After my third day in the City a crow alighted next to me on the park bench where I slept, squawking of a wonder at the city aquarium. Its feathers beaded with moisture, its beak dripped blood. During the night I had dreamed of faces floating in the mist above me, caught inside the cordon around the City as it died.
“I’m tired of wonders, crow,” I said to it with a swipe of my hand. “Shoo.” A roundabout contained the park (unusual for Texas) and a sculpture of painted metal shaded my bench from its center.
“Not Gandhi’ed,” it observed. I pulled my gaze away from the sculpture to the creature. I decided that it sounded like one of the muppets. Grover, maybe.
“Just Kansas’ed, my friend. Don’t forget it.” I sat up and wiped the sleep from my color-blinded eyes.
Another slap toward the bird and it launched in a storm of wings. The city stank of trash and sewage. Blocks away to the east, water filled the streets. The sky held low clouds but the breeze felt cool despite the humidity.
“Nots a crowk,” it cawed. “I’ms a magpie.”
“A few other Mens left in the City,” said the magpie. It pecked at a hunk of bread on the bench and pretended at nonchalance.
“You think I care about other people.” But my hands trembled with fear and hope.
“I shows you where they is if you open the brrrook store doorrr,” it said. One gleaming eye then the other turned my way.
“What do you want with the bookstore?”
“And why do you want books?” I looked at the dark eyes of the nearby buildings and wondered where these other people hid.
“To wwwrrread!” it cawed.
“What? Oh. You can read? I didn’t know Animal Farm did that,” I said, referring to the plague that gave it speech.
“Only tree of usk in the city can, so far as I knowwws,” the crow said. Magpie.
“Yecks. Me, a wwwrrrats, and an ocktopops.” The bird’s head bobbed in excitement.
“Wow. Lucky you. Victims of an undocumented plague. What do you like to read?”
“Not sure yets,” it said, head twitching side to side. “Mrrrostly newspapers and mackazines so far. I wwwrrread Choke,” it screamed and then pantomimed choking, falling over, dying. It sat up, clicking. I realized the sound was its laughter.
“Well, let’s get you to the bookstore,” I said.
The bird hooted.
Trendy sidewalk cafes and restaurants lined the cobbled streets near the bookstore. This, before the plagues wiped everyone out, was a Cordoned City. A limb of the One City. Now, I wasn’t sure what it was. Mankind’s fossils. A corpse for the AIs that once regulated the utility fog within the Cordon.
Slouching toward the bookstore I spied second-story flats. I propped the door open, left the bird to his books, and trotted off to find the stairway leading up. The bird shrieked in my wake.
“Wrrrhat should I get?”
“Lovecraft for the rat,” I said with a grin. “Verne for the Octopus… or maybe Blatty. And for you… Poe?”
“Not a rrraven!”
I chucked, perplexed how he got the reference.
“Okay, Okay: get some Daniel Steele. You’ll love it.”
The magpie hooted and flew off into the store.
Upstairs I took three tentative steps into the hall, a florescent still shining down on industrial carpet and stained walls, when one of the five doors in the corridor cracked open and a dark steel tube emerged.
“Stop there,” a voice demanded. Female. Adult. Frightened.
I held my hands up.
“I thought it was abandoned. Just looking for a better place than the park.” I smiled and tilted my head to silence. “Anywho, I’ll leave ya be. Sorry to scare ya.”
“You from up north?” the woman asked.
My fingers twined. “Texan by birth, but I spent a good part of my youth in Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto, Phoenix–”
“You moved a lot. Military?” That was a dangerous question.
“Absolutely not. My dad was in stress relief. Sounds like shrink stuff but it had to do with power plants.”
“Plagues?” she asked.
“I have Kansas, sad to say. No others. Outside the Cordon at the beginning and lucky after that.”
“Vulcan, Moon, Gandhi?” she asked.
“No. Promise. You?”
The door swung open. She looked younger than I: mid-twenties with her hair tied back, bespectacled, with a hint of base, lipstick, eyeliner. I couldn’t tell what colors she wore, thanks to the Kansas. Shorts, sneakers, tee-shirt with the words “I’m kind of a big deal” printed across the front and deformed by her breasts.
“I’m not even Kansased,” she said with a smile. “Nor them.” A flick of her head. Triplets (two boys and a girl) about one year old and a boy of seven or eight stood behind her. They all had curly blond hair and faces smeared with peanut butter and jelly. The woman clutched the gun to her side. “Around here, there’s just Animal Farm. These days.”
The magpie shuffled into the hall, squawked, and the woman yipped in surprise.
