinds—of course with microtonailties arrayed deep within. O. In cracks too deeply tight for the common garden hose to clear them. W. That wall, no wait, it’s this way, not that way—this here wall. This here. T. A fine example of old Fuselage’s dumb target. H. It stay and waits. R. Unable to dart away to avoid a hit. O. Dumb—dumb so much th’t when hit it don’t know. U. Hiccup. G. And don’t care. H. Ess. Fo. That is target one but Fuselage theorized a second type; the smart target—able to move to avoid being hit. Ll. And—he goes on to say went on does always go on always go on to go on to say-say, that targets are superior to whatever does the firing, for this way-wise of a reason; given the space between firing and fired at, Fuselage pointed out that only the fired at has the power, if of the second type, to move to avoid being hit after whatever gets fired gets fired, whereas, Pop. U following eh following? Ow. Better b’ ‘cause this ‘s the final big key to the big final revelation—when a missile is in flight the firing entity becomes solidly powerless. Wt. But, having considered this, Dr. Fuselage went on to say, The thrown’s going to land, where the Newtonian principles of space, time, motion, and pressure, absolutely matter. Hr. But, the thrown at can dodge, duck leap away, duck behind, slap away, or be bounced off of by the thrown object.  

Ou.  

So—Dr. Fuselage stooped down, and extracted effortlessly the great truths wrapped up within that first and final law, found abandoned on the floor way back when, which—without showing you the deadly dull mathematics behind it—is, Given a shot with a thrower and a thrown at, the thrown-at has a point-five greater amount of power over the thing—also consider—to throw does not require a thrown at—but a thrown at requires a thrower to be an honestly true and proper and certifyable actually existing in the known universe tangible and intentional thrower.  

Gh.  

If none of this type present, the thrown at cannot exist. Fol. Pop? Low. That clear? 

Yes ‘tis. Thr. Yes ‘tis. Oug. Reminds me of. 

Glowering at that, Dr. Fuselage took one step back, darkly. 

What? he breathed—H fol. Jog it at me.  

Low t. 

Okay! Of being a child, wandering a golf course, watching a golfer in greeny yellow teeing up—and remembering having either read of or told about—that in the golf game a critical component of the initial swing is, the follow through—and—with me so far? Hrou. 

Yack. Gh follo. Go. 

W throug. 

Okay! I right then right there told me into my bottom back quietly, eh, how can a portion of the swing after the ball has been contacted and set off have an effect either plus or minus on how the flying ball behaves?  

At that, Dr. Fuselage intoned gravely, H follow. 

Oh. Ok. That’s a good question, my man. Solid!  Throug. Jawohl, commandante—good question, Pop. H follow t.  

So, what’d you say, Doc?  

Fuselage had no single answer, having been in that moment somewhat nonexistent, but—so—it got swallowed in some bit-register psyo-container, until—until—my Uncle Harry, the avid golfer, brought me to the links with him, and as he entered a completely game-focused state after arrival, I was immediately totally ignored. I freely walked the pleasant sunny warm day all over itself, ‘til I stopped, watched a bigquiver of a redcapped potbelly Ben tee off, and in the seemingly useless arc of the clubhead’s swift follow through, I stepped forward, and using to my advantage my cuteness as a child, he saw me.  

Hrough Fo.  

That’s right! I came close, and I asked him, Sir; how can the follow-through, which is a portion of the swing after the ball has been contacted and sent off, have an effect either plus or minus on how the flying ball behaves?  

Llow throu. 

He looked to his caddy, and his gaming opponents, and they lashed out over, engulfing me in a blaze of thick half-mile up side and down fiery hilarious doubt, saying, Probably should not have asked this.  

Gh.  

That’s right! Probably should not have asked ‘bout follow-through. Follow t. Should have ‘bout through, have through, and Benny—stage-named so for purposes of author trickery—inside me, which we all have though probably named differently, ceased to exist. ‘til now, though. Hrough follow. ‘til now. We wish we had not just told ourself this story. Through follow. We wish. Eh. Follow through. Oh, we wish-it, we do. Through follow, follow through. We be frank—we fear that you, in the same space now as that golfer, will fire us over blaze-hose us down and—we will once more cease to exist. Follow through, follow. Something about golfers and that particular question. Through, follow through. Raw nerve someplace, you think? Follow. Raw nerve? Through. Raw nerve? Follow through, follow through follow, through.  

