A couple of months ago, working with horror author Rob E. Boley, iHorror ran a contest. The winner of the contest would receive a personalized horror story that would be published here on our site. The moment is finally here! Our contest winner, Ian Murphy, answered a series of questions about his life and his personal ideas on horror, and Boley crafted a story to perfectly fit his responses. I’m pleased to present this Lovecraftian story for all our readers! Congratulations, Ian!
Low Hanging Sun
Rob E. Boley
The evening’s darkness is fading in when the Faithful come to kill the man once known as Murphy. He’s standing near the end of a long ticket line that stretches all the way from the New Theatre to the edges of Lunar Acres—the floating fortress that houses the last scraps of human civilization. He stares into the water, entranced by a glistening blood slick and pondering the precipice of past and present.
Their squishy footsteps register too late. When he pivots and throws up an elbow, a rusty blade dives into his shoulder. Sharp agony crackles inside the wound. He grunts and thrusts his palm into his hooded attacker’s face. Its monstrous head snaps backward.
Dusk’s greenish light shimmers on its scaly face. Goggles cover its eyes. He yanks the hose running from its nostrils to its neck gills. Greenish blue blood arcs through the air. He unsheathes his sword and uses his attacker as a shield. As he expected, at least two more charge forward. Metal clangs against metal.
His own hood falls backward, revealing his scarred right cheek and the long knotted braids of the beard covering the left half of his face.
“It’s Halfbeard!” a boy yells.
Many in the assembled crowd applaud. A few try to start a chant, but like a stubborn flame chewing wet wood it doesn’t take. The children watch his grisly work, eyes full of wonder. Their parents clutch leather bags filled with scales.
His palms and feet smolder angrily. He stabs and slices at his attackers. His sword gashes a Faithful’s throat. It gurgles and hisses. His shoulder screams as he pivots and slashes another. He cracks the neck of the first attacker—now bleeding from multiple stab wounds—but doesn’t let the body fall. Time to give the crowd what they want—and provide himself a distraction. He shifts behind his victim, a female. No matter. Her breasts make it easier to hold upright. He steadies his blade horizontal below its belly. The metal’s ridged close to the guard, and he scrapes it upward.
Cool-colored scales pop off the bitch’s belly, revealing pale flesh beneath. The scales clatter onto the wooden dock, and the crowd lunges forward cheering and cursing all at once. He scrapes two more times before letting the stripped corpse thud downward. Replacing his hood and sheathing his sword, he steps away from the swarming mob.
Sharp pain flares in his chest.
And then again.
He looks down.
Two thick harpoons now jut out of his pectoral muscles. Someone shot him from behind. The Faithful were a distraction for the real attack, a way of flushing him out.
“Motherfucker,” he says, the words already seasoned with blood.
Three staggered steps later, he stumbles off the dock and splashes into the ocean. As he sinks below, he reads the painted banner spread over the boardwalk one last time. Tonight: World Premier of the Legend of Halfbeard!
Bubbles swarm around him. He flails at the water and fumbles at the spears protruding from his chest, making little progress with either. The putrid ocean drags him down.
More than a lifetime ago, Murphy woke with something slippery and thick wiggling in his gut. The air lay salty on his chalky tongue. He hadn’t remembered drinking that much, and yet here he was on the couch and not his bed wearing only a torn bathrobe from which several tattoos peeked curiously out at this strange new day. He rose on unsteady legs, and the floor lurched beneath him. The bottoms of his feet ached as if he’d walked across hot asphalt. The hell?
He stagger-limped down the hall. His bedroom door—across from the bathroom—stood open. Last night’s tips from the bar lay crumpled and scattered on the floor next to his dusty guitar case. The pockets of his jeans were turned inside-out as if the denim was shrugging “whatchagonnado.” He shook his head. Those bills and coins should’ve been breeding in a bank instead of slipping through his fingers. He’d never been good with money. You drink too much and save too little, is what she’d said before leaving for the last time. Now here he was in California and she might as well have been a world away. That was years ago, and still her words haunted him.
Only one door in the hallway was shut, the one that he and his housemate Keith subleased to a guy they privately called the Shut-In. He vaguely remembered being surprised to find the door open when he’d come home last night.
