This is a long story. A novella, maybe? Not sure. It’s long, anyway. For the purposes of copyright, let’s call it “creative commons”. You can print it out and read it for your own amusement. Pass it around. But don’t sell it or make a profit from it in any form. If it’s not making me money, why should it make you money? It was written over several months, and helped me resolve a few personal issues. Food. Hunger. Zombies. Aggression. Passivity. Dissociation. As far as I know, no one has read the story from start to finish except me. And I’ve read it dozens of times, each time tweaking passages. I love this story. Even though I’m not entirely sure what it is or what it’s about.
This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
There’s a kitchen inside my head. It’s filthy and dark. Some dim afternoon light shines through dirty windows. The fridge is open. Empty. Not running. The power seems to be out. All the cupboards are open, their contents gone. Empty cans are strewn everywhere. Other garbage – packages and wrappers and remnants of food – are on the counters, the table, the floor. And it stinks, like shit and piss.
In the middle of it all, on the floor, is a woman. I don’t know who she is, although she seems familiar to me. Her shirt’s torn and dirty, she’s naked from the waist down. And she’s lying in the garbage. It’s easy to miss her, almost as if she’s hiding in the mess.
Her mouth is mangled and torn – strips of skin hang off her face like folds of labia. Her teeth are shattered – jagged little stumps, cracked and bloody. They poke through the ripped flaps of her mouth. The flaps move slightly with each deep breath she takes. Is she sleeping? Or just pretending? I can’t tell. It’s very quiet and she lies there and nothing happens for a while. Her chest barely moves with her breathing.
Then there’s a small sound in the other room. As if an animal knocked something over. Maybe an empty can. The woman is on her feet, incredibly fast. Her mouth slams open and closed – the teeth smashing against each other. Is that how she broke them into nubs? The teeth make a “tok-tok-tok” sound as they repeatedly come together, an angry metronome. And she’s making this other sound, from deep in her stomach. Like a roar. It’s low at first, a little tremble. Almost a moan. She sprints into the room where the noise came from – the living room – and her roar grows louder.
There’s a rat, running along the wall, by the curtains. Her roar is painfully loud, nearly a scream. The woman dives on the rat and catches it in her hands. Her movements are a blur. She sloppily tears the rat apart – is she really so strong? And she shoves the torn chunks into her mouth as her teeth slam open and closed, tearing the rat all the more. Big pieces of rat – bone and hair and meat – go down her throat.
Her loud roaring scream wakes the neighbors. I can hear them stirring in their houses. Out the living room window, I can see other homes, see the shadows of people moving inside. They all smash their teeth together as they viciously open and close their mouths — “tok-tok-tok-tok”. Like dozens of demented woodpeckers. And they all make that same roaring screaming noise in their homes. It’s angry, and desperate, and hungry. Humans, animals, things.
In my head.
* * *
As with most disasters, it began with a sales job and a PowerPoint presentation.
“It’s about untapped technology,” I said, pausing dramatically. “There’s resource not being accessed because we simply don’t see it. We take it for granted. It may as well be invisible.”
“Evolution,” Brandon offered. My partner in crime. My assistant, my mirror image. “Evolution is an untapped resource.”
We were in a typically ostentatious boardroom of leather chairs and cold modern art. The lighting was dimmed, for my slideshow. The CEOs pretended to listen, statue stiff, with poker player faces.
“Evolution,” I repeated. “Evolution is going ignored.” I pushed a button and the projector jumped to the next screen. The word “EVOLUTION” in red letters on black. “Real technology has existed for, what? Three hundred years? Not even. We’ve gone from horse and buggy to space exploration in that small span of time. How long has evolution been going on?”
“Billions of years,” Brandon said.
“Evolution is…” I pushed the button and a definition flashed up on the screen. “…incremental changes over billions of years, assisting in the survival of a life form. What if we took our technology and married it to a biological creature? What if we could take an animal that has evolved for billions of years, and reshape it slightly – so it does something we can use?”
Brandon said, “Billions of years of evolution, at our disposal.”
“And now the technology is in place to make it happen.”
“But what animal? And what kind of technology?”
I pushed the button and a picture of shark flashed up on the screen.
Brandon asked, “Do you know how old the shark is?”
And I answered, “450 million years old. They were around long before any land animals even existed. They were around before most species of plants took root on the continent. What does it mean, that an animal has existed for so long?”
“Excellent design,” Brandon said.
“Exactly. When nature finds a design that works well, the design doesn’t change. Don’t mess with perfection.”
“Most car designs change every year,” Brandon offered.
“We can’t even get cars right. We’re always tinkering, improving – evolving. The shark, ladies and gentlemen, is perfect. And it has been perfect for nearly half a billion years. What if we could take that design and adapt it to our own needs?”