I am afraid. 

No! No, no. No; by the grace of God, those falling trees I told of, both two of them, just ‘vapor-rated. Follow throu. Only one thing per head-space may obtain vaporization, Pop. Gh follow th. Swallows. Rough follow. There’s no gas left to snare you, Pop. Follow through. We both seem lucky Pop. So, fear not. Follow through follow.  

Hallelujah!  

Yes! Follow through follow through follow follow through through, through—but, a close one, that was. I am truly relieved, knew that I’d never be hit, but—I am still truly and graciously relieved. Comes storm in my life Pop.   

Stephen found he was looking at his hands. They looked strange, they looked, well, sticky, wet? He was back in the room with files, the dust and the grey walls. He touched his hands together, they were sticky. He looked beyond his hands to the floor and saw with growing horror a mass of orange peelings. He felt a taste in his mouth. The sharp taste of ascorbic acid, the sticky hands, the taste, the dismal rind laid before him. The terror rose rapidly up his spine as he came to see that somehow in whatever absence had happened to him, he had peeled and eaten ‘chief’.

He now noted further that there were still a couple of carefully segmented pieces line up on nearby table. He began to sweat and hyperventilate ‘fuck fuck fuck!’ he swore through his perforated breath. But then in a horrible dissonant state looked again at the remaining pieces of chief. He’d liked that orange, he’d taken quickly to accepting its sentience, its warmth, its humour. Now though, the orangeness of the orange began to assert itself. Stephen’s throat was dry, his blood sugar low, surely it was actually a waste??

Calmer now, he carefully reached over picked up one of the remaining segments and put it in his mouth. Pressing down with a variety of teeth he felt the sweet juice ripple through his mouth. Man, chief was a tasty orange. Hungrily he at the last piece and feeling somewhat refreshed he turned his attention to what next. He looked down again at the eviscerated integument. ‘I won’t let you down chief…’ he half muttered as he scooped up the peel and put it into a nearby waste bin. He stood up, exited the room and headed for the second left as he’d been instructed.

In the well-stocked good sized cleaning room, partially guilt riddled, the first thing he did was to wash his hands in the sink (noting the difficulty of the tap, which he wiggled as instructed) until the orange juice was entirely removed. Then, taking a cloth soaked in disinfectant he returned to the grey files room and wiped down the table, the floor and the door handle. He glanced furtively at the evidence in the bin and considered it too incriminating, gingerly, using cloth as a kind of makeshift glove, he opened the bin lid and removed all the pieces of chief’s outer layer. He then wrapped the cloth around them, went back to the cleaning cupboard, unrolled an extra bin liner and deposited the cloth (with chief’s remains) into the bag. This he rolled up tightly, twist tied the end and put it back in the bin in the files room. ‘So far so good’ he said to himself, ‘Now to work’.

With a real sense of duty Stephen went back to the cleaning room, filled the bucket with hot water and disinfectant, armed himself with a variety of cloths and a mop and went back to tackle his allotted task. Chief had been right, it was a big job. It was a good-sized room and the floor was actually filthy in such homogenous manner that it disguised this. But Stephen was determined not to let chief down. At one point, feeling something sharp digging into his leg, he reached into his pocket and located the badge that chief had given him. A small steel insignia with a classic pin back, it was inscribed with a weird looking filigree pattern that formed the backdrop, in bold letters at the front in simply said ‘Poc’. With a confused rush of pride and guilt, Stephen put the badge on. It would least help legitimize him if and when anyone else came along.