Wincing, he shuffled into the bathroom and tried to focus on the morning ritual ahead—watching The Daily Show, eating a bowl of Special K, and reading yesterday’s writing. He felt close on this current screenplay. This could be the one to finally pay off—the one to make him rich and famous and earn him a house right on the ocean. All he really wanted was to see one of his stories on the big screen. The money wouldn’t hurt, either. A beachfront house. He wanted to wake up with the ocean at this door.
The floor swayed again. He gripped the wall. Dull pain sizzled in his palm.
“Motherfucker,” he said, surprised at the grit in his voice.
He turned his palm over. His jaw dropped open. His heartbeat took up a jagged punk rhythm. The tender flesh of both his palms swelled upward as if he’d gotten a new tattoo, except there was no ink—only heat and soreness. He tilted both hands and caught maybe a slight glimpse of a simple yet foreign symbol. A stylized X or a distorted star. Leaning against the wall, he checked the bottoms of his feet. They, too, had the same mysterious tenderness and raised flesh. His stomach groaned. The hell?
He limped to the toilet and pissed, gripping only with his fingertips in case the affliction was contagious. After flushing, he went to the mirror, fearful that he might see raised flesh on his face. Thankfully, only a few days of stubble marred his features.
Whatever had happened to his hands and feet, it probably needed cleaned. He turned on the shower. The water smelled a bit salty and wasn’t at all hot, but it’d have to do. He climbed inside and washed yesterday off of him, leaning all the while against the tile. His vertigo wasn’t improving but last night’s memories were coming back.
He’d come home relatively sober and the Shut-In greeted him with an ornate glass bottle—no label. The Shut-In had insisted he drink each shot the same way, bending over the table and grasping the wooden shotglass between his teeth—hands outstretched—then leaping upward so that his feet left the ground. In mid-air, the liquor barreled down his throat. He’d ended the shot upright, arms stretched to the sky, and spit out the wooden glass.
“Ahoy,” he’d said, per The Shut-In’s instructions.
He remembered many such shots, and his mysterious sub-leaser ranting about rising tides and global reckonings and buried treasures and ill-fated awakenings.
“Ahoy,” he said now. “Dammit.”
Leaning on the tile, he squirted a dollop of shaving cream onto the back of his hand and spread it onto his checks and neck. He scraped a vertical stripe down his right cheek. Several scrapes later, the house lurched sideways.
He almost fell except he grabbed the shower curtain rod, which broke free from the wall and he fell anyway, tangled in the shower curtain. The floor smacked his shoulder.
“The hell?” he said.
He figured it to be an earthquake although the motion felt too protracted and smooth. Floorboards creaked a whale’s sorrowful song. He rose, naked and dripping water. The house jerked again, harder this time. Something clomped across the roof. He tied on his robe and wiped the shaving cream off the unshaven left half of his face.
When he flung open the door, the house lurched again and knocked him backward. A shelf in the family room crashed. Glass sprinkled across floor. He crab-walked down the hall instead. The Shut-In’s room had a window that faced the backyard. He scrabbled backward on aching palms and feet until his shoulders nudged the closed door.
He crawled inside and sniffed. The room stank of musty sweat and candle wax and beneath that the slippery scent of something dead. Enough sunlight seeped through the drawn blinds over the bed to show him an array of coastal maps, sketches, and handwritten poems covering almost every inch of wall space. Red pins marked spots along the ocean’s shore on the maps. The sketches showed bizarre creatures emerging from the sea—massive beasts with tentacles and many furrowed eyes and spiky scales and bloated sacs. Some spewed fire. Others wielded long barbed whips. Printouts from chat rooms gave instructions for strange recipes and bizarre rituals.
Wrinkling his nose, he climbed onto the bed to open the window. The mattress groaned. When he pulled up the blinds, his heart twitched.
His brain whirled in his skull.
No land. No houses. No cars. No neighbors.
His home floated freely upon the ocean. In the sky, swirling storm clouds threatened to swallow the low-hanging sun.
Where had the world gone?
He fell sideways, striking something rigid covered by the blanket. It felt like—holy shit—a leg.
His heart hammered even harder, which seemed impossible. His trembling hand pulled back the thick blanket. The stink of death intensified. Keith’s face stared upward with dull eyes at the ceiling. He grabbed his friend’s shoulder and his exposed innards squished and sloshed below. He fell off the bed and slammed onto the floor.