“What if we could use it?”
“What about a vehicle? What if we took a shark and fused it with technology and made a large underwater vehicle that could travel across the ocean?”
Ten minutes later, the presentation was over, and the lights were turned on. The statues – the gods of this massive high tech company – were transformed back into human beings. I found myself a little disappointed.
“Thank you Dale and Brandon, for your presentation,” a CEO said. I couldn’t tell you which one. They all look the same to me.
There were no questions. No one offered to shake our hands. Just another big waste of time.
Because the idea was ridiculous. Absolutely nuts. Who would fund such a stupid project? It was like something out of the Flintstones. A shark bus. A big shark – large as an airplane, that could travel across the ocean under the water.
In the parking lot, getting into our car, I said, “Well, that was fun. What do you want to do to round out another day of humiliation?”
Brandon answered with mock cheerfulness, “Well, Dale, I’m thinking we could beat our heads against a wall until we pass out.”
“Getting shit-faced might be more appropriate,” I said, and started up the car. “Christ, why do we…”
And then I turned off the car. Because through my windshield was an unbelievable sight. There, coming across the parking lot, was one of the CEO clones. He looked nervous and embarrassed. But the beautiful, unbelievable part was the fancy leather cheque book in his hands.
The man wrote the cheque out on the hood of our car. “To be honest, fellas, I feel like a lunatic. But our stock price is so high, we’ve got more money than sense. And you’ve got Chris Dollar working for you. If anyone can make a project like this work…”
“Chris is amazing,” Brandon agreed. “His brain has access to things most of us will never understand.”
“You won’t regret this,” I said.
The CEO let out a mocking snort. He handed the check to me. “Why a shark anyway, Dale? Why not something more lovable, like a dolphin?”
“Marketing,” I said flatly. The cheque was mine now, so fuck the sales pitch. “People love dolphins. We can’t tinker with something people love. There’d be protests. We may as well use baby seals. But sharks? No one likes sharks. ‘Jaws’ and pictures of carnage – that’s what sharks mean. It’ll be easier to give a bad animal a makeover than mess with something people love.”
“You guys are nuts,” the CEO said, and sighed. “But if you pull it off, we want a cut. That’s what it amounts to.” With his business over, he scurried away.
“They still won’t shake our hands,” I said.
“Who cares, so long as we get funding?”
I laughed. “You know what this means, don’t you?”
Brandon whispered gleefully, “We can stop stealing from the company and go legit?”
“No. We can start stealing more from the company and buy fancy sports cars.”
It was our first big money coup. Some suckers actually believed in the shark bus. Or maybe they just believed in Chris Dollar. I held the check up to the sun, staring through it, as if trying to prove to myself it was real. I’d never seen so many zeroes before.
* * *
And then, somehow, two years later, a shark bus prototype was built. Even as I saw it coming together, it seemed impossible. My boss, my best friend, Chris Dollar – somehow he made it happen. It almost made me feel guilty for all the money I’d been skimming off the top. If I’d known the shark bus was going to work, I never would have stolen so much. Hell, now that it looked like a reality, I was set for life.
The shark bus sat in a large warehouse, down by the marina. I had watched the bus come together through the observation deck windows, high above the lab. Only the eggheads were allowed to get up close to the thing. Sales staff were deemed unworthy. When at home, and worried the whole thing was some kind of crazy dream, I turned on my computer, logged on to the network, and watched it on the multiple security cameras, up close. And today, I’d be attending the big unveiling for the investors. I was actually going to get to touch the shark thing.
“It’s like a, like a horse,” Chris had said from the start. He was a little man, but a big dreamer. And not very good with words. “Human beings had horses, pulling their wagons. Man, and animal, they… They worked together. This, our project… It isn’t going to be any different. Oddly, it’s – it’s kind of a return to the old ways.”
Try saying that in a sales pitch – we’re reinventing the horse. No one writes a million dollar check for that. Horses! Jesus. I sold this thing. Nailed it. In a way, the project owed me the money I stole.
On his own, Chris was more than useless. The guy was so lost in thought, he needed help getting dressed in the morning. Otherwise he’d come to work in his underwear.
Back in the early days, Chris and I were going to do a pitch together – some huge software contract. The potential investors were excited, because Chris was a well known but reclusive science geek. Shy and awkward, he hardly ever met with anyone who didn’t have at least two PhDs. I figured I’d use the star power to lure investors into the money net.
Only Chris never showed up for the meeting. A new computer had arrived at the lab, and braniac had been so excited, he lost track of time. The computer arrived at 8 AM. The meeting was at an exclusive bar at 8 PM. He lost track of time. He lost himself for an entire day, because of a new lab toy.
