See death. See death conquer. Death conquers all.
See the bloated human corpses. See the alien conquerers. The alien conquerers are squat and mauve and desolated. See them cry. What have they done?
See the alien playleader Contemptuous stride through the ruins. Contemptuous has lost his mating group. They died of a bad missile. Poor, poor mating group. Poor Contemptuous.
Contemptuous likes to play. The alien conquerers like to play. The aliens do not like to kill. They do not kill with malice aforethought.
The aliens play with good missiles. They play with xenoforming nanotechnology. Their missiles do not hurt them. Boom, boom! See?
Humans like to play, too. Why are the humans playing with missiles? They should not play with the alien conquerers. They should not play with Contemptuous. Contemptuous will be cross. Why do humans play with missiles? Sodding bastards.
Now there is movement. Look, Contemptuous, look! There is movement! There are humans! They are not all dead. Death did not conquer them.
See Contemptuous run. He runs with abandon. He runs to the humans, blaring with joy.
The humans have breathing apparatus. The humans have guns. See them shoot Contemptuous! How joyfully they shoot! Their bullets make tiny holes. One hole goes in. One hole comes out.
Contemptuous wants to play with guns. He will play, too. His nanotech symbiants are making a gun. Contemptuous shoots them. What fun to play! The humans fall down. They are good at playing.
Contemptuous loses bodily fluids. Now he is cross. Why must he lose bodily fluids? They pool on the ground like old fryer oil.
Contemptuous sees his mating group. He sees them in a vision. Stay, mating group, stay! The vision is only neurochemical. There is no afterlife. Contemptuous feels cold. Poor Contemptuous!
See darkness. Fall, darkness, fall! Darkness falls fast.
Something was trying to crawl out of the pool. Cele turned on the light. The carpet was wet all the way to the couch. A lobefin squeezed its eyes shut against the glare, then opened them again and dragged itself past the TV towards her.
“Urrk,” it croaked, and pushed up on its forelimbs. A low wave ran up behind it from the dark, quiet sea that had replaced the wall. The wave ran under the couch, and presumably was soaked up by the remaining dry part of the carpet.
“Tim,” Cele called over her shoulder, “Fish!”
Her husband came in from the kitchen. “Kelly’s pool’s a bit full. I’ll drive ‘em down to the river in the morning.”
“I think they taste good.”
“Cook ‘em then.” But Tim was such a good cook anything she made would be a disappointment. She sighed.
“Tell you what. In the morning I’ll drop them off at St. Mark’s, instead. They can cook some coelacanth steaks for the clients and it won’t go to waste.”
Cele smiled and got to her feet. “You are so good to me! I don’t deserve it.” She patted him as he staggered by with the lobefin in his arms.
In the shower she had to shut her eyes. Sunlight shone in from where the ceiling used to be with blinding intensity. Her thoughts drifted to Tim. Immersed in an erotic daydream, Cele took a while to realize she wasn’t imagining her body shaking. Her eyes shot open. The shower stall shook to a heavy beat. It reminded her of that scene in “Jurassic Park;” with the ponderous but swift footsteps of an approaching tyrannosaur. She looked up.
Tim dashed up the stairs. Cele was standing in the hall, shrieking and trembling. He encircled her with his arms and stroked her, making calming noises. Eventually he got her to tell him what was wrong.
“You’re shivering,” he said. “Go put something on. I’ll check the shower.” He opened the bathroom door and strode inside. A few moments later he came back out. “I don’t see any…. Cele?”
A wet area on the carpet marked where she had stood. He hunted all through the apartment and found no more trace of her than that. Unless you count a two-inch placoderm, flopping on the bedroom floor in front of her open closet.
If he weren’t already dead— head torn off of his neck with a thick, tearing sound, and I swear I can still taste the blood that fountained up and spattered my face—I’d kill him all over again. John was the one who was going to live through the robot apocalypse—he had been making sure of it for years. Oh, he didn’t know it would be robots, not for sure. He had been prepared for it to be any of a number of apocalypses. It could have been the classic zombies or cold war fallout; the earth could have been struck by an asteroid, the sun could have winked out, a wolf could have eaten the moon. He was prepared for any eventuality: canned food, a wall of weapons. Survival guides, handbooks, medical kits, medical-grade pharmaceuticals, and extra can openers. He had trained himself to make knots, suture a wound, and had a pretty good idea of how to restructure and rebuild a society that had been decimated by a virus so virulent you’d think it had a mind of his own.
The point is—he was ready. He knew everything. And he told me, a throb in his voice and his hand on his heart, that he’d protect me. I told him, I don’t want to live through the apocalypse. I told him, just let me fall into the crack that splits the earth in two, and don’t worry about fishing me out. Just figure out how to stick the two sides of the whole back together, and get on with things.
You’ll think differently when it happens, he said.
Not likely, I said. I’m afraid to say I snorted, in a derisive way. I turned the page in the June 25th issue of The New Yorker.
I’ll keep you alive no matter what, he said.
Don’t bother, I said airily.
He should have listened to me. I mean, you know it’s my fault he died. Lunging to shove me out of the way of the pincer-clawed, traction-treaded harvester, he took the blow that was meant for me. I was so tired of running, and I didn’t think he had seen me stop. I didn’t think he had seen me turn and throw my hands up and say Fine! Okay! You win! He hadn’t believed I really meant it. Worse, I hadn’t believed he had meant it, either.
This is the final piece in the Hollow Men series. Three others have appeared (now revised): part I, part II and part III.
The way to the land leviathan, half-submerged in sand, was dry and empty. At dawn I dug a shallow trench and draped a cloth over the top to bury myself under. At dusk I cut succulents for their amassed water, gathered my gear, and marched on. Ahead the glowing eyes of the leviathan winked sleepily beneath the lamplight of the moon.
My heart panged slightly as the memory of a breeze rustled distant poppies, of the glorious waxing-moon colloquies on the probability of existence, the purpose of purpose, and the electability of those electing to use nonexistent words. Yet I could no longer lay with my hands pillowing my head and chew the stems of bittersweet clover, much as I longed to sense the heat of a companion’s elbow seeping into mine. The world swelled with too much.
As the hours waned into morning, details of the leviathan’s general features spread apart: no longer a lounging leviathan but a ramble of crumbling buildings left to ruin. When light pooled at the horizon, what had been eyebrows raised into an archway of tiny wedding bells weakly, brokenly tinkling their march. The leviathan’s eyes became nothing more than mundane dimension portals. The images that the portals cast drew me closer.
The scenes were vaguely familiar, changing each time as the eyelid of one screen slid over another: me as a child I’d dreamed of was laughing and log-rolling all the way down to the bottom of the screw, the giant man my imagined self had assembled crossed deserts and mountains in a few strides, and me again as a man attaching pipes to construct a bridge spanning the screws. One corner of my mouth drew up. I touched the portal screen to visit these alternate realities, but a tough if thin, milky film separated me from penetrating this eye. It further hardened and clouded over under my palm while I pondered the dwarf’s warning, the silliness of dreams, and the water leaking from my eyes.
They closed, and I dreamed of piecing together a giant to help me build bridges. The screen softened, my hand slid through, and I toppled.