At the same time, something crashed out in the living room, followed by heavy footsteps. He looked down the hall in time to see an inhuman silhouette come into view. Alien voices exchanged syllables that sounded like drunken whale songs. Head spinning, he scooted backward under the bed.
Footsteps hurried down the hall. Two pairs of alien feet shuffled into view—scaly flippers stuffed into wooden slippers. The contents of a shelf crashed to the ground. More drunken whale song.
Murphy’s eyes went wide. He tried to slow his breathing, but his lungs were fiery pistons. He squeezed his hands into fists. The grisly image of Keith’s corpse kept flashing behind his eyes.
A cool hand rested on the back of his neck. He almost screamed.
A voice behind him said, “It’s okay. They can’t hear you. They’re practically deaf up here above the sea.”
He flinched with each word, expecting the monsters to yank the bed upward and cut him open like a fish. Like Keith. But if the creatures heard the voice, they didn’t show it.
“Is that you?” he said, struggling to remember the Shut-In’s name.
“What’s left of me.”
“What happened to Keith? What are those things? What the hell is going on?”
“I offered Keith to Gwanvobitha. It was necessary to complete the Summoning. The Undying Lord has blessed our world with his appearance. Unfortunately, our god has rivals. Ours was not the only Summoning. The battle is done. Now we wait for the gods to rise again, for no god ever truly dies. That which has no birth can have no real death.”
While the Shut-In ranted, Murphy turned his head—scalp and jaw wedged between box spring and floor. He almost gasped when he saw his housemate. All color had been drained from his face, which now leered back at him with eyes sunk deep into the skull. When he spoke, teeth fell out of his mouth and sprinkled on the floor.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“I was going to be remade in our Undying Lord’s image, but now that image rots. I am a ruin, but you, you will fare well in this new world.”
“What did you do to me last night?”
“What did you do to Keith?”
“Fare well,” the Shut-In shouted.
“Shut up,” he whispered.
The deranged sub-leaser shoved the bottom of the bed upward so that it slammed back against the floor. His pale lips retracted into a rictus smile. An incisor popped free. Flipper feet clomped across the floor.
“Fare well,” his housemate said again.
A slippery tentacle latched onto Murphy’s ankle. Terror boiled over in his chest. He tried to kick free but was yanked backward. He was now halfway out from under the bed. At any moment, he expected his exposed legs to be stabbed, pummeled, or crushed. Panic swarmed in his skull. He grabbed the Shut-In’s wrist. The bones inside the feverish flesh crackled beneath Murphy’s grip.
The Shut-In’s smile collapsed into a sneering grin. He giggled or perhaps sobbed, impossible to tell which.
“Damn you,” Murphy said. “Help me.”
“I already have.”
Murphy squeezed even harder. Another tentacle gripped his other ankle. The creatures tugged. Something jabbed into his ribs, and pain flared inside him. The Shut-In’s wrist collapsed, now no bigger than a twig. His grip slid downward past the wrist to the hand, in which fragile bones snapped and popped.
The creatures yanked again. He lost his grip. They lifted Murphy into the air. He flopped and flailed, now face-to-face with one of the creatures. Its face was a slimy mosaic of ridged shells crammed inside a disco ball-sized glass bowl filled with seawater. Seaweed braids floated along either side of its face. Shells and glistening muscles made up its torso, which sat perched upon what looked like two massive lobster tails. Six chunky arms protruded from its sides, each holding mucky blades forged from long spines and cemented upon a guard made of coral and shell. It stank of fish and sewage.
They hustled him out the front door, where a bizarre sailing vessel was moored. Several masts protruded like spines from its multiple decks, which seemed to be composed of bones and wood and frozen sand. Leathery sails drooped from the masts.
He’d not see the sun again for a terribly long while.
In the bowels of the ship, the creatures strapped him to a table and pressed a red-hot branding iron to the shaven right side of his face.
Searing heat burst upon his cheek, echoed by the invisible tattoos simmering on his hands and feet. He bucked and screamed. When the Faithful pulled the iron away, bits of charred flesh clung to it. The scent of burnt skin stabbed his nostrils.
They flipped him onto his belly, forced a slick leathery sack over his head, and bound his hands behind his back. Something wet and slippery slid over his left pinky, and he feared that this was some kind of alien foreplay. They yanked the wetness away, tearing his pinky nail with it and leaving behind only the torn nail bed and searing agony. He screamed into his sack.