“I just… I wanted to… see how it could handle fractals.” That’s what he said. Fractals. Pretty little computer snowflakes had blown a million dollar investment pitch.
That’s when I figured I’d have to spell it out – our roles in the business: “Chris, this can’t keep happening. We need to fix this. You’re a dreamer. I’m a do-er. You come up with brilliant ideas. I try to make them into something we can see. You can sit in the ivory tower and dream. I’ll shake hands and grease wheels. Okay? We need to do things this way, or the company will fall apart.”
Chris thought for a moment, then stammered out a nonsensical response: “It’s, really, it’s somewhat interesting. It’s as though I’m the creative, unconscious, artful mind, and, and you’re the practical, conscious, down-to-earth mind. It’s a… We’re lucky to have one another. It’s a… balance.”
“Sure,” I replied. “Exactly like that.”
And that’s how I got control of the money. It was, after all, one of the practical things.
Then Chris Dollar, who was always into computers and artificial intelligence, came up with the whole shark bus thing. It was worse than a bad joke. I stood by this guy since high school. Chris was my meal ticket, my pet genius, my key to fame and fortune. But a shark bus? The thing was beyond idiotic. People say there’s a fine line between brilliant and barking mad. I assumed Chris Dollar had finally crossed over.
So I started making a little illicit nest egg. For insurance. And because I worked so close with my buddy Brandon, I had to bring him on board. No way to steal without Brandon knowing about it.
Anyway – that was all going to stop. No more stealing. Now that things were actually happening. Now that the bus was real. Okay, maybe not stop stealing altogether, but a little more discretion.
The investors gathered outside the warehouse, at a tented area. Like a circus with business executives and scientists for entertainment. The people dined on champagne and caviar. Quite a crowd. Rich, famous, exciting people. Beautiful women, handsome celebrities, powerful military types, and corporate bigwigs. The media wanted in – hell, everyone wanted in — and most of them were told politely to go fuck themselves.
Chris insisted on making a speech. It was his day, so I let him organize and run the show. It was always good fun, watching him screw up basic social interactions. His skinny little body looked ridiculous in his suit. His head hardly made it over the podium. Almost childlike, up there, with all the lights. Still, it was amazing he could get even a few words out in front of such a big crowd.
“We’re… this is… we’re going to… Life as… as we knew it…”
That one bit of garbled nonsense was the highlight. But because Chris Dollar was a known genius, people nodded and looked serious as the guy stumbled his way through a twenty minute ramble. The speech was half genetic engineering cookbook, half inspirational drivel lifted from old Star Trek episodes.
Then the tour. Chris led the way into the facility. For me, entering the lab always felt like entering a dream. The outside was your typical, faceless industrial warehouse. White and a little scruffy around the edges. It got dark as we went through the marble lobby, down a hall, past a security post at the main doors. Two guards armed only with notepads and pens. Office cubicles and ordinary life came after that. It could have been any office space, anywhere in the world.
Then to the centre of the building. There were more security officers here, and a set of large steel doors. All very dramatic looking. The steel doors led to the observation deck, where huge picture windows looked down upon the factory floor. That’s when the crowd first got to see it.
There, the shark bus sat, floating in a large swimming pool. It was actually sea water – steel doors in the pool could be opened to let the bus out into the ocean for testing. Not that it was ready for that yet. Chris said another six months minimum.
Looking at the shark bus, surrounded by a crowd of gasping tourists, it was like seeing it for the first time. The thing was both alive and mechanical. Our working name for it was entirely accurate. It looked like a giant shark had swallowed a bus. The skin of the creature was gray, but lighter than a regular shark – almost that white color of a clean, energy efficient refrigerator. Or an iPod. Big glass windows and an enormous door in its side revealed rows of seats, much like the inside of a plane. Everything else was fish-like, except two lengthy tentacles that came out of the shark’s left and right sides. They stretched up and out of the water and were shackled in place. These tentacles were a safety feature – the bus could feel its way through the depths, sensing any danger with sucker pads along each tentacle.
And it had a face. Eyes on either side, round and black, the size of stop signs. A mouth, with dangerous teeth. That was where it looked most shark-like – that face.
The crowd walked down a flight of stairs to the factory floor. The group of them chattering and excited, witnessing history. Chris kept trying to talk but no one wanted to listen anymore. They wanted to see the shark bus, touch it, get close to it.
Because the bus was in the water, only the tentacles could be touched. People lined up to touch the strange sucker pads at the tips, where posts held the tentacles locked in place. I found himself getting in line with everyone else, as though I weren’t any more special than these sightseers. When it was my turn, I put my hand out and touched a sucker pad. And I was startled to discover the pad was touching me back. It was the size of a pizza, a light gray, and it curled about my hand, as if communicating something. Gentle. That’s what surprised me – how gentle it was.
