Thomas wasn’t always a monster. He used to be innocent, I swear on the world. I remember his bigcheek smiles, and... tippytoe walker, scared about crushing ants. It was on his birthday of seven when things began to change. I don’t know how I let it happen, but Thomas wound up at Somnial in his father’s lab. I watched through triple-paned glass: Thomas and Kard in their full-body HazMats, ghosting along the row of occupied chairs. The testers already booted were all costumed in the same white HazMats. Only their faces showed, all of them oddly similar.
The chair was throne-like. It miniaturized my son into his own little king figure.
Speakers relayed their voices to me. Thomas was sniffling. “I don’t want to any more,” he said.
“There’s no reason to be afraid.” Kard’s voice had never been so gentle. “The wires are very safe. You know why? I wouldn’t let you in that chair if it were dangerous.
“They go up your nose, like your finger might. Like this. And then they stretch out, and they're tiny; you can't even feel them. Then you’re in the game. You just have to be brave.” He lifted the boy and embraced him. “You know, it’s okay if you don’t want to.”
“Did you do it?”
“I was the first.”
When Thomas booted he found himself at a meadow’s edge. I watched via wall-sized monitors. Thom spotted a white jackrabbit dangling in the boughs of a Slippery Elm, a noose around its foot. The rabbit begged for help. It sobbed for the plight of its children, and for the state of the forest in which the rabbit is a constant victim. How it cried. So Thomas climbed the tree and navigated a patchwork of thin branches. He hoisted the rabbit, slipping the noose from its foot, and there they were, now two of them stuck in the green canopy. But something vibrant and good was passed along, something in the mystical power of kindness, and the rabbit was able to morph itself into an enormous white-feathered eagle, and it flew Thomas on its back, and they saw mountains and ocean-straits, and they feasted with the King and Queen of the forest.
Now I’ve almost lost him to the Web. He’s one of the junkies: my baby. He’s become sadistic, like the rest of them. I’ve seen their fun. I’ve seen animals used as fetishistic playthings and then discarded.
It’s not real, they say. It’s only fun. As though fun were the only point.
Here in the Tunnels he’s cut away from that world; I've disabled his Web-access. We’re nearing the Hollow, where if everything’s gone as planned there will be a retinue of Tribespeople waiting, and Kard among them—if the old passages are still intact.
But I’ve been hearing noises. Farther along the corridor a scuffling; a scraping of rubble, like some dim-eyed creature maladjusted to the dark. It stays ahead of us. Almost as though it’s making itself known. Does it want us to go back? Or has it been down here, blind and lonely, so long that it’s mad with anticipation?
My best contacts in the city swore that nothing survives in the Tunnels. Then it must be my imagination. We’ve been in the dark three days now, with little food and water, and Thomas has been practically mute. These noises must be compensation—my mind keeping itself alert. It is my imagination. Still, when I attempt rest I can only picture three fiery-pink eyes hovering in the darkness. They blink in unison, each time re-opening closer to us. They look to be weeping blood...
So I stare into the lantern’s flame and watch Thomas sleep. He’s curled in a sad foetal dream. His features tighten and relax, tighten and relax. He’s battling something in sleep: it’s killing him.
I shake him gently awake. He slept long enough. We’ll make the Hollow today—on time, and alive.
Thomas rolls into a sitting position and immediately begins to shake. His breathing is irregular. He digs in his bag for the small tin casing, and he manages to unlock it, but spasmodically, and the contents sprawl across the floor. I reach for the old blackened scalpel but Thomas snatches it up. “Thom,” I say, “let me help you.” He’s in no state for this. “Please.” An over-dosage will have him sleeping for days, or worse yet...
He considers the scalpel. I don’t like how he’s holding it—a dark almost suicidal contemplation. He twitches, and his major muscles jerk randomly. He shouldn’t be holding a scalpel. “Please, Thom.”
He drops the blade. He won’t look me in the eye: instead, he fumbles at the bandana-cloth around his forehead and uncovers the various incisions. He wasn’t able to steal proper equipment before we fled the city.
I sterilize the blade in the lantern flame, measure a careful dose of Milk, and set to work on his forehead, slicing a new incision. Our ethanol supply is gone. I avoid touching the fresh wound with my fingers; the bandana, pressed above his eyebrows, catches the streaming blood; and using a plastic applicator I smear Milk across the wound. It disappears into his blood and skin, and Thomas becomes a pool of relaxation. He sinks to the floor. I finish the ritual. I shouldn’t be indulging Thomas—his pseudo-spiritualism. There’s no risk in drinking the Milk; it’s less effective, but there’s enough to last until he can be cured of his addiction.