He returned to his labour and after about 2 hours and 3 floor moppings, he looked with satisfaction at the near gleaming off-white floor. Turning his attention to the desks he felt with some consternation he hadn’t thought this through properly. The tables were really dusty, but if he cleaned the dust he might get some on the floor and then he’d have to mop again. Oh fuck. He could see now he should have done the mopping last. He looked up. The entire ceiling edge (and part of the ceiling itself) were covered with old spiders webs as was the ventilation grille. ‘La couleur tombée du ciel’ he thought to himself, the ceiling, the sky, caelum, recalling the etymology of ceiling and for some strange reason the French for that old tale of HP’s. Callum? Who was Callum? Another random(?) thought.

Pull yourself together Steeplton. Think man, think! If the floor has to get dirty again then so be it. Start at the grille end, get the ceiling clear, then the walls, then do the tables, then the floor again… Stephen’s enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If only he hadn’t eaten that fucking orange it would have been serving him coffee by now. Reviewing this insane thought in his head he burst out laughing, before pulling it in sharply to a kind of snorting noise lest he attract attention.  Still tickled by the absurdity, he went back to the store grinning to himself. There he retrieved a fresh cloth, clean hot water with disinfectant, a long-handled duster and a step ladder. These things he hoped to utilise to properly clean the ceiling and grille and the table end of the room. It was tricky. The tables were pushed near flush to the end of the room making access hard. Stephen figured though, between standing on the tables for some parts and the step ladder for others, he would be able to reach to corners to get the job done properly. To facilitate this he placed the bucket on the table in between boxes so he could reach it to wipe walls and grille down. The system in place, he made start. Everything was going well and he had a whole corner de-cobwebbed and wiped. Unfortunately, the still slight wetness of the floor, the structural instability of the stepladder and the poor angle at which he had placed it meant that when Stephen reached to get a particularly recalcitrant cobweb, the ladder gave way backwards as Stephen fell forwards off it, crashing into the tables and files as he did so. In the fall, a kind of automatic response of preservation, he grabbed at a box, dragging it with him as he bounced off the table onto the floor, knocking the bucket as he went. His shoulder took the force of the landing with his head receiving a secondary kind of blow. The box, he kind of pulled on top of himself in the process, covering himself in dusty files. The bucket of cleaning water joined this assault, soaking himself and the dusty files in an appalling mess.

Half unconscious, half propped up in the detritus by an arm, Stephen could hear approaching voices and footsteps. Unable to stand, he lay there as the sounds grew louder. Eyes blurredly fixed on the doorway he watched as three weird characters entered. The first was of near giant size and looked more beast than human. Massive goat like horns adorned its almost demonic head, yet its smile was bent in a congenial expression of humour. Next was a man in a yellow jacket, he had neat combed brown hair and a bland looking face, which on this occasion looked somewhat surprised. His trousers had legs of different colours and materials, one was green corduroy and the other a pale plaid slack. Lastly was a what seemed to be an insect headed lady with a long purple smock dress that went nearly to the floor. Her antennae were twitching wildly.

In wretched confusion, Stephen looked at the bizarre gang and somehow seemed to make sense of them ‘Henri! Derleth! Cantaloupe? Sir, you’re alive?!’ The beast-man looked more concerned than amused now, and made his way over. ‘Hey Lily, Odd-legs, help me get this guy up!’ The three figure swiftly went over to Stephen who seemed fixated on the insect lady. ‘Derleth? Is it really you? Did we win?’ Krampus (for that was the beast-man) sat Stephen upright against the wall ‘You alright pal?’ then glanced at the badge ‘Poc? That you’re name, you alright Poc? You’ve banged your head, this ain’t your lady friend Derleth, this here is Lily the Midge.’ ‘Henri?’ ‘Wrong again pal, I’m Krampus and this is Odd-legs, take it easy Poc. Hey Odd-legs, get Poc some water!’

So Odd-legs is back with the water in a moment. Stephen takes a sip and slowly the world seems to return. He sees Krampus, looking over him, he sees Lily the Midge and Odd-Legs hovering in the background. ‘I… I was trying to clean the grille and ceiling, I must have slipped.’ ‘You got that right pal, look, now you’re back with us, can you tell me, you haven’t seen chief around at all have you Poc?’

A mote of dust had entered her retina, blinking stupidly, she shook her head, hoping to dislodge the intruder.