After being touched, I stood up and looked at the shark, stared at it. Some feeling stirred in my guts. I didn’t like the feeling, didn’t want to admit it was there. Guilt? Shame? Panic.
It’s not like a horse, I thought. Not at all what Chris said it was. Human beings and horses, they co-evolved. It was a partnership. What we did, we took a shark and we broke it. We enslaved this shark. It’s alive, wild, and we’ve destroyed it, made it into a tool.
I shuddered. Of course it was too late to get squeamish now. I’d been going through the motions, selling this thing for years. Too late to start thinking and feeling. There were contracts and profits to consider. No backing out. This thing was going to make me rich. So just swallow down those silly little ethics and smile. Someone’s got to run the show and rake in the dough. And I was that man. What would Chris ever do without me?
* * *
In my dream, I walked along the bottom of the ocean. I could breathe underwater, and didn’t need to swim. Just a little stroll. There were all sorts of fish around, swimming lazily. Above, I could see the sun, glinting on the water’s surface. I was in some sort of park, with benches and trees. It was so pleasant. Peaceful. And strangely ordinary.
A sign nearby, with an arrow, read “Zoo” and I thought, why not? I headed down the right path. At the gates, there didn’t seem to be an attendant or anything. Just a turnstile. I walked through.
There were cages with monkeys and gorillas and leopards. All very typical. But then I came across a cage that had a train engine in it. That was odd. The train was pink. Flesh colored. Not a full-sized train engine, but the kind that pull cars for little kids in amusement parks.
The sign on the cage read, “Man Train”. What did that mean? I leaned forward to have a closer look.
The train was a human being. Something had been done to a man, to turn him into a train. His bones had been broken, his back reshaped, his legs bent and twisted and stitched. And on the front of the train, where the light should be, was a face – a man’s face, distorted out of shape, stretched flat across the front. The eyes were pulled wide and open, unable to close. And the mouth was shaped into a permanent grin. The whole thing was like something out of a cartoon, but grotesquely real and fleshy.
There was a track for the train – a small arc that ended on the left and front sides of the cage. As I watched, the train backed up and smashed into the side of the cage. Then it moved forward and smashed into the front. The man train did this over and over again, unable to get off the track. Crash, pause, crash. It hurt itself, each time it banged into the cage bars. And it couldn’t stop. Back up, bang, then forward, bang.
Bruises formed on the man train’s face. Its nose was bloodied. But the smile remained, the eyes stretched open and wide. That idiot grin — it made me feel sick just to look at it.
When I awoke, I sat up in bed and choked out, “What the hell was that?”
* * *
Two days later, Chris Dollar fired me.
“These, the books, they… It doesn’t make sense, Dale,” Chris said.
We were in a corner of the lab that Chris called his office. There were books and notepads everywhere. Three different laptops up and running. Two computers were working on chemistry problems. The third showed spreadsheets and accounting information.
“Chris, I can explain,” I said.
But I couldn’t. Not really. Because Chris knew everything. In typical fashion, the genius’ mind had wandered into new terrain and explored it from top to bottom. Finance. Who knew the dreamer could comprehend accounting and balance sheets? But Chris had been wondering if cost cutting was possible, and he started looking at the money. That’s when he saw, quite clearly, that huge chunks of cash were missing. And all signs pointed to me.
“We’ve… We’ve been friends for… how long?” Chris stammered. There were tears in his eyes. “How could you… Why did… I don’t get it.”
I tried to go into salesman mode. Maybe if I spun the situation in the right way. Hell, maybe the truth would work. But seeing Chris so shaken, I found I didn’t have any words. I started stammering as much as Chris.
“I couldn’t… It’s because…”
“What about Brandon?” Chris asked. “Is he in on this too?”
“No, no. I kept it hidden from him. This was just me.”
Chris let out a long sigh, and rubbed the tears away. “Dale, I have to fire you. I just… I have to. That’s all there is to it. I’m s-sorry about it. But, I can’t… I don’t see that I have any other choice.”
“No, I… I understand, Chris. I’m sorry to have put you in this position.”
Under the circumstances, I got off easy. The police weren’t notified. Chris didn’t ask me to return the money. I was still fairly wealthy. But I felt like a heel. I’d betrayed my closest friend. Why had I done it? Because I didn’t trust him?
If only Chris got angry, or took me to court, or something like that. Then I could have struggled. Fought back. But Chris got sad and exiled me from the project. How could I even argue?
* * *
That same evening, I went to Brandon’s house and rang the doorbell. When Brandon answered, and saw who it was, his face grew serious.
“Want a beer?” I asked, holding up the six pack I’d brought with me.