“He’s with me,” I said.
“Woot, woot, woot,” the magpie screamed. “Boy meeks girrrl in worrrld series of loves!”
I rolled my eyes and looked at the woman. The magpie just voiced the mistake this pretty thing was about to make. I hoped. The mistake that a boy had just met a girl.
“Shut up, crow,” I said without conviction.
“Are you hungry?” the woman asked.
“Nots a crowk!” the bird said.
“I am hungry,” I said. “My name is Win, by the way.”
“Cleo,” she offered along with her hand.
I stalled as she gazed into the convoluted patterns of my Kansas’ed irises, the only visual tale-tell of any of the human plagues.
“The world’s not the same in black and white.”
“I’ll risk it,” she said, and I took her hand.
“I’sss a magpie! Magpies don’t has names. Animals not supposed to has names.”
Cleo led the bird and me in for iced tea, grilled cheese, and conversation. The kids played bashful at first, but grew inquisitive and silly. It was a good afternoon. Almost familial.
“The Trinity spilled its banks last spring and never receded. Now the west shore is just a couple streets over,” Cleo said.
The triplets played in the other room except for Trevor, who sat beside Cleo watching us.
His blond hair hung too long and curly for a boy, and his dark eyelashes looked girly. The overalls acted as compensated. His feet were propped on the coffee table, sans shoes.
“He’s not had a man around since…” Cleo’s smile faltered. She’d given birth to triplets a year ago. I shuddered. “Go check on the triplets, Trevor.”
“Cansss I go too?” The bird shifted his head back and forth, eying Cleo and me.
“Trevor will stomp you if you touch the babies,” Cleo said without a glance. She sank her teeth into her grilled cheese and chewed. Trevor grinned with dimples.
After he led the magpie into the other room, Cleo swallowed the last of her sandwich along with her inhibitions and lifted from the couch to sit beside me on the love seat. The faux-leather creaked with every motion either of us made. She slid against me, her shorts riding up and tightening against her crotch as she reached an arm around my back.
I clinked my plate down on the finger-smeared coffee table, meeting her lips with mine. Her tongue penetrated my mouth and I tasted milk, cheese product, and the tang of tobacco.
Between the horrors outside the Cordon and the human silence within it, I thought I’d never know this moment again. With fear and trembling, I drew another breath, tilted my head, touched my tongue to hers, and reached up to cup her breast, tweaking the nipple. She growled deep in her throat and her hand began to slide toward my fly and what it hid.
I grabbed her wrist and she pulled away from me several inches, eyes searching my face. She saw the tears. I nodded toward the other side of the room where one of the triplets stood with a finger planted in his nose, watching us. Cleo laughed and I smiled.
“We have plenty of time,” I said. “I won’t go unless you ask.”
“Really?” she asked, betraying herself with a single word.
She would ask me to leave.
“Really,” I said, wondering if I betrayed myself in kind.
That night we had a party, made popcorn, sang songs, and watched a movie at the local theater. The waters surrounded the cinema on all side but the west where the Marquee lights still shone. I’d once worked at a cinema, and thought the automation would still work. I was right. We had to buy tickets at the counter with my card, still carried out of habit.
“Winnie?” Cleo remarked. “What were your parents thinking?”
I laughed. “Who knows?”
We sat in the abandoned theater and watched a cartoon movie with the kids. Cleo held my hand and leaned on my shoulder. The bird had left with a promise to return the next day. Cleo had made a pitcher of margaritas that I lugged to the theater (she carried glasses) and we spent the two hours drinking ourselves into a nice buzz.
Only occasionally did I feel as if unseen eyes watched, though I realized for the theater to still function, some of the city AIs had to have remained resident. What must they think, of their dying body that was the One City?
We stumbled home, the kids coming off their sugar high and ready for bed. Even Trevor rubbed at his eyes and complained in a high voice of his fatigue, while the young ones whimpered in their huge stroller.
All four of them curled into dreamy sleep as soon as we laid them down. I left the room while Cleo tucked them in and she joined me in the kitchen where I had poured two shots from her tequila bottle.
“Here’s to us,” I said.
“Here’s to us,” she said. Glasses aloft, tinkled together, drink downed with winced expressions. She exhaled and widened her eyes.
“One more,” I said.
“If you’re trying to get me drunk, you don’t–”
“Just one more.”
We drank another round and then I led her to bedroom. I turned out the light and she kissed me again. I undressed her, gently. When she stood naked I ran my hands over her shoulders, down her back, up her goose-pimpled arms, over her breasts and down to her belly and hips.
“Lay down,” I said.