A rattling noise that he’d come to recognize as laughter echoed in the darkness.
The slipperiness slid over his left ring finger.
“Please,” he said. “Don’t.”
One by one, they ripped the nails from his fingers and toes. When it was done, tentacles and flippers lifted him into the stuffy air. Wood and metal groaned and clicked all around him. He could feel no breeze and so assumed himself to be in the belly of the horrid ship.
The beasts tossed him into nothingness. His head spun. His belly twirled. He landed sideways on something at once hard and soft. Someone gasped beneath him. He’d landed on a pile of bodies, some alive and others as lifeless as sacks of rice. A guttural groan emitted from the person he’d landed on. He grasped with his bound hands, clutching first soft belly and then softer breast. A woman. She grunted and twisted away.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She responded only with slurred grunts and weeping. Dread sloshed in his veins as he imagined what they’d done to her. Broken her jaw? Cut out her tongue? More groans and sobs peppered the darkness. Fear and nausea tangled in his belly and bubbled up his throat. He dry-heaved into the bag covering his head.
The ship sailed on.
Minutes stretched into hours into days, punctuated only by the door creaking open. Sometimes, their captors would stab him in the spine with something sharp and hot. It seemed like torture at first but later he decided it must’ve been some kind of nutrition. Other times, the monsters dropped fresh captives onto the pile. Some could still speak.
“It started with a shooting at an orphanage in Seattle,” an insurance agent from Kansas City said, “and then news broke of several synchronized killings in Japan. Next was Portugal. The reporters called it terrorism at first.”
“I was up late playing Mortal Kombat online,” said a female substitute teacher from Denver, “when suddenly my opponent vanished mid-match. I got up to get a drink and happened to check the news. Cellphone footage had leaked from a crime scene in Charleston. Gruesome images of bloody pentagrams and other symbols.”
A cafeteria worker from Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu was woken by a call from his boyfriend. “He said the whole base was on alert, that some disturbance had been detected in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. When I lost the call, I turned on the t.v. and saw about all the murders. Then there was footage captured from the Atlantic Ocean. A giant claw rose upward. There were tsunami warnings. And then my apartment was floating in the water. Whatever magic kept it from sinking also kept the water running.”
Day after day, the prisoners existed in dank darkness. Hunger gnawed at Murphy’s stomach. The prisoners took shifts sleeping on top of one another in the narrow hole. Not all survived the journey. Corpses made decent enough beds if you broke the bones just right.
After what must have been weeks, an abrupt shudder wracked the whole vessel. The door above creaked open, and he braced for either another falling prisoner or a shot in the spine. Instead, something slimy and long wrapped around him and hoisted him upward.
“What’s happening?” he said. “Please stop.”
His fellow prisoners offered similar pleas and questions and prayers. He was carried onward, first through cold draft—fresh air—then into stifling heat.
Slimy hands unbound his hands and spread his arms wide. His muscles screamed. His captors hung him spread-eagled upon a rough wall. At long last, the bag was removed from his head.
His starved eyes nearly gagged on the dim light. He squinted into the face of a monster, except this one wore goggles and not a glass bowl. Black tubes ran from its nostrils to gills at its neck. Shiny scales covered its sunken belly.
He was still wearing what was left of his bathrobe, and they’d strapped him to the inner wall of a circular shaft. The monster in front of him stood on a narrow wooden catwalk that circled the diameter of the shaft. Other catwalks were anchored below and above, and more than a dozen humans—some naked, others clothed—were hung upon the walls at each level. The catwalks were made of salvaged wood and metal, but the shaft’s wall felt soft and rough like a cat’s tongue.
The monsters anchored other humans to the curved wall on either side of him. Most of the creatures had glass globes on their heads, but some wore goggles and tubes. When they’d bound the final prisoner, the monsters each pulled a thick hose out of the wall and spoke into them, their voices slippery and slurry and amplified in the chamber.
“Welcome to the Pain Engine. You who are not among the Faithful will now suffer for our Lord Glandrictial. You will resurrect that which cannot be killed, that which is ever unborn and thus ultimately eternal.”
“Wait,” he said. “Please.”
The Faithful ignored him. It held the hose in front of him. A sharp barb protruded from its end, like three fishing hooks held together by rust.
“This is your connection to your new God,” they said. “Now you will worship at the altar of suffering.”