He hesitated, then said, a slight edge to his voice, “Why do I have a feeling it’s going to cost me?”
We sat on the porch together, drinking. It was a summer night, quiet. The two of us lived only a few blocks from each other, but rarely socialized. Something about what we did together on the job made us want to stay apart outside of work. We each served as a reminder to the other that we were thieves.
“How are the kids? How’s Susan?” I asked.
“Great,” Brandon said. “How’s your big old empty house with just you in it?”
“Super, given that I got fired today. No wife to explain it to. I knew the divorce would come in handy some day.”
“So why did you cover for me, Dale?”
“Gee,” I said, “that sounds like an accusation. How about thanking me?”
“Thanks. Now what’s the angle? You don’t help people without expecting something in return. So what do I owe you for services rendered?”
That made me wince. Brandon’s was right, but I didn’t like to think of myself in that way – as inhuman, manipulative. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t like I could argue the point. I was fired for stealing millions from a man I always described as my best friend. Inhuman sounded about right.
“Okay,” I said, “you’re my foot in the door. I want to get back in. Or, at least, I want to know what’s going on with the project.”
“Why? What’s the point? Dollar’s never going to take you back. You blew it. Take some time to sort your life out, then look for a job someplace else.”
“You don’t get it – what other job? I’ve been Chris Dollar’s handler since we were kids. And now I’ve been fired. You can’t smell the stink on me? I didn’t get charged with a crime, but no one gets fired from a project this big without a reason. Things are just coming together for the shark bus – and they fire me. People can smell it – I screwed up. No way I’m going to get another gig now.”
“So, what, you’re going to spy on the company, try to find a way back in?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
That, or collect enough information to turn around and sell it to the competition. Sure, I had millions squirreled away, but there’s no such thing as too much money. And who knew what kind of cash I’d need in the future? Maybe I could even parlay the info into a position with another company.
After we finished the beers, I got to my feet. “It’s been nice chatting. We should do this more often.”
“I guess we’ll be seeing even more of each other,” Brandon said flatly, “now that we no longer work together.”
“We’re practically neighbors, after all,” I answered. “We should be more chummy.” I turned as if to leave, then said, as if it had only just occurred to me, “I almost forgot – I’ll need your user name and password.”
While I never said it out loud, it was entirely understood – should Brandon not wish to cooperate, certain embezzlement facts would come out. Saying the word “blackmail” would be crude. Fortunately, Brandon wasn’t stupid. He understood how the world worked.
Back at home, I sat down at my computer and punched in my newly acquired username and password. I scanned the pages for any interesting new data. In the next month or so, the shark bus be ready for a test run. A few clicks later, and I was looking at it through the company cameras. From above, watching it float in the pool, lit up from all sides – it looked like a precious piece of art.
But the very sight of it made my chest tighten in anxiety. Why? What was it about this thing, this cyborg fish, that cause such intense, buried feelings to come rising up? It was so strange looking. We’d taken a living animal and turned it into a product. It had the same smooth, seamless quality that you find with an appliance.
I clicked on a link, and stared at the creature’s face on the right side, up close. My anxiety increased. The animal opened its mouth – revealing its jagged, sharp teeth – then closed it. Couldn’t they have changed those teeth? It would be hard to sell a vehicle that looked so vicious. But the idea was that it could feed as it traveled. No need to refuel. No need for any fuel at all.
The eye on the right side was black and bottomless, like staring into a camera lens. It revealed nothing. What’s going on in there? I wondered. Who’s in there? Is someone looking back at me? What is it thinking?
The shark thing opened its mouth and closed it again.
* * *
I had the same dream again. I kept having it. Underwater. Fish flying around me. The sun glinting on the surface of the water. A zoo. Why not pay a visit? It all seemed familiar, but I couldn’t remember why – despite visiting the same place dozens of times over. I walked past cages of monkeys and elk and leopards and other normal animals. And then, in the middle of it all, the man train.
Each visit got more detailed. I could see human bones under the skin, bones that had been broken and reshaped to create the train form. The flesh was stretched taut, like untanned leather. As I stared passively, the man train rolled back and forth on the track, smashing into the bars of the cage. And always that idiot smile, those wide open eyes that can never close.
The track was made of bones – human bones. I could see that now. Something about the train wheels being flesh made me feel ill. A human body wasn’t supposed to spin like that. The man train rolled forward, crashed into the bars, rolled backwards, crashed into the bars. And that stretched, smiling face never changed as it stupidly made the same movements over and over again, hurting itself.
Why would someone do this? Why would they break a human being into this mechanical form? What was the point?