Then I stripped. My bag lay beside the bed and once I stood naked in the dark, I reached in and pulled a phallus attached to straps from the bag, stepped into the harness, and grappled the huge cock I now wore to be sure it was positioned correctly.
We were intimate for the first time that night. At some point she whispered, I love you. I said it too.
I knew she knew. She still held my hand the next morning at breakfast and I made stupid jokes with Trevor and he laughed.
After the kids went to play in their room we sat with our coffee cups steaming between us, sipping at the warmth. Her eyes welled with tears.
“What does this make me? What does–”
I held up my hand.
“I’ll leave if you want. I’ll understand. It doesn’t make you anything after that you weren’t before. Just someone who needed to be touched.”
I sat, waiting, for what words she chose.
She wiped at her eyes and laughed.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said. “Last night was nice.”
About four weeks passed before the magpie returned. During that time all but Trevor contracted Kansas.
The nape of my neck prickled at the clicking sound. I sat at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee.
“Gocks to come sees the wwwrats,” the magpie said from the windowsill.
“Long time. I thought the aquarium was the rocking place ’round here?” I took a sip and leaned back in the chair. The light in the kitchen shone like an old photo.
“Please. They’s doing something brrrad.” The magpie’s head juddered and bobbed.
Cleo walked into the kitchen and smiled at the bird.
“Hey there, magpie.” She said the last word like it was the silliest thing in the world. Looking at me she screwed up her eyes. “You’ve never seen a magpie before?”
I shook my head and she nodded.
“Heys there, girlie girrrls.”
“The magpie says the rats are up to no good,” I explained around my mug. It wanted for more coffee, less cream and sugar.
“He might be right. They’re more organized than most of the other animals. When we were in Carrollton it was dogs, in Fort Worth cats. Up here, the rats are king.”
“Okay, let’s go check it out, magpie.”
Later I would think this was the moment when everything changed. I’d not realize while still alive it was that first moment on the park bench that damned me. The moment I befriended the magpie.
I kissed Cleo and turned to follow the magpie down into the bookstore when I felt a tug at my cargo pants. Trevor had crept between us and when I turned he stared up with an earnest look on his face.
“Win, can I go?”
“Little man, I’m not sure about this time.” We’d been over to see the partially-flooded fair grounds and aquarium to the south beyond the metal sculpture, and on daily expeditions to the neighborhood parks.
“I’ll be good. I promise,” Trevor said, glancing from me to Cleo. The smile she offered her oldest son and the eyes that demurred to not meet mine signaled all I needed to know.
I put a hand on Cleo’s shoulder.
“If it seems at all risky I’ll bring him back. Is it okay for him to go?”
Cleo nodded at me and ruffed the boy’s hair. He took my hand and we headed down into the bookstore and then out into the street.
The magpie stood on the sidewalk atop a tattered magazine that he scratched at to turn the page. The sun still hung low on the horizon, bathing the street in brightness. I imagined the yellow glow, hard to remember. The air felt cool, autumn coming. The leaves on the trees (arranged at regular intervals on each side of the cobbled street) looked desiccated and I wondered if they’d started to morph from green to yellow, auburn, orange, and brown. Occasionally red. The breeze carried the stench of the water from a few streets over. I only saw a black and white version of the dying City.
The bookstore rested on a hilltop in the neighborhood, but I wasn’t convinced it would keep us safe from the rising waters. Or if it did, we’d end up on an island. I figured with another week we’d be able to judge and then, if appropriate, I could broach the subject of moving on.
The magpie squawked at Trevor.
“He’ll be fine, magpie.”
“Stompersss of magpies,” the bird said, clicking.
“Hi, crow,” the boy said.
“Notsss a crowk. Magpie.” The bird turned back to the magazine and sounded out words with his black beak.
“Did you knows the Moon Plague wrras created in Bollywood? They was making a musical of storrry called Silver Bullets.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” I said.
The bird launched into the air and flew north from the intersection, landed on a blue postal box and turned back toward us. Trevor clutched my hand and we tramped after the bird.
“It saids it in the mackazine,” the magpie said.
“Oh, well, in that case…”
“Is it possible to cavort in a chair?” the magpie asked. I screwed my eyes up at the animal and turned without answering his nonsense.
We walked along the sidewalk and cobbled streets, freshened by the cool morning air, beneath the speckled shade of the decorative trees, past storefronts and restaurants which were surprisingly intact. In Eddie Bauer and other ritzy boutiques, the mannequins were toppled over and the stores filled with gloom. Most of the windows remained unbroken, shining in the morning light. I wondered how and then realized more of the City infrastructure was alive than I’d first thought. I had assumed, after seeing the flood, that the City was all but dead.