It punched him in the gut and he gasped. The Faithful shoved the tube between his teeth. He tried biting down, but it wiggled down his throat like a thick worm. He choked and convulsed and sputtered as it undulated inside him and twisted into his gut. All around him, his fellow prisoners writhed and whimpered and gagged.
The tube’s movements ceased. He hung limp and sweaty on the wall. His neighbors eventually went still, too. The only noise was vague squirming in the dark levels above and below.
“From the watery ashes of your world, your new god will live again and still and always,” the Faithful said. “Give yourself wholly to this holy blessing.” After a beat, they said, “Amen.”
A storm of agony raged instantly inside him, a blender razing his insides and chewing at his secret nooks and crannies. He screamed around the tube. They all did, and the tubes amplified the screams in the shaft so that the noise cut into his brain. Blood dripped from his ears.
The agony continued day after day. He could only gauge time by the thickening of his beard, which sprouted slowly only from the unbranded half of his face.
The hateful tube in his gut must’ve provided some form of nourishment, because he didn’t die from dehydration, though hunger constantly lurked beneath the sharper pains stabbing inside him. Usually the Hurt—which is what he came to call the hose—stayed in his gut. Other times, it burrowed into his thighbones or choked his tender lungs or probed inside his groin. It was a like a miner searching constantly for uncharted pockets of suffering.
When the Hurt touched him in a special new way, his spine tensed and he screamed around the tube and his ears throbbed and his bladder drizzled what little it held. The Hurt rarely let him sleep, keeping him on the fringes of lunacy. He had conversations with long-dead pets. He saw rain where there was none—purple fat globs of gleaming liquid.
By the time his half beard tickled his chest, a Faithful yanked the Hurt out of his face. He tried to curse at his tormentors but could only croak a few syllables.
His captors pulled him and the other prisoners off of the wall. The others fell to the catwalk like ragdolls. He somehow had the strength to stand but let himself topple. The Faithful stacked them on a cart and as they were wheeled away, other Faithful hosed down the now bare wall.
They dumped the prisoners inside a deep, gated trench that stank of rot. He crawled over twitching flesh and feeble bones, uselessly cocked elbows and pointless hipbones.
“Finish him,” said the female substitute teacher from Denver, her voice now shredded. “Fatality.” He saw her break the arm of her dead neighbor—a compound fracture that she used to carve a jagged gash in her own throat.
Later, he used her belly as a pillow and fell into deep sleep until a tentacle raised him out of the trench. The Faithful sorted the prisoners into two piles—living and dead. He was apparently among the living, and tossed onto a cart whose wheels squeaked like mice.
The Faithful lifted him back onto the wall along with his fellow survivors and a new batch of recruits.
“Welcome to the Pain Engine,” the Faithful said.
Time stretched onward. His beard grew past his pectoral muscles which inexplicably bulged larger. It was as though the Hurt was feeding off of him, but his tattooed palms and feet were somehow siphoning strength from it, as well.
With each new visit to the trenches, he found himself surrounded by scrawny bodies and yet he grew stronger, arms now toned and hard like wet rope. The prisoners with which he’d first arrived had all died.
In the trenches, he first tasted human flesh. It was the first pleasure he’d known since forever, and he swallowed mouthfuls of thigh until his belly ached. Later, he took other pleasures from his fellow prisoners. Some women seemed to enjoy it, though he preferred when they resisted. He clutched them with tingling palms and afterwards wept for his lost humanity.
He feared that the Faithful would realize how long he’d endured and how strong he’d become, but soon realized that he was just cattle to them—another faceless cog in their god-making machine.
When his half beard reached past his pale chiseled abdomen, he conjured a foolish plan. He sought neither meat nor sex in the trenches. No, now he needed guts.
He tore the intestines out of a man with the Ohio state flag tattooed on his forearm. He stretched them on the thick bars covering a drainage hole and left the drawn gut tied in the trench.
Another cycle passed.
He twisted the gut strands together to make six long strings and polished them with a human heart.
Another cycle passed.
He constructed a small instrument using a hipbone and spine. He sorted through the many bones of a woman’s hand to find a suitable pick.
The Pain Engine had two doors—one leading to the trenches and one through which new prisoners entered. That door remained open only long enough for the cartload of new cattle to enter—a narrow window of opportunity.