   Stephen watched Derleth shake her head. Head lice, he thought grimly to himself.

   There was a chill in the air, Stephen made a seat from an upturned crate, he wondered about what Henri had said, the veteran had been rambling. Henri swore that he had witnessed the splintered people, quiet grim figures on the desolate mound and always at sunset. Both Henri and Derleth listened to the thud bump of the heavy rain on the warped tin roof. The occupants of the bunker were each packed tight into their heavy mantle-capes. A gust of chill air rippled the thin tarpaulin that made for a door. A trickle of dirty water pooled inside the bunker, outside the bunker the slap of heavy sloshing boots could be heard wading through deep mud.

‘Have you ever peeled an orange?’ asked Stephen, Derleth shrugged her shoulders as she tugged at the sodden burlap drape that passed for a curtain.

‘Citrus fruits make me sick.’ Derleth confessed her voice deep and prickly.

   A sweet unpleasant stench wafted across the canal, nobody complained about it anymore. The aroma came from the old city, the place where the corpses dwelt. At night, if the radiance from the red stove fires was just right, the sentries could see twisted hands and feet clawing at the sky, silhouetted and groping.

‘So, what’s a Phytoclinician?’ Demanded Derleth.

‘Pardon?’

‘The other night, in your sleep, you said you were a Phytoclinician.’

‘Oh,’ Stephen sighed, ‘That was just another version of yesterday me, imagine how many yesterday’s there are and will be and I’m still here.’

   Derleth frowned, she guessed he was lying.

   A clanking motor could be heard over heard, it spluttered and coughed angrily as though it had been working too hard for far too long in the wrong direction. Derleth spied the sleek bomber crow away through the grey clouds, it’s shadow shimmered across the canal like a fluttering augury of macabre. Derleth saw a horse’s hoof breaking the murky viscous surge. She puzzled over why it was so perpendicular, she presumed it to be the night freeze and or the onset of rigor mortis.

‘When they catch it in the night, they never seem to thaw again?’ Answered Stephen as though he had heard Derleth’s own thoughts about the horse’s hoof. Both shivered and turned away from the long wide water. Derleth shook her head and shivered, she wondered why Stephen had lied.

‘They’re like twisted periscopes.’ Mumbled Henri.

‘Storks?’ Offered Stephen.

‘Storks?’ Repeated Derleth.

‘Storks!’ Stephen turned to face Derleth and explained himself, ‘ensnared in the ooze, imagine a flock of birds suddenly startled, so startled in fact that they fly away in a wild frenzy, only to forsake their feet, leaving them behind, the birds will never land again, but perish of exhaustion in mid-air, dying in mid air is probably the best way to go.’ Stephen looked at Derleth, hoping she would understand, but she could not. Henri coughed heavily from his bunk in the dark.

‘They’ll hit the solid ground eventually.’ Offered Henri helpfully. 

‘But they’ll be dead, it doesn’t matter what you hit or from what height you hit it, it does not matter one jot, when you are a descending cadaver.’ Derleth did not think the corpses looked remotely like the abandoned legs of night storks. Derleth squinted as rain drops freckled against the wooden blocks of the windowsill. Stephen watched the pitter patter of rain become a sudden torrent; he did not think Derleth understood him. Stephen watched the rain, as lightning electrified the low grey cumulous and the prospect of puppetry and storytelling was a very real possibility.

   The entire battalion had become nothing more than flat inarticulate marionettes, trapped between a source of light and a translucent scrim.

‘They’re retreating.’ Derleth smiled confidently, ‘or they are advancing.’ She shrugged her shoulders.

   Stephen looked out across the canal, the water level had dropped in the night, the rippling liquid could barely hold the corpses. 

‘To where?’

   Nobody replied.

   The cold sharp rain accompanied the occasional heavy rumble of a distant bombardment; heavy machinery interrupted the silence. Beyond the deep sepulchral canal, a city and its architecture appeared like a diorama of bone and concrete and glass. Nobody went there, except maybe Henri.