One nook below a parking garage held an array of tables before a black door and a neon sign that read “Hobbes End”. A nightclub. Right beside a dry cleaners. I chuckled at that.
Trevor skipped and ran, hid behind trees and laughed when I found him. We played most of the way to our destination, irritating the bird.
Rounding a last corner we came in sight of the church. A cathedral, really, with a high steeple and bell tower. That’s not what stopped me and wiped the smile from my face.
“Sees? Sees! I said theys was being brrrad.”
Trevor looked up to me, confused and scared.
Chanting issued from the cathedral. Small, high voices, the exultant cries of intelligent rodents. Rats chanted.
“Fa-gluey mug-low naf cu-too-loo real-yah wah-gah naggle fa-tang!” The phrase repeated again and again, rising in volume and tempo. Occasionally a single, falsetto Texas-twang called out in English:
“In his house at Real-Yah dead Cutooloo waits dreaming…”
Water surrounded the cathedral. After settling the boy and bird in an entryway to one of the closed stores around the corner, I bolted across the street and into the shelter of the trees lining the cathedral property. In the distance the cathedral architecture played at Byzantine grandeur. From there I used one of the unsubmerged walls to get the side of the cathedral and then climbed up the sloping walls to a broken window. Domes and arches flew high into the cloudy sky, the building an ornate eyesore in the modern faux-hometown neighborhood. Near the window, the chanting grew in volume and clarity. The voices rang with a nasal quality, high and grating.
Revulsion wrinkled my nose as their stench wafted out the window: shit, carrion, and filthy hair and hide. A shuddering weakened my arms as I looked upon the majestic space filled with vermin. Rats stood on planks and detritus floated in the water, on the tops of pews, and on other structures built in the holy place. It had grown into a haven for these creatures, full of wooden towers, islands made of televisions, radios, computers, lawnmowers, and other trash and treasures. Human bodies lay twisted in some of the mounds where rat holes twisted in, out, and up to platforms atop most of the islands where rats leaned together in worship. They stood like tiny men, hands raises, eyes closed.
Toward the front of the cathedral where bisecting domes created a cavernous space lay the pulpit, lit by hundreds of candles of all shapes and sizes. To one side a disco glitterball twirled atop a dais and phased through the spectrum of colors. The rats atop the podium wore small white robes and waved their arms in rhythm to the chanting.
One rat stood on a box atop the podium, leading the others, arms stretched up, mouth open, a scruff of wiry black hair growing wild atop its little skull so that it looked even more like a miniature man. In the white robe, it reminded me of an evangelist or that old singer, Tim DeLaughter. This rat, of the falsetto cattle call, chanted:
“In his house! In old Real-Yah! Not-dead Cutooloo! Waits dreaming!”
Arms waved, smiles were raised, and tiny exhalations warmed the air.
A large rope stretched from just below my broken window to the nearest tower of plywood and junk. Four rats perched atop it and gazed toward the pulpit, but did not partake in the worship themselves. Many ropes and cords spanned from tower to tower and all these paths converged on this nearest platform.
Two of the rats turned their black eyes toward me and I realized I was gazing in through the main entrance to their domain.
The third rat screeched and jumped when it glanced my way while the fourth, already aware, lugged a long stick over to an aluminum lid hanging above them. When the animal struck the lid a satisfying twang rang out in the vast overhead space.
The chanting stopped.
I heard a rustling as the rats turned and gaped, first at the watchtower, then at the interloper the four sentries pointed toward. The rat colony screamed their rage as I slid from the window and ran.
TWO: A Magpie, (Mistaken, only)
We are the walrus, coo-coo-ca-too-loo…
Old Cthulhu… Almost a myth you might have thought, you thought. With a chuckle. The boy eyed you and whined for the woman pretending to be a man. For a moment you thought how precious a heartbreak that revelation would be. You needed the kid’s devotion, trust, and adoration of Win. For now. But that moment of heartbreak would come as surely as this brat’s demise.
“Staysss here and I checksss on Win.” You bobbed your head until the boy smiled. Humans. So easy. Except when they had the Moon Plague. You knew this, having tracked Win’s last lycanthropic spree from the north and down into the ruins of the Cordoned City. You came calling because tonight was the full moon, and time for the rats to see their new god emerge from the rising waters.
At the corner you fluttered, startled as Win ran past. Startled by the undulated landscape of fur and flesh that followed. The tittering of the rats scratched at you as you cawed and screamed, flapping back after your Win. Your plans dashed by these damn rats. Or by Win.