The two doors stood at opposite sides of the shaft. He’d have to fight all the way around, and there were never less than a dozen Faithful on hand.
Hence, the Gore Guitar.
The last time the Faithful took him from the trenches, he’d stuffed pieces of tongue into either ear and tucked the guitar inside his tattered robe. They tossed him on the cart. The wheels whined below him as it shuddered down the tunnel. The Pain Engine’s door sludged open. The cart passed through. More than a dozen Faithful waited to mount their meat upon the wall.
Time to rock these motherfuckers.
He clutched the Gore Guitar and leapt off the cart. Guards bellowed. He shoved a scrawny prisoner at the nearest Faithful. They fell in a heap. He yanked the Hurt out of the wall and shoved the tube onto the guitar strings.
Bone pick in hand, he struck a series of notes—an amplified screech that made the walls tremble. Even with his makeshift earplugs, the piercing song still jabbed into his brain. The prisoners screamed. The guards wearing fishbowls fell on hands and knees. The ones with goggles clutched their heads.
He kept strumming. His forearms ached. His fingertips burned. Soon blood made the guitar strings slippery.
The guards staggered closer, brows furrowed.
He dropped to one knee and strummed with all his might. Sweat poured off his face. The closest guard unsheathed a spiny sword. It lurched closer, its shadow now sliding over him. Please. Please. His right hand blurred with concentrated motion. His left fingers probed and pressed strings, hoping to find the note that would bring his salvation.
The guard raised the sword. Murphy kept on strumming.
All at once, the globes covering the majority of the guards’ heads shattered. Glass and stank water sprayed in all directions, tinkling over his shoulders and stinging the back of his neck. The guard thrust his sword downward, but he lurched sideways and swung the Gore Guitar upward. The evil instrument shattered in a mess of strings. The guard spilled backward off the catwalk but not before Murphy relieved him of his sword.
Most of the guards now lay on the catwalk gulping uselessly at the dry air. Only four with goggles remained upright, and one stood closest to the exit doorway, in which a suffocating guard now lay twitching and gasping.
With a roar, Murphy fought his way toward the exit, stabbing and slashing. He felled the first guard. The fresh prisoners on the cart writhed and wrestled, but they were bound and of little help now. The second guard held up a short spear. Murphy charged, slamming the creature into the wall, stabbing him in the gut and snatching his weapon. He pivoted and threw the spear at the guard in the doorway. It struck him between the shoulder blades. He fell to the ground, bellowing a mournful song.
The fourth guard blew into a small spiral shell, which issued a deep note. Murphy stabbed the guard through the throat, but too late. The warning note already echoed throughout the Pain Engine. More guards would be coming.
He unbound the prisoners on the cart, a motley crew of four men and two women all with dirty hair, squinting eyes, sunburnt flesh, and many scars.
“Grab weapons,” he said. “We need to go now.”
He led them down the passage, a sword clasped in each pulsating hand. The first wave of guards attacked, and he dived amongst them like a man possessed, which in fact he supposed he was, because his feet and hands throbbed with vengeance seasoned by eons and spread across hundreds of worlds, and he knew himself to be a pawn in an ancient war but even a pawn can be the difference between victory and defeat. He decapitated one of the creatures with a ferocious slice of his blade and—grasping its still-twitching tentacles—used its skull as a mace until it was nothing but pulpy brain and bone fragments.
When the first battle was done, only three of the refugees remained fit enough to stand. One of the women had suffered a slash to the thigh and lay bleeding on the floor. He stabbed her in the eye—her remaining eye going all wide and staring stupidly at the blade—and ordered the others to follow him.
The guards seemed ill-equipped for resistance, for at every turn Murphy was greeted with looks of panic and surprise. He stumbled soon upon a kind of processing area where newly-arrived humans were being branded and bagged and bound and relieved of their fingernails. He liberated them and dispatched their tormentors.
“Come on, dammit,” he said, hating the grit in his Hurt-ravaged throat.
In the end, he led a band of perhaps twenty refugees through a narrow tube onto the surface of their prison. He expected to inhale fresh air but the outside smelled of rotten fish and sour rain. He expected sunlight and blue skies but instead found a half moon hanging crooked amongst green glowing stars. A strange haze hung in the sky, not eclipsing the stars but tainting them the color of pea soup. Their prison, he discovered, was the floating corpse of whatever god those idiots had chosen to worship. The dead thing sprawled so large that he was unable to see the full scope of it. If he had to guess, he’d imagine it larger than Manhattan.
