It Begins, Slowly

He was finished. Thomo was finished and this crust creeping up his new pants was the last straw. "I'm finished," he said, "This crust is the last straw. These were expensive pants and I don't have another pair."

Outside the city, in the low-sagging fields ringed by marshland, there is a permanent gray blanket here that hides the ground from us. Flakes of deconstructed cement have settled in this bog and bonded with swamp vapors and radioactive aftermath to form a hanging gas. Molecule-sized drops of mortar swirling in a two-foot fog. Easy enough to wade through, but a few minutes in the field and it will build into heavy clumping bricks, all over someone's nice new pants. "You didn't even want to come, so shut up and stop ruining it," someone yelled. It was Thomo's employer, Galent, who, as an exclamation, gleefully stabbed through an oar-fish, a perfectly oar-shaped fish that swam unhindered through the dust. The fish barked back in pain, stuck to the ground by gray-tipped spikes, flopping out its last. Thomo could only see the tip of the tail and a spare whisker or two peeking above the fog, then it thumped the ground three more times and popped its oxygen sacs, blasting stores of air up through the fog like buzzing little mushroom clouds. Death makes such appropriate punctuation, thought Thomo, and then he thought that he should write that down somewhere because it sounded both glib and wise. But he didn't have any paper, only the dusty rind gathering at his ankles. He would have to move again. He didn't want to get stuck.

Galent was gung-ho about hunting. He became like fluid out in the gray patches, his steady hunting gait gliding in the mist while his rake moved in an circle of wind-up to fish to bucket to wind-up. His form was much sought after, he imagined. As he swung through, the dust would built up on him and the rake, but not in the clumps that pestered a lazier man. For Galent, it would shape itself around his legs, building smooth elephantine pillars, symmetrical and colorless. For his rake, only the spikes would encrust, and they would drool icicles, longer and sharper, and better to pierce an oar-fish. He reasoned that this was God, his God, a just God, who was pleased and daily fashioned for him perfect formations of rubble. Galent smiled when God agreed with him, and did so now, presuming the Infinite hated oily alien oar-fish and stupid acid guts as much as he did. Being so close to God made him feel glib, and wise.

Marching home in the evenings, Galent dreamt of stomping around his house like a dusty Mammoth. It was for his wife that he cleaned himself off every night, and he resented her insistence. It was his goddamn floor. He had found the dozens of tiles piled in the corner of an old warehouse, and then spent a week away from the fields tapping them into the dirt. It was his goddamn floor. It would be stupid and wrong to smash the tiles, no one had tiles anymore. They were impossible to replace but that's what angered him. His own floor, his goddamn floor, covered in the holy relics of old town-homes, holy clay squares inspiring fear in every good-natured stomp. He wanted that tile smashed to bits. He wanted to come home and crow, dancing and stomping craters into those faux-marble spiral galaxies until they were reduced to rubble.

His wife was a fine woman and deserved better than he wanted to be, so instead, he loved her and did as he was told. Every evening, he stomped proudly behind the house and took a hammer and notched chisel to his legs, blasting his stupid fantasies back into dust.

The pathetic sun was going down. Wherever it disappeared to, the city was too bright to notice, but everything got a little more gray. Thomo took this poorly and skittered to the edges of the field, away from drop-offs concealed beneath the fog and more dangerous creatures than those shaped like paddles, mostly the rake-throwing assholes who dragged him out of his house every afternoon to spear fish. They must be blind not to see all this gray. Or worse, he reasoned, they see it and enjoy.

Out here, on the edge, the dust thinned out and a thick moss of a swampground became semi-visible. One could also detect the black asterisks of burnt out tenements, long ago collapsed into their foundations. The surviving wood stood out in the barren dustfield, and Thomo knew that within the newer cracks, he would find interesting strains of mold. A couple hours earlier, and he could have busted open the decaying wood and scraped some fungus onto his tongue. The mold would be sweet and would ring inside his nasal cavities. After a few bites, he would stiffen his neck and bliss and tic unmolested for hours. But today, someone would have noticed he had no oar-fish, only a green flecked beard and an incoherent high. Today he would relax, and nap, and hope he could still move when the call came out to go home.

Fifteen meters away, an animal stalked. The only sign of a hunt was the occasional creak of gristle moving over rusted cartilage. If the human had turned at the last minute, he may have seen a throbbing, scaly mass inside a thicket of bones, shaped and coordinated into a walking machine. Inside, the beast looked like a fish, fully contained except for hollow reeds poking out from interior gills into a slowly deflating animal bladder, and two sharpened femurs swinging evenly at its sides.

But the human did not turn at the last minute and with a terrible crack of twisting bone-mechanics, the animal slashed a limb cleanly through his neck.

It is a fact that the rustle of a human body cannot be heard over the buzzing of a recently speared oar-fish.