“What the hell, bird?” Win said, running while the boy bawled in her arms.
“Tolds you theys being brrad. Summon elders gocks.” You turned one eye back along your path to see the vermin tide flowing up the street like shit-colored death. “The worst one of alls comes tonight, Rat tells me. One wrrrat takes name. Oats.”
“Those monsters are… made up… fiction. What have I done? Can you tell them?”
“Notss fiction!” you said. “Comes. Nots running brrack to brrook store. They gets other little ones. And girly girrrl.”
“Hell,” Win hissed. “Where can we go, magpie? I can’t carry him much farther.” The words came out as great gouts of steam. The air chilled, clouds scuttling low above the City, the waters nearby already forming this neighborhood into a shrinking island. The humans didn’t seem to realize that, or didn’t care.
“The aquariums,” you cawed. “The aquarium.” And you flew ahead, guiding the two to their doom. Guiding the rats, and the Rat calling itself Oats most of all, to the apotheosis of their summoning.
…and we are the radishes…
You glided over the running woman, serene. Past unbroken expanses of glass that had hawked dead displays of clothing, jewelry, cooking supplies, electronics, hams (God, the stench), and other necessities of human civilization. The Cordoned City sprawled dying, but still served its absent masters. Unseen hands repaired the glass and mortar, pruned the trees. Nonperishables were restocked. A sort of life went on in the City, beyond the newly intelligent animal species.
The Cordon did not contain any more utility fog, and hence no intelligences in the mist to observe the comedy you created. So you thought.
…and we are the spiders…
Into the waters that sluiced over the lost carnival, the parklands, the gazebos and the concert lawns, Win struggled while the boy slogged along beside her.
“The aquariumsss is rights ahead, past Ferris wheel,” you told them.
The rats stopped at the edge of the water, searching for other paths, lifting to their haunches to see where the humans were going.
“Go. Runsss. Go into the aquarium building and waits for me,” you commanded. “I trysss to talksss to rats.”
Win heaved forward in the water, up to her thighs, and nodded in understanding.
…and we are the elephant…
“Oats!” You drifted over the vermin army, tiny black eyes turned up toward your own black form, black eyes, black soul. The rats wore robes of many colors, or white, or black uniform outfits, or were naked but for their wiry hides.
“Speaks the magpie with Oats. Nowsss or Old Cthulusss not to come!”
Alighting on a yellow post protruding from the water near the shore, you watched the wave pass back through the rats as they whispered the message. You had taken on a role in their new mythology. An avatar of Nyarlathotep, one of the few mice among them had confided. It didn’t mean much to you, despite having read the stories. You didn’t fathom the attraction of the vaginal horror monsters and old stories with cats named Nigger Man. Animals should not have names, anyways. It was that hubris on Oats’s part that sparked your initial ire. After that it became a matter of momentum.
Falsetto, but slow with a definite Texas twang. It was a voice that, but for the high tone, should talk of sweet tea and fried taters, driving out to the stock tank and checking on the cattle, or of trips to the drive-in and then to DQ for a dipped cone. Precise, friendly, knowing. A voice full of cracks and nuance, implications, deceptions, promises. A preacher’s brimstone lust crossed with a sharecropper’s simplicity.
These thoughts flitted through your mind: observations borrowed from your extensive reading. You didn’t know if nutty bars and land ownership were any more real than Dagon or The Outer Ones.
Humans were such good liars. The rat coughed at your clicking: an insolence otherwise ignored.
“What… I said what is this talk I hear, brother crow?”
Your clicking stopped, but for once you didn’t insist on your odd little charade.
“I needs these two. You can has the other humans.” And with those words you set right your plans.
The fat rat raised its head to the sky. You thought it the way the rats smiled.
…and we are the singular octopus, of a rarer plague than mere literacy…
“Can’t we just get another copy of the book?” Win asked.
“Nope, nope,” you cawed. “It’s limited editions. Gots to dive and gets it, Winnie.” You bobbed your head but Win did not smile. You perched on an eave above Win and the boy who sat on a dry ledge looking down on the aquarium. Feet dangled, arms on the rails. They could have been father and son. You started your damn clicking, then stopped yourself.
“And this octopus?”
“Just an ocktopops. Maybe sprrrays ink at you if you gets close to him.”
“Why not just ask him to bring it to us? You said he can read, too. Is he keeping it for himself?”
“Won’t come up no mores. Mads I not brrring more brrrooks.”
“Win, don’t,” Trevor said, yanking her sleeve.