He’d later learn that this god was one of several to have risen from some otherworldly portal beneath the ocean depths. Their immense bodies had flooded the globe—like a fat man plopped into a bathtub—and their corpses, along with the wreckage of human civilization, had soiled the seamless world-ocean.
The god’s flaccid tentacles sprawled outward for miles. Armored platelets the size of skyscrapers sunk into its festering flesh.
An assortment of houses and apartment buildings and even a barn floated inexplicably in the water, all lashed together with thick rope and docked beside the god’s corpse. His own home drifted among them. The same alien vessel that had been docked at his house floated on the edge of this strange conglomeration.
Schools of dead fish drifted in the water, eyes shriveled and mouths agape. Flocks of flightless birds floated amongst them, wings spread and torn like flightless angels.
“We’re going back for the others,” he said.
A thin man with a shaggy beard shook his head. “I won’t go back in there.”
The others murmured wary agreement. Anger swirled inside Murphy. In truth, he didn’t care about the tortured souls inside the Pain Engine, but he needed a larger crew and couldn’t gather them alone. So, he did what he did best—he wrote himself a script.
“Humanity may be near extinction,” he said. “Our brothers and sisters inside this corpse prison may be all that’s left. If we turn our backs on them, we may be turning traitor upon all humanity. This may be our only chance to save them from a life of suffering to feed the god whose Faithful have already taken so much from us. I, for one, cannot live with this weight pressed upon my soul.”
He almost laughed at these last words, for he knew that soul had long ago been crushed into a flimsy remnant.
“You can grab an oar and paddle for your freedom or you can take a sword and fight for humanity’s salvation.” He held up his bloody swords. The crowd fidgeted. He needed to close strong. He placed a hand over his chest. “Hold that choice in your heart. Let the answer echo in your veins.”
The bloodied and bleak crowd stared back at him, swaying upon the gigantic corpse. Diseased waves clapped upon the sagging god flesh. A seagull flew toward them from the endless ocean and crashed upon the decaying shore. It flopped and flailed before finding peace.
On the New Theatre’s well-lit stage, a dove—not a ragged seagull—flies over the assembled actors. It does not collapse but instead soars over the delighted crowd. The actor portraying Halfbeard places a hand—Pledge of Allegiance style—over his bulging chest and says, “Hold that choice in your heart, brothers and sisters, and let the answer echo in your veins.”
The words boom amongst the makeshift bleachers forged from iron and driftwood—now perches for a motley assortment of god miners, children, fishermen, city divers, and deity farmers.
Halfbeard himself sits deep in the audience. His tattered cloak hangs heavy with saltwater and more than a little blood. The wounds in his chest throb angrily. His damned hands and feet chew upon the pain, feeding it back to him.
He chuckles at the play and munches on a sliver of god jerky. The actor portraying him does a decent enough job and his bathrobe costume is shockingly similar to the real article. During one fight scene, his half-beard hangs loose from his face, but the audience appears too engrossed in the legend to care.
The writers of this farce have given him a love interest—a fierce dark-haired woman who serves as first mate in his many celebrated pirate adventures. Together, they and his loyal crew go on to kill many Faithful and save countless human lives. His bride is slain at the end of the first act by his nemesis, a Faithful General who nearly kills Halfbeard with a sinister trap involving submarines and dolphins.
In real life, he never had a bride. He took many lovers over the course of his travels—some willing and others not—but none lasted long. He never had a first mate, and his allegedly loyal crew consisted of mercenaries and criminals and slaves.
Nor did he have a nemesis.
He did survive countless assassination attempts, including tonight’s attack. And he still harbors a deep mistrust of dolphins. He did kill hundreds of Faithful, but also murdered countless humans and left only their corpses to tell the tale to nibbling fishes.
Halfway through the second act, his mood darkens. The actor on stage seems to mock his horrid existence. The cheers of the assembled audience only serve to anger him and exacerbate his self-loathing. No longer having an appetite, he hands the last of his god jerky to the child sitting next to him, pats the girl’s head, and strides out toward Lunar Acres’ cramped alleys.
“You’re leaving?” says the theatre worker manning the rear exit, a scruffy young man with neck tattoos and a hooked nose. “But the end has yet to come.”