‘Henri found a box of sweets.’ Offered Derleth as she playfully nudged Stephen. Stephen did not know how to respond, Derleth watched him expectantly. In the absence of a response, she repeated herself. ‘Henri found a box of sweets!’

Stephen felt embarrassed, he had lost the ability to understand or he had discovered the ability to ignore trivialities, he could not know for sure.

‘I’m not even me anymore.’ Stephen complained, Derleth did not hear him, ‘have you ever peeled an orange.’

   A gust of military orderliness brought in a tall officer with dynamic purposeless eyes. He entered confidently with a fantastic way about him. Yet all Henri saw was a loud sense of subdued authority. The officer admired his posture whilst a metallic engine churned air outside, dark chemical smoke followed the officer into the bunker, he did not fasten the flap, but instead stood at the entrance and observed the company in the squalid bunker deep. A fetid grey light pooled in the depths, neither Derleth or Stephen saluted. The officer took the opportunity to salute himself.

‘The worst is over!’ the officer explained. Then in a whispered and disturbed moment of doubt, he shook his head, ‘The best is yet to come.’  

   The officer didn’t seem to want to stay, but he seemed incapable of leaving, as though compelled by a hidden force to remain. He seemed awe struck by the prospect of Henri. Derleth ignored the officer, but Stephen smiled blankly.

‘Did I used to be a Phytoclinician?’ Offered Stephen happily.

‘What’s that?’ snapped the officer bluntly, squinting curiously as he spoke.

‘Nothing!’ Interrupted Derleth, ‘he made it up, it’s a made-up word by a made-up person!’

   The officer coughed, he did not understand insubordination, especially when he was in his uniform. Although it was torn and muddy, he felt powerful, his mantle-cape was the light grey of the officer elite, his side arm was an old issue heavy. He wondered if the recruits were mocking him because of his pistol. Nobody spoke a word, nobody understood anything and there was an honesty in the silence. 

   Henri blinked, he could hear the bodies of dead birds thumping against the roof. Outside military wagons were heard crunching along the road. Derleth spied the soldiers in the rear, she didn’t recognise any, because none of them had faces.

   The sound of sudden military music dampened everybody’s spirit. The officer knew how things operated. The chatter and rattle of bullets sounded very much like unseasonal rains. Derleth turned to Stephen, both soldiers frowned.

‘Where’s your gun?’ Asked Stephen.

‘Where’s yours?’ Snapped Derleth.

‘Did you by any chance happen to see my entropy halo, because I’ve lost it?’ Henri asked.

‘I’m unaware of you.’ the officer explained, as he fished out a tin of sardines from a hidden pocket inside his tunic. A dusty spray cascaded, a fluff of debris landed on Stephen’s face, Derleth wanted to brush it off. Snatch it, but she did not. Stephen’s skin was wrapped too close about the bones of his gaunt cheeks.

   Derleth feared that if she touched Stephen’s face, his skin would tear and she would withdraw a hand sodden with the flesh and the stringy sinew of Stephen. He had not always been the withering creature.

‘If we die, military intelligence will tell no one.’ Whispered the officer, as he turned to face Derleth, she looked away, Stephen turned to look at the canal Henri began whistling but soon gave up. Unsettled artillery boomed and could be heard in the distance. The low rumble was indistinct and muffled, Derleth suddenly felt incredibly hungry.

   Nobody knew who was shelling who.

Derleth turned her attention to the canal, featureless soldiers fled in every direction; the cackle and snap of gun fire rippled through the smog in grotesque exactness. The young officer didn’t move or acknowledge anything untoward was occurring. He declined to stoop as mortar shells whistled overhead.

   Henri sneezed, he shuddered at the sound of the heavy howitzers. Wrapped tight in his cot, he wondered at the officer standing in the entrance. A ferocious mass of weeping shells screeched through the air.

   Stephen glanced at the entrance and sighed.

‘Should we get our bayonets?’ Mumbled Stephen as he shook his head, the officer nodded stiffly.

‘No, it’ll be over by the time I get there.’ The officer seemed disappointed.