Win rose and skulked down the winding steps in the circular building to where the water began. From there she crossed to the submerged platform just above the tank, standing in the water up to her ankles.
“It’s really cold,” she said, teeth chattering.
“Quick you goes and it wrrron’t take long,” you said.
Win clambered onto the railing, told the boy she’d be right back, and dived in. The creature hid until Win reached the red smear of the book and then attacked.
You sat and clicked as the bubbles reached the surface, then the blood.
“Win? Win!” the kid screamed. You flew up to him and hovered before his face.
“Final ingredients! Yecks. It didn’t have much fight in it until I added the spiders and wrrradishes. Did you knows wrrradishes were the most vicious veggies after Animal Farm hit? Shoulds have called it something else.”
The boy listened, eyes red and glistening with tears, nose clogged with snot, face clenching into a mask of childish rage.
“What did you do to Win? You nasty crow!” The boy surged up the railing and swung at you with startling speed. But he had to turn away from you for a moment to regain his balance.
You stopped clicking, filled with rage.
That’s when we whispered in the boy’s ear.
“He’s a stupid, mean little bird, isn’t he, Trevor?” We did not mean to startle the child. Our face manifested in the utility fog, soft, feminine, not unlike a combination of his mother and Win.
But startled he was, as you, and when he turned to see our face, floating behind him, smiling… his hands must have weakened, shocked. The fall was not clean. Skull against cement before the splash. And there he floated until the creature below came and pulled his twitching body into the reddened depths.
…and we are the ghosts of a dying City. And now a woman. And I am scorned.
THREE: A City, (Dead), and a Family (Uninfected)
At first sight the rough tide sweeping up the street below the kitchen window looked like a flash flood and Cleo thought of Trevor and Win, rag clinched in hand. She leaned over the sink and squinted her eyes to better see.
Oh my God. A glance at the calendar on the wall, then she charged from the room, her socks slipping on the linoleum and dropping her to her knees.
“Fuck!” She lifted herself and continued down the hall.
The triplets stood in their room, crowing to her with smiles.
One of them clapped his chubby hands, giggled, and then ran when she reached for him.
“Get over here, you.”
She caught one in each arm, then lifted the third as best she could.
Out into the hall, up the stairs to the roof, and out into the midday sun.
Cleo used a length of timber she kept on the roof to barricade the door, wedging it between two other pieces of wood nailed to the door and roof. Teeth marks marred the wood.
“Moon, mamma! Moon,” one of the triplets crooned.
“Yes, baby, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Cleo walked toward the leading edge of the building and looked down to the street where the rats lingered.
“What do you want, Oats?” She clenched her fists and struggled to slow her trembling.
All the while she scanned the sky, hoping, instead of dreading, to see the orb of the moon.
“Praise be to our Lord and all his myriad host,” Oats called up to her. He spoke through a megaphone that rendered his voice in metallic echoes full of reverb. Rats hefted the megaphone on each side like pall-bearers.
“What the hell, Oats?”
“You know you’re the last humans in the City?”
She leaned over the brick ledge and eyeballed the little animal with his crazy mop of hair. “What. Do. You. Want?” Teeth clenched, tendons ached in her neck and shoulders.
The bird. The goddamn bird alighted on the wall, clicking.
“Girly, girrrl. Nots looking so good.”
The rat barked orders and chanted a cadence or some other strange litany through the megaphone that tumbled into incomprehension. Before her, the black and white landscape of fur jolted into action, scurrying forward over the sidewalk and up the walls.
“Where are Win and Trevor, crow?”
The clicking stopped.
“The wrrrats haves them. Haves them both at the cathedrrrals.” It jumped and landed on her arm where it jabbed its beak into her flesh before she could swat it away. It jumped away and landed a bit further down the wall. The bird looked down toward the rats and squawked. Behind Cleo the triplets gurgled and growled like dogs choking on their own tongues. One of them whimpered.
The bird fluttered in the air before her.
“Look,” it whispered, just loud enough over the blood beating in her temple. “Looks. The babies founds the moon.” And the bird streaked away, straight up into the air toward the vast, ugly lunar face that stared down at Cleo with its maria and crags, pale as bone or lost hope.
She slid to her knees, wracked with the plague’s activation, as the first rats cleared the bricks and plumped onto the roof.
Five years before, the Moon Plague swept out of the Indian subcontinent with the same ferocity of the Vulcan, Animal Farm, and Gandhi Plagues. Kansas just depressed people. The other plagues, especially when they intermingled in host populations, destroyed civilization.