I pitied it, but also found myself hating the thing. Some human somewhere volunteered to be turned into a train. He let himself become an object. A series of gradual changes that he didn’t even notice. One day the legs were broken, twisted into wheels. Another, the face stretched. Maybe he thought each change came with some kind of advantage. And in the end, he became an “it”. And it loved being a train — scheduled, precise, predictable, ordinary. And a freak.
Like me, I suddenly thought. I keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. I’m trapped on a train track, in a cage. I crash against the bars, so I back up. I crash against the bars, so I go forward. Never really thinking about it. Stealing money from my friend. Stealing love and sex from my wife. Divorced, alone, miserable. What have I got, besides money? Nothing. No one.
The train kept bashing against the bars, and I found himself unable to look away. It grew bloodier, more bruised, more wounded with every crash. Why wouldn’t it just die?
* * *
“Something weird is going on at the lab,” Brandon said.
It was early evening, and we were on the porch once more. Drinking and talking. I’d accumulated some of the technical information I wanted, but not all of it. So I was planning on pressuring Brandon a little more, when the conversation took a sudden turn.
“What do you mean, weird?”
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to tell you,” Brandon said. “I mean, I don’t want to hold out on you or anything, but… I wasn’t sure if… Anyway… One of the science geeks had a nervous breakdown, or, something. I don’t know. He attacked a coworker – bit him. It was pretty serious, apparently. The crazy guy – they couldn’t get him to calm down. Last I heard, they locked him in a storage room.”
“You mean, they left this crazy guy… locked in the lab?”
“That’s what I heard,” Brandon said.
“Why not call the police, or the nut house?”
“I don’t know. At first I thought it was to keep it a secret from the media – we don’t want bad press. But, I saw Chris Dollar today. And… He looked scared.”
“Shaking,” Brandon said. “Pale, and… just… freaked. I don’t know why.”
“Well, this lab guy who went nuts… That’s got to be pretty freaky. If Chris knew the guy…”
“No, you don’t get it. Chris wasn’t just concerned or surprised. I thought he was going to wet his pants, he was so scared.”
I stared at Brandon suspiciously. In the dim light on the porch, it was difficult to see him, but he looked a little scared himself. His face was sweaty, and he almost looked sick. Was he lying? Maybe having some kind of breakdown himself? But Brandon seemed on the up and up. All the information he’d handed over so far was legit.
“Find out more,” I said.
“You don’t think I’m trying? Chris Dollar has my entire career in his hands and he looks like he’s going to piss his pants in fear – so I’m snooping. Give me some credit.”
“And that’s all you’ve got?”
“There’s more,” I said.
“This could end my career,” Brandon said. “That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. But, with Chris so freaked, maybe my career is over anyway. The shark bus… It’s leaking some kind of chemical. No one knows what it is, but some of the lab geeks think the tissue is unstable, and is breaking down.”
“Damn it,” I muttered.
“Maybe that’s why the lab guy went nuts,” Brandon said. “Maybe that’s why Chris is in a panic. Everyone is pushing themselves hard to make this work. What if… the whole thing is just going to fall apart?”
What if? The shark project dies, none of the information I’d collected would be of any use. No one buys information about a project that rots into garbage. No more money or power. That’s what it meant.
“This is bad,” I said.
“No k-kidding,” Brandon stammered. “It s-sucks.”
I gave Brandon a concerned look. “You okay?”
“I’m… just… a little stressed about… all of it, I guess,” Brandon answered.
“Get some sleep. Try to calm down. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. We don’t have all the information. It could still work out.”
“Right,” Brandon said.
I went home, and immediately turned on his computer. Surfing through the company’s internal website didn’t reveal anything new. I could tell, because that’s how I spent most of my days – looking through the website and all the tantalizing clues it offered. On one obscure corner I’d missed, there was a report about the shark bus releasing a chemical, but the substance hadn’t been analyzed yet. No telling what it was. It seemed Brandon was keeping me filled in.
I hesitated, but in the end I couldn’t resist – and checked the webcams. There it was. The shark. Floating in the pool. Huge and still. A tool. A living tool.
Something moved in the corner of the screen. I switched to another camera, to see the lab. Weird – there were staff there. This late, there was usually security and no one else. Three lab geeks in white lab coats, eating pizza. Must be doing overtime. And they probably hadn’t stopped for a meal in a while. Looked like they had more than one pizza on the table. Almost seven large pizzas for the three of them? Fucking pigs. Or maybe more staff were coming. Some kind of party? They sure picked a strange time to celebrate. The last huzzah, probably, before the whole thing went to hell.
I turned off the computer.
* * *
Being unemployed, wealthy, divorced, and without any real direction, I spent my days brooding. Plus I had vague fragments of man train nightmares floating in my head. Embracing a half-assed routine made life seem normal.