   After some time of silence, a calm fat sergeant laboured at the tarpaulin flap, tugging at the frayed edges, mumbling obscenities to himself, he had the aura of a man who had forgotten everything. Unsatisfied at the sight of the officer, the fat sergeant entered, he brought with him a fat wet cough. A foul-smelling metallic and chemical breeze wafted through; the sergeant fastened the flap shut tight, it took him many moments. He grumbled loudly about precision and neatness.

‘Listen to me, you shouldn’t leave this flap open, you’ll invite ghosts!’ The sergeant barged past the officer and immediately he knelt before Henri. Both men began to petition the other in inaudible whispers, a negation took place. The fat sergeant kissed Henri on the forehead and Henri allowed him to. The sergeant grumbled as he observed the bunker. He spat on the floor, and with necessary aggression he barged past the officer once more.

‘I’m not feeling very well at all.’ Offered Stephen, Henri nodded happily. 

‘I know you all, but I don’t know why.’ Conceded the officer, his voice distant and apologetic.

   Henri immediately forgave the officer, because he had a nice hidden away place in the dark of the bunker. Glancing over his shoulder the officer felt summoned and admonished in equal measures by his own purposeless. He approached Henri’s cot. Henri sucked on a seed, his depraved eyes spraying the room with suspicion. Henri began depositing precious trinkets under his pillow.

‘I saw a flock of migrating goose fall out of the sky yesterday.’ The officer complained.

‘Geese.’ Corrected Derleth, the officer glanced at Stephen. The officer seemed annoyed, as though he knew the crew had somehow contrived to deliberately scupper the machine in the mud.

‘He’s missing the point.’ Derleth whispered, she noted how the officer coughed as he spoke, the sickness was already in him.

   Henri blinked, he was worried about the officer, maybe he had come to give orders. Entropy and artillery were not quite that comical, but they were benign in comparison to well-meaning strategies. In truth, it was calculated movements that got people killed.

‘Nothing exists anymore.’ Complained the officer from the dark as he wriggled closer to Henri’s cot.

‘Anymore?’ Queried Henri softly, his voice had a strange power to it, the officer understood.

   The officer leant in close to Henri, whispering in a conspiratorial tone.

‘I’ve come to order a full understanding of our predicament.’

‘Impossible.’ Promised Henry, his eyes were maelstrom, the officer seemed suddenly cured of a mystery ailment. The officer fell upward in a stiff projection of dutiful re-emergence from something only he could obey. The suddenness of the officer startled Stephen. Henri smiled in a paternal way; he was delighted for the officer as the officer flashed a new kind of serene understanding. The refreshed officer withdrew his fat service revolver from its holster and he placed the cold nozzle to his forehead.

‘Immaculate flesh.’ Whispered Henri.

‘I’m going now, so don’t disturb me with your jazz making and love talk.’

   The monstrous bellow sent both Derleth and Stephen scurrying for cover, but Henri remained at his cot, he had found his rifle under a bench and felt immediately more soldierly. The ringing in his ears sounded like distant cathedral bells. Both Stephen and Derleth knelt over the body of the officer, both seemed puzzled and at a loss as to explain what had happened. Stephen pinched his cheeks, he then realised there was no ringing in his ears, they were the sounds of distant cathedral bells.

   Henri pointed to a detached eyeball, it had squelched against the ceiling and had come to nest inside a filthy puddle in the mud at the centre of the bunker. Henri sighed, Stephen bit his own lip as he stared through the window up at the grey cumulous lumps. Stephen could not cure anybody, not like Henri, his heart was frozen by too many sorrows.

‘Once we thought that he could see and now we know that he is truly blind.’ Stephen’s apocryphal tone impressed Henri. 

   Henri nodded furiously, something had stung him deep, there was subtle magic in the officer’s sacrifice. Derleth nodded enthusiastically, she remembered everything as she sucked loudly on her gums. Henri and Stephen exchanged knowing glances. More thunder, more rain. After a respectful moment of reflection, Derleth enquired about the dead officer’s unfinished tin of sardines, they were still in his hand, partially spilt into the mud. Henri thought that it was deeply appropriate imagery.