But he’ll do it anyway, and if he’s less than careful I’ll have to watch the infection spread—watch him spasm, hitting an artery—and then how would that feel?
We walk for hours before he finally speaks.
“I'm still Web-ready,” he says, “even though you blew my transmitter. I think it doesn't matter what you do. Something's wrong with me.”
His tone is pleading, pathetic—it cuts right through me. “I woke up in the Plaza,” he says. “I couldn't leave. There were thousands of people in a circle around me. They were all talking at once, telling me what I should do...”
He whispers brokenly: I think he says “mind readers.”
“Darling,” I tell him, “it was a dream.”
He stops cold and touches his face weirdly. “But I couldn't hear what any one of them was saying.”
As he followed the light of Mother's lantern, Thomas thought in great detail about killing his father. Nearing the Hollow, he would send Mother into a peaceful sleep. Their drinking water was already so foul that she wouldn't notice the addition of opi—broth distilled from green fat bulbs. She wouldn't be alone for long. Thomas loathed the idea, but there was no recourse. He couldn't have her getting in the way. If the Tribespeople wanted to shield his father, Thomas would shoot them. If they carried guns too, as he worried they might, he would tell them where Mother slept before opening fire. That was all he could do.
--The key-card around father's neck--
Thomas expected unpleasantness, afterward. He tried to prepare something striking he would tell Mother, so that she would understand. “The city needs me,” he might say. “We have to go back!” or “I'm duty-bound, Mother: trust that I have a critical responsibility I must fulfill.” He cringed. He never was much of a wordsmith. The urgency would have to come, then, from a place deeper than words.
Ahead, Mother suddenly froze. She turned around and put a finger to her lips. Thomas heard it, then: a dragging of feet, or maybe paws. He sniffed the air and found nothing unusual, the same filthy dust. But then unmistakably a stifled cough, a human sound. Mother and Thomas both drew their knives. She adjusted the lantern to its full brightness, and she called out, “There are three of us. We'd rather not fight, but we're armed.”
“Two,” said a man, in a voice like breaking stone. “And—your knives are dull.” His footsteps dragged on toward the Hollow. The corridor branched more than once, so Thomas couldn't be sure of the man's destination, but he had a feeling.
Mother dimmed the lantern and sat down against the wall. She looked very tired, and much older than yesterday. Thomas passed her the tainted water. They were near enough to the Hollow, and he thought this might be his last chance. She drank plenty. When the bottle slipped from Mother's hand and rolled to his feet, Thomas took it up and drank a cautious mouthful. Just a little was said to be calming. He put the rest away, re-checked that his pistol was loaded, and stole Mother's lantern. He knelt at her side and laid her gently down and covered her with his coat. Now he wished the old stories were true: that there existed a magical spell he could proffer unto her protection, and leave her encased in a titanium bubble. But this coat would have to protect her for now. Thomas walked off carrying the fire of their journey—the blood, the life—and he promptly wiped his mind of all guilt and worry.
His feet became heavy, and a pink fog emerged—from the walls, from his own mouth. The wicked drumbeat of his heart, faster faster. The lantern light suddenly raged into inferno, illuminating Thomas's past in front of him. He saw himself at thirteen-years-old. His birthday in the Slum, at the Palace as they called it—really just an abandoned air-hangar, falling apart. His father had been disappeared for three years, and he was miserable. Older girls approached him requesting a dance; he shook with nerves. One of them touched his arm and he thought he might die. His body quaked. Older Thomas remembered, watching now. He smiled knowingly. He watched himself gratefully led away from the crowd by an old accomplice of his father, a very fat disgusting man called Rexxo.
Young Thomas buckled and stooped under the weight of Rexxo, who leaned against him staggering. The man stank of sour mustiness. They travelled unfamiliar hallways, past heavy metal doors, until they came to a passage reinforced on all sides by concrete. Where he came to a dead end, Rexxo touched the wall and slurred, “Blood through my veins, Milk through my heart.” He said it three times before the words came out properly enunciated, and around the wall a crack of light appeared. Rexxo pushed the wall and it slid away. They stepped inside.