A few human stragglers managed alongside the new animal societies. The Gandhied avoided all contact with other sentients since their compulsions disallowed self defense of any form. The Vulcanned acted with often bloody logic, made worse as the cities faltered. Animals worked out their new place in the intelligent ecology. And finally, with the Moon Plague, the roles became fully reversed. Men ran the streets, mindless, while the animals contemplated and planned.
Meanwhile, other, undocumented plagues arose – manufactured by the AIs of the One City, some of the last human pilgrims from outside the Cordon speculated.
Some travelers whispered of forms, figures, faces, coalescing out of the air in the cordoned cities. Some told tall tales of a vast, metahuman intelligence molding all of sentience for unknown and unfathomable ends.
They whispered about a war among factions within this intelligence. That it was not monolithic, but splintered and factional.
Some of the travelers gleamed wicked smiles around campfires, and disappeared as if they were ghosts the moment one’s back was turned.
Cleo woke in a trash heap surrounded by water.
She shook away a dream of someone talking about the plagues as if on a Sunday news show of the old world.
The moon painted the alley in stark contrasts. Flooded, whispers of lapping waves and stench of sewage and rotted food and carrion. Corpses floated with gleaming meat and maggots, out-gassing occasionally.
She howled to the gleaming face above and its smile. It took hours sometimes to regain control after the plague hit her. The darkness spoke of how long she had raged, all animal. She stood in the refuse, a paw sinking into a bag of muck, and felt the scars and gashes burrowed into her thin hide.
Her belly hung full of rats, so that was one good thing.
Jumping into the chill water, Cleo swam toward the end of the alley where the cobbled street surfaced. Behind her, something huge sloshed and splashed, its passage filling the night with a scraping, like that of a monstrous form pulling itself from the deeper waters and into the alley.
She turned back from the sound and looked up the street. Cobbled road and decorative trees. Hobbes End and a dry cleaners. Shops shining in the night full of expensive accouterments no one would ever need again. And the cathedral, Our Lady of Abject Hope. The domes and spires were not gothic but Neo-Byzantine, she knew from the kid’s daddy. He’d caught the Gandhi and died with a smile in his eyes and his throat in her jaws.
The thought of the babies stopped her, and then the chanting from the cathedral raised her hackles. Lowering her head, her eyes twitching back and forth, she trotted toward the church. Water surrounded the building and Cleo had to swim the last stretch, clawing through the tops of shrubbery protruding from the water to pull herself onto a wall, free of the water by mere inches.
Even ruled as she was by instinct and the miasma of scents on the breeze and the mother wolf rage, she understood the waters were rising fast.
From there she padded along the wall, up to a broken window, pounced over a fat rope, and onto a platform where she eviscerated four rats and threw them aside with a twitch of her neck.
Before charging across the candlelit maze of heaps, towers, and ropes she glanced back out into the moonstruck waterscape, where something glistened above the waterline and moved closer with the sound of shrieking and laughter.
Cleo leapt for the next tower, and the next, and a third, killing as she went. Her three youngest wolflings yelped and cried, hog-tied in the pulpit. Oats reveled and posed, all wiry hair and multi-colored robe. The other rats danced amid the candles, chanting. That cursed bird launched into the air as she squinted her eyes and surged forward to destroy them all and get back her pups.
The she-wolf yelped, too winded for a full howl. The wolflings turned toward their mother’s call.
A small voice deep in Cleo’s mind, a human remnant riding her more animal nature, wondered at two absences. Where Trevor; where Win?
The holy space above the animals echoed with screams as the bird flew over the berserker wolf and its mewling, whining spawn. The yawning darkness multiplied the chanting of the rats and the occasional indignant yowl that curdled on one of their tiny mouths as the mother wolf ripped it from the world of breath and blood-flow. The joined hemispherical spaces covered in baroque scenes of heaven and hell vibrated with a cracking, architectural moan that silenced the animal mob, so that when the building snarled and crashed and splashed with its front wall ripped from its body, all the actors upon that stage fell silent and turned to gape at the countenance of ultimate horror, amid floating faces and thrashing tentacles. The entire street-side wall of the cathedral had been torn away by the beast that now filled its absence. Only the she-wolf noticed the limp body of a small boy held in one of the tentacles.
The faces drifted around the monster.
“Oh, little bird,” they called.
They smiled terrible smiles.
The monstrous thing surged forward, a wall of water foaming before it. Towers toppled and ropes tangled at it passed, candles in all but the highest alcoves and eaves falling cold, their light extinguished.
Thereby darkness came along with the leviathan.