Halfbeard shakes his hooded head. “I fear the end will never come.”
“It’s an inspiring tale, isn’t it?” the worker says. “I know it’s impossible, but I like to think Halfbeard is still out there—still sailing the seas and plaguing the Faithful and watching over all of us.”
“Why’s it impossible?”
“He’d be a hundred years old by now, hardly in any condition to hurt anyone.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Halfbeard says. “What about the incident earlier tonight? I heard the Faithful attacked a man that looked like Halfbeard.”
He shrugs. “Hard to say. Could have been street actors. Could have been one of the Halfbeard impostors. I’ve seen whole gangs of them, dumb kids with faces covered in tattoos and lame braided half-beards. No, he’s dead. He lives only in our hearts.”
“Tell me, son, what would you say to Halfbeard if you met him in these very streets on this very night?”
“Oh, I’d pat his back and thank him dearly for his many sacrifices.”
“And what would you offer him?”
The worker purses his chapped lips. “Whatever he wanted, I reckon.”
Halfbeard punches the man in the throat, crushing the tender bits that would vocalize a cry for help. He drags his victim flailing into a dark alley. The shadows stink of piss and rot. He wraps his throbbing hands over the worker’s neck and squeezes. The fool’s sunburnt face darkens. His eyes bulge.
All the while, the flesh of Halfbeard’s palms and feet tingle deliciously. He’s learned over the years not to gulp such meals like a hungry wolf, rather to sip the pain and fear. In doing so, he turns this man’s life from a meal into a banquet. Like a civilized man, he even uses a knife and fork.
As Halfbeard probes intestines with rusty tines, the victim twitches and convulses. In the distance, the audience cheers and claps and stamps their feet. His head goes all dizzy. The applause intensifies. He imagines the actors must be taking their bows. Perhaps the lead kisses his slain bride or feigns one final jab at his nemesis.
“Such things as heroes and villains are myths,” Halfbeard says to the bloody mess below him. “The real evil lurks inside us. It whispers under our beds and itches in our palms and dances beneath our feet.”
The mess squirms in response.
“Don’t worry. We’re almost done.”
Soon the crowd flows past. Boys and girls stab at each other with poorly made toy swords sold by the theatre. Men and women walk hand-in-hand, talking through wide smiles. When the last of them passes by and the lights of the New Theatre blink out, he clutches the man’s heart, embracing the final jerky beats.
“Is this where I live?” he says. “Here in your heart?”
The man shudders one last time. He tosses what’s left of him into the ocean’s greedy froth, pocketing his victim’s measly five scales.
He walks through dark streets to his old house, docked at the edge of Lunar Acres. His boots clomp over the roof, down the ladder, and onto the porch. From there, the ocean stretches endlessly in search of the sky. The two only ever meet in dreams.
The house stinks of death, no matter how much he cleans. It’s as though the space is haunted by the stench of his deeds. He could’ve moved a long time ago. Lord knows he can afford it, but it seems appropriate to stay here. Sometimes while napping on the couch, he can recall the man he once was before the world succumbed to the wrestling of alien gods. He undresses and takes the pilfered scales to Keith’s old room. He places them in a bulging fabric bag and updates his ledger. His fortune is obscene, filling the rooms formerly occupied by both Keith and the Shut-In.
At last, he settles into his bed. His old bathrobe—long ago converted into a pirate sash and covered with sloppy stitches and random patches—hangs on the wall.
Sleep claims him quickly.
He wakes up only once in the night hearing a kind of squishy shuffling in the darkness. His tired eyes probe the shadows. Across the hall, a pale puddle of flesh glistens in the greenish moonlight. It slides closer. Dread grips his spine.
The thing grins and whispers, “Go back to sleep. Forget.”
He means to grab his sword, but his palms and feet go numb, betraying him and anchoring him to the bed. His vision darkens. He hears the beast slide closer, now murmuring gibberish chants. Its flesh slides over him, cold and oily. He cannot scream. It whispers to him all night as it does its horrid work.
An eternity later, dawn drags itself out of the drowned world’s soggy edges. Halfbeard sits up and gasps. He staggers into the living room and opens the door. The world ocean licks at his porch. As always, the memory of last night’s visitation fades out. The low hanging sun crawls across his face, where a solitary tear withers and dries on his cheek. It leaves behind a salty trail.