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Majoring in Semtex

by Sam Buckley

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Back in the town, he slowed and was subsumed by shadows and the first pulses of commuters. He drew looks. Engine sounds echoed across the rooftops. Arriving home, a double-shot of endorphins and dopamine kicked in and he flew about the flat, overexcited and murmuring nonsensical diatribes and fevered recollections to himself.

In the excitement he could recall only images and associations, shreds of the experience. Brycke’s reddened face, uglier than usual. His voice like a bored predator’s. Trees black in the scant light. Blue sky intensifying as day approached. Beers. Guns leaning. Mud everywhere.

The machines were patrolling, the sounds of them growing and fading over agonising minutes and then hours. He alternated between foolish euphoria and rambling fury and rat-like terror as what turned out to be a beautiful clear spring morning progressed.

Frantic knock. Rourke’s mad voice on the intercom.

‘They’ve got Moneyfishes,’ Rourke said, flying through the door and continuing to speak at length about something Keyte hadn’t the presence of mind to follow.

Keyte, peering through the blinds, caught his first glimpse of something above the madness of blue lights and scuffles. Another type of machine was in attendance, helping direct police operations: the Moneyfish, which resembled a jellyfish crowned with a rim of tapering metal spines. Below its main body, saucer-like, was a tangle of twitching arms stubbed with cameras and claws and fast-firing guns which picked enemies out and shredded them.

The Moneyfish was so named because it was the ultimate target for anyone who dared face one. Keyte did not; indeed, he was mesmerised by them whenever he saw them, the strange beauty of their waltzes through the air, the flourishing and speedy way they whisked away troublemakers.

Rourke burbled on while the arrests and commotion played out. Keyte watched the proceedings on the news, which labelled them all terrorists, and slowly drank three bottles of vile, home-brewed alcoholic swill.

The near-pornographic phone videos of the destruction of the Tetris played and replayed-angle after angle, shaky style after shaky style. Some viewpoints moved teasingly away from the detonation, catching glimpses of the rippling body, the dazzling flourish of flame and steam, the rupturing, the fall of boiling material. One video slavishly followed one half of the machine as it bowed and plummeted, a grim black comet in the morning sky.

Keyte’s trance was interrupted by a disgusting low growl of approval, which he realised came from Rourke. In a state of paranoia starting to be skewed by moonshine, he nearly threw Rourke out but restrained himself and watched the continuing news reports drift to the manhunt.

Rourke rambled about the explosion like a depraved masturbator about a nubile colleague. Luckily the power gave out for four hours, necessitating more drinking and provoking less conversation from Rourke, who was always terrified by outages.

It took the full day for things to die down, and the streets remained heavily patrolled, with checkpoints set up on choice roads. Pervasive surveillance of rural areas and known dissident paths.

* * *

On the second day, a rash of major incidents shook the town with bombs destroying checkpoints and molotovs hurled at footmen within a half-hour of the Moneyfish having left to concentrate on greater violence elsewhere. Keyte and Rourke, one aching and the other slavering for more carnage, slithered into the crowds outside and split up in the suburbs to loop round to the plantation.

Whoever had coordinated the attacks today — Keyte liked to think that no-one had and that it had happened spontaneously — had effectively disabled the authorities, and it was easy enough to flow into the peripheries of the plantation and take stock.

The crash site and the damage that it had done had radiated outwards, eating into the plantation like some necrotising flesh bug. Amidst the blackened, overturned tree trunks, he found a crater yet more charred than its surroundings, which were honeycombed with bulletholes: an ammo dump that had cooked off. He moved back to the green areas to find an untouched dump. He hoped for helium tanks and balloons, or remote-controlled drones for an easy kill, a quick fix.

Flies and mosquitoes circled him. He became aware of people scurrying back and forth, and froze with paranoia in the lee of an oak. Gnarled roots like withered veined skin breaking through the ground, and branches reaching like skeletal hands across the gloom under the canopy. Though sheltered from the greater heat of the day by the treetops, he broke out in a sweat.

Rourke came out of the shadows like a swamp monster, flanked by other mooks, clapping him on the back. All good, all good.

And he supposed that this young thing, uncomfortable in her skin, squirming in the presence of the human filth surrounding her, this was Bryn. How strange it was to look on youth again. Youthful nervousness. Uncertainty. And was there a hidden optimism there?

They came across some winding structures resembling skeletons amid the ashes and blackened trunks: only stinking, melted flat as no human bone would be, webbed with sludge...

Rourke was counselling Bryn on the nature of the work, equal to the most dubious peptalks Keyte had heard in his youth, the counsel of madmen. All at once he was seized by a murderous rage. He thought of striking Rourke down with a rock, of exterminating all trace of his endless, worthless words by killing the girl too. But onlookers... no time... no chance...

They came upon the very scourge itself, its soft physical guise. Keyte was beyond horrified by what he saw. It was as he had been warned but, of course, he hadn’t truly believed it, no-one did. But there they were: disgusting, priapic, besuited and bemasked, like gargantuan worms with stub arms. They prompted such revulsion from the company that several automatic weapons went off almost by accident.

The worms’ suits were breached and, at these points of egress, huge torrents of sweating suffocating flesh leapt out into the lethal atmosphere, and a twin chorus of strangulating screeches and whooping rose.

Eventually these suits tore completely like cheap dresses — someone handed Keyte a Cobray — and the exposed flesh swelled and exploded vein by vein, unleashing a smell that sent many, Keyte and Bryn included, puking. As he managed spasms of vomit the flamers moved in and destroyed everything up ahead.

As it burned, Rourke spieled at the poor gagging girl, telling horrible lies, trying unsuccessfully to conceal lust and coercion, and Keyte levelled his Cobray at them both.

One man said: ‘Keyte, what the hell—’

Another said: ‘Chill out, dude.’

A third said: ‘He’s freaking.’

Rourke had at once regained his childhood, staring at him with big brown eyes lit by the flames. Bryn had halted on the path to cruel maturity.

Many — including even Rourke — seemed to show understanding, even absolution.

Did Rourke really deserve this? Who decided? These lunatics? Would they stand here, watch the murder, and register their verdict by condoning?

Keyte lowered the gun with tears and smoke and heat stinging his eyes. He realised that he had been screaming in fury so intense that it had him crying. As he continued to cry, sickened, in the thick smoke, he thought, How will they judge me now?

But they weren’t judging him.

They were no longer even looking at him.

They were looking at the trees.

Because the trees were moving. And a silver, saucer-shaped body was moving gently through the canopy. Twenty arms moved together, parting the trees like curtains.

Copyright © 2016 by Sam Buckley

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