Oats stood in a small crowd of his disciples, his normally immaculate robe splattered with blood and grime and streaks of wax. His black eyes reflected the coming of his new god. His first god. A god that did not despise the filthy humans so much as engendered an abiding indifference to them.
From the first, that made such sense to his despairing heart. He understood that in Cthulhu, there was one that might offer clarity to him and his tribe.
He had read enough of the Jehova to not expect an actual appearance.
His mouth hung, until he remembered himself. He stroked at his unruly head of hair.
“Ai! Ai! Shub-Niggurath, hail! Cutooloo. Great Cutooloo! He comes because of our pleas and our suffering and our sentience. Hail Cutooloo!.”
The rats screamed in compliance, but fear rattled their throats. When the wave reached the pulpit, of the vermin, only Oats and a small white mouse were not washed away. Oats clung to the she-wolf, and the small, crying mouse clung to him.
The crow hovered in the multi-domed space and its images of angels and satyrs, clicking at the mayhem below.
His black eyes shone in the black vault of the ceiling. Black wings flapped black feathers. Black heart, black soul, black, clicking laughter.
Until, in the holy blackness, a thin, smooth tentacle slithered around his feet, butt, body, gently pulling the wings in.
He lost a single feather.
Cleo turned her head back and was about to pry the rat from her hide and eat him when the feather hit her muzzle and a long, mournful squealing erupted above.
She, the rat, and the mouse all turned their eyes to the ceiling. The wolflings stared in silence at the wall of monster before them.
Tentacles, feelers, antennae, eyes both human and compound, reflective and dark as night, teeth, fangs, tongues. Vaginal folds where something else should be. Anything else. The voice spoke.
Voice of the octopus, first betrayed merely for the sport of manipulating to it a strange, enveloping plague. The elephant, tricked long ago to add mass to the creation. The radishes and spiders, snakes and rats. The woman, Win. And something more. Something connected to the faces floating nearby, watching him. He did not understand how they became a part of his creation.
The tentacles groped him and violated his tiny body. Pain, and he shrieked. Were they his guts, sliding out of him? His beak hung open, as if hungry for air.
“I am the walrus…“
As the words crawled into his head, slow, methodical, the tentacles drew him closer to the pseudo-mouth until it spoke around him, and then spoke into him even as the throat swallowed around him.
He cried in pain and despair as the voices continued on into an endless night.
When daylight came, gone were all but Cleo and the triplets. The plague had passed. The babies slept in exhaustion, pink skin prickled with the morning chill.
On the pulpit steps lay a sad hybrid of too many beasts to name. At its center lay Win, entwined in the fleshy tentacles like a human bloom. Her eyes opened and she smiled at Cleo.
Cleo just nodded, eyes brimming. She held an arm over her breasts.
“No, baby, no. Listen,” Win spoke with effort. Cleo ran her eyes over that body. Nipples now dark, body spotted and rough. Creases of flesh and new appendages stretching out from her periphery.
“They can still give him life, but one of them would live inside him from then on. I didn’t know what you’d want.” Tears rolled from her human eyes. The others just sparkled in the morning light.
Cleo became aware of the Win-creature’s diminished size.
“You have the Moon Plague?”
“So do you,” Win said with another smile.
“No. I was going to use the bird’s crisis to go away before night. What about Trevor?”
The tentacles pulled him out of the waters. He looked pale and serene. Cleo went to the body and hugged it, shaking with sobs until the sobs passed. Then she rolled the body back into the water.
“Let them know if they enter him I’ll kill him myself,” Cleo said, tears still in her eyes but with no emotion.
“You just told them,” Win said, gesturing with a mandible toward a face floating nearby.
“Will you leave us for a moment?” Cleo said to the face. Win nodded at the apparition.
When they were alone Cleo stepped forward and gently mounted the Win bloom in the middle of the monster, where they kissed long and deep. Moaning, Win whispered, I have something I think you’ll like, and she expelled a phallus from her vagina and they made love before anyone could interrupt.
A new phase of their family life had begun.
Brandon H. Bell is a writer of weird fiction, co-editor of The Aether Age: Helios, and editor of Fantastique Unfettered. His work has appeared in publications from Hadley Rille and M-Brane SF, as well as zines such as Everyday Weirdness, Nossa Morte, and Byzarium. He is an advocate for sensible copyright and Creative Commons licensing, a member of the Outer Alliance (supporting his GBLTQ counterparts in the genre community) and a Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist. His novella, Elegant Threat, is due out in April as half of the M-Brane SF Double. He can be found online at nithska.blogspot.com. Things We Are Not, originally published in Things We Are Not from M-Brane Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
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