I showered, walked a few blocks to a diner, and ate a late breakfast while reading the paper. Then I walked a few blocks to a bookstore and browsed the shelves. After that, I wandered around aimlessly through the downtown core, trying to find something else to do. In and out of a few shops. A matinee at the movie theatre. Late lunch at another restaurant. By then it was early evening.
I’d resisted much longer than usual, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I went home to look at the company website. Typically, I checked the site a dozen times a day. And every time I did it, I felt like a dog locked out in the backyard, scratching at the door to be let in.
There was no new data on the website, no new entries, no new memos. So I switched to the webcams. And sat up in my chair with a start. At first glance, it looked like there’d been some sort of disaster. A man lying on the lab floor, blood pooled around him. People running around in every direction. Getting help? No – chasing each other. Someone was on top of the injured man now. Trying to perform CPR, maybe? No, wait, not CPR. He was…
This couldn’t be happening. The man on top tore at the bloody man on the floor, ripping off pieces of flesh with his teeth and bare hands, and eating it. He threw back his head to swallow. And his mouth kept opening and closing so viciously, the teeth slamming together – it made my jaw ache just watching it.
I switched to another camera. A man was running, a woman chasing him. She paused directly in front of the camera, giving me a perfect view of her mouth slamming open and shut in a psychotic Pacman way. Behind her, I could make out someone throwing themselves against a door over and over, trying to break it down. It was Gerry, one of the computer techs I vaguely knew. The door broke, and Gerry threw himself on the people inside.
Quickly, I switched cameras. In my demented panic it took a few seconds to find the right one. Gerry in the back room. He was savagely chewing on a woman’s throat, ripping at her with his hands. The woman fought in a vague sort of way, already too far gone to struggle.
The resolution on the computer screen made the whole thing seem washed out, pixelated, unreal. A video game. But it was actually happening. People, killing and eating other people. While I watched.
I went through all the cameras. People killing people. People eating people. One guy, in the kitchen, rifled through the cupboards, looking for something. For what? He took a package of muffin mix out and poured it down his throat. All the while his mouth opened and closed over and over again, the teeth crashing together so hard they were cracking and splintering.
Like a shark. A shark, attacking prey, the teeth working like a shredder.
Flipping through the cameras, I saw the shark bus, just sitting in the pool, looking the same as ever. Calm, quiet, almost serene. A big black eye staring out at the camera. Staring out of my computer screen. Staring directly at me.
I backed away from the computer, from the black, unblinking eye. What the hell should I do? Call the police. Call… I picked up the phone and found myself speed-dialing Brandon. After four rings, I was ready to hang up, when someone answered.
“Hello?” Brandon said, sounding like he’d just woken up.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on? Have you seen the security cameras? Do you know what’s going on in the labs? People are eating each other!”
“You need to come over,” Brandon said, sleepily. “Come over now.”
“What are you talking about? I have to call the cops. I have to…”
“Come over now,” Brandon interrupted, sounding lazy, at peace. “And hurry. I can explain it. I can explain everything.”
The phone went dead.
Normally I would walk over. Now I drove. Brandon’s front door was unlocked so I barged right in. He was sitting on the couch, his face bloody, his teeth broken, his hands and shirt and pants all covered in blood.
“What the hell happened to you?” I yelled. I was tempted to rush forward to help, but the broken teeth made him hesitate. Shark mouth. Like the killers in the lab.
“I’m okay, I’m fine,” Brandon said. His hands were down by his sides, clutching his stomach, which seemed oddly bloated. His belt was undone, to let his swollen stomach hang out.
“Did they… attack you, is that it?”
“Not… exactly… I’m full. I’m so full. You have to let me talk now, while I’m still full. I’m… I feel sane again, when I’m full.”
“Full of what?” I choked out.
“It’s like being a retarded vampire,” Brandon said, and giggled. “Oh. My teeth hurt. Jesus.” He rubbed at his jaw.
“Full of what?” I demanded.
“I got home from work, and I ate everything in the fridge,” Brandon said dreamily. “I knew something was wrong when I saw myself eating the relish. I had a spoon in my hand, and I was eating relish. Out of the jar. It wasn’t me doing it, not really, not like I wanted to do it. And then the spoon just got in the way, and I was scooping relish out of the jar with my fingers and stuffing it into my mouth.”
“What? What are you…”
“But it wasn’t me. I mean, it was me. I was doing these things, but it was like I was watching myself do it. My body moved all by itself, and I was in there, somewhere, way in the back corner of my mind, watching it all happen. Like a dream. After I ate the relish, there was no food left, so I looked around. There was a bottle of dish soap. Not poisonous. Non-toxic. I ripped the cap off and poured the bottle down my throat. And my teeth just kept coming together – bang, bang, bang! I couldn’t stop it. Even though it hurt like hell.”