In the center of a cavernous auditorium there was a cage, large enough that it might house a dozen men. But the bars were thick as a human torso. Darkness clouded the interior, until Rexxo groped a number of switches and white-hot spotlights flared up. The creature behind bars might have been a statue. It might have been lifeless, were its three pink eyes not open and seeking. Thomas felt somehow it had been waiting a very long time for him. From a distance he watched Rexxo approach the cage. “They're not particularly smart,” said the old man, wheezing, “but the strength! I presume your dad talked about the Mooi?”
Young and Old Thomas both shook their heads.
“Well, he should've primed you. Your dad had a lot of strange ways about him.” Nearing the bars, stumbling, catching his balance. “You see... you see, this fellow's our best Mooi. He's something of an Alpha-male, or some shit. Yields enough Milk for thousands.” He began to ramble, and each Thomas ignored him. Their attentions were on the beast, with its black-sheen thorax and crooked legs, and the armored head-capsule from which a dripping proboscis emerged. The Mooi waited, unnaturally still, as Rexxo opened the cage door. “No use feeling bad for them,” Rexxo was saying. “Your pop designed them big and stupid—and dangerous. They're blood suckers.”
A tension on the air, an acid hiss. The Mooi released a vapor scented like fine dark earth. Young Thomas began to slouch and wobble; Rexxo seemed unaffected, but drunk nevertheless. And the Mooi flung itself across the cage, impossibly quick with its proboscis erect, spear-like, aimed at the target of Rexxo's heart. But it struck a quiet boundary and fell in a heap at Rexxo's feet. He laughed. “You see? Not so bright. Hey. You'd better be watching, boy. This here—how I'm including you?—is a privilege like kings don't even enjoy!”
Rexxo had Thomas fetch him a wide-mouthed aluminum container with a skin sheathing. Rexxo took the Mooi's great head-capsule in both hands and plunged its mandibles into the container and began working his fingers behind its armor-plating. He milked the beast until the container was filled. Then he kicked the Mooi drunkenly and took the container out with him. “This is what you'll do, like your dad. This will be your life. And maybe you'll help us track him down. But if he never comes back—I don't think he will—then you'll do his work.” Rexxo must have understood that Thomas did wish to remain here observing this pathetic beast. “Shut the cage when you're done,” he said, sipping Milk as he left.
Alone, Thomas went unafraid to the Mooi. It lay exhausted on the cage floor. Coming close he felt its pain: his presence weakened the Mooi. He was radiating, from his Web transmitter, an electrical pulse. He saw the clasping device on the Mooi's hind-leg, removable only by key-card. Without knowing how, he sensed the Mooi's water barrel was empty, and the deep wide dish of blood was stale. He attended to the Mooi's needs, filling and replacing, and then he sat with the creature in its cage, with the spotlights shut off, and the pair of them communed of deeper matters, wants, and thoughts. They bypassed language. And Thomas understood, by the end, how it felt to be used like a tool, grown for the enjoyment of slavers, mistreated, kept in the dark and alive only by the most narrow definition. He understood what must be done.
I wake open eyes and ears to a complete darkness, and voices nearby. They're arguing.
I'm still regaining my senses—no time for thought—when I trip forward, one arm outstretched. My open palm collides first with the pile of stone, and my wrist crunches. The bone forces a tear in my skin. In silence I scream. I writhe, holding my wrist, what a moment ago was my wrist. Warm spilling blood. Devils: the bone snapped. I crawl, I think I'm delirious. Their voices coming near. A light in the distance.
“You're the one who caged them.”
“No—here, son—I won't deny it, but there's more. It's an entire story. You only know the worst parts.”
“You're lying. You've been lying for—you're always lying.”
“It's all been part of the plan to get people off the Web. That's what I've been doing for ten years. Put down the gun, please. You're not seeing the entire story.”
“They suffer—every day. You don't know anything, do you? You've been gone, you left us...”
I'm on my feet, the ground is light—I have to stop this. The lantern is just there.
“You left us. Do you know what that was like?”
The pistol fires as I reach for the lantern. Thomas swings the pistol toward me, but I sidestep, the lantern a full centrifugal arc, shattering his head. The light dies in a shower of glass. Two bodies drop: one, silence, another. I stand woozy, shocked, numb in every sense of the word. And I realize there's nothing holding me up. I fall.
Before I strike the floor, it hits me: we're together again. This is how empires crumble.