I looked down the hall, towards the kitchen. The place was a mess. Packaging and food containers everywhere. And blood. And something else. Bones, blood, and…
“Susan was there,” Brandon said, as if remembering. “She was screaming. Asking me what was wrong. I’m chugging dish soap and she’s screaming. I… I think… I killed her and, I… ate… some of her. The kids. I’m pretty sure I killed the kids too. Not, not one hundred percent sure, but… Pretty sure.”
“You killed your wife,” I said flatly. My hands shook. I just noticed that – my hands were trembling and my stomach ached. Maybe I was going to puke. “You killed your kids?”
“Did I?” Brandon wondered aloud. “Anyway, then I got full, and I was in control again. My good old self. Back to normal.”
“And then the phone rang, and it was you, on the phone,” Brandon said. “And now you’re here. Why are you here?”
“You told me to come over. You told me you were going to explain everything.”
“Oh, did I? That sounds… like something I’d do. It’s the shark bus. Of course. It’s changed us. The chemical it’s leaking. Chris Dollar screwed up, big time. The bus is more than it seems. It’s not just an animal, or a thing. Something more. Something out of the dark in our heads…” Brandon trailed off. Then he laughed, as if coming back to his senses. “You’ve been exposed, to the chemical. You’re going to change too, Dale”
I staggered back. “What?”
“You touched it. You’re going to change, like me. You’re going to eat, and eat, and eat. And then, when you run out of food, you’ll kill people and eat them. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I’m not going to change.”
“You already have. I can smell it on you. It’s too late. I’m sorry. I thought the least I could do is warn you about what’s going to happen. But you’re lucky, in a way. I won’t kill and eat you. We sharks don’t attack each other, just prey. Maybe we should team up – we could kill and feed together, just like we used to, on the job. Only a little bit different.”
“I should call the police,” I muttered. “You’re a murderer.”
“Call them,” Brandon said, and laughed. “Send them here. That’s like ordering us a few walking pizzas. And if they kill me, at least I won’t get hungry anymore. Wait until you feel it, Dale. Hunger – like you’re drowning and only food can save you.”
I backed out of the room, and left the house. Standing on the front porch, I was amazed at how normal the world looked. The sun was starting to set. The neighbourhood looked peaceful. I stood there, staring at the sun shining through the trees, thinking. There was an ache, growing in my stomach. I hadn’t felt it until Brandon told me it was there. It was like I’d eaten a hot coal, and it was getting hotter and hotter.
There was a large grocery store just down the block. I drove there, grabbed a cart outside, and slipped in through the automatic doors. What should I buy? Well, what do monsters eat? Meat. It seemed obvious. Vegetarians had been trying to tell me that for years – monsters eat meat.
So I filled the grocery cart with raw hamburger, steak, pork chops, lamb chops, sausages, chicken breasts, and everything that looked raw and bloody and good for a monster. A skinny blonde woman stared at the cart, her mouth hanging open.
“I eat meat or I eat you,” I muttered. “You choose.”
The woman recoiled as though struck. I felt guilty, then shook it off. Monsters don’t have to feel guilty. The thought made me giggle.
How odd. The prospect of becoming a monster made me leap into action. For so long I’d just been going through the motions. Taking the easy route. I couldn’t figure out why things were different now. And though killing and eating people scared me, being a monster seemed pretty ordinary. Because, really, I’d been a monster for so long anyway. A thing shaped like a train, locked in a zoo. Wasn’t that what I was? An automaton. A thing. Who treats other people like things.
“I am not a train,” I said firmly. Oops. I’d said that out loud too. Maybe I was in shock. That must be it. Or maybe turning into a monster loosens the tongue, let’s you say what you want to say. Is there any reason to hold back your feelings if you’re a monster?
I expected the cashier to say something about my purchases – a cart overflowing with bloody meat. She didn’t say a word. Three nose rings, black lipstick, and a grocery uniform – she was either pretending to be cool, or genuinely did not care. Maybe she’d seen weirder things.
“I’m going to turn into a shark,” I said, testing her, and myself.
She finished ringing up the purchases without speaking. Then she took my credit card, and began processing it.
“Sharks eat meat,” I said. “I need all the meat I can get.”
She offered me a paper to sign and a pen. I signed.
“Thank you for shopping at Shop ‘n Save,” she said blandly, not even looking at me.
Was she crazy, or was I crazy? It was hard to tell. But I had to get out of there before killing and eating her seemed like a good idea. My guts were now aching for food, as though I’d forgotten to eat for a week.
I wheeled the cart full of groceries out of the store, and loaded up my car. Half the food went in the back seat, half went in the passenger seat up front. Then I drove back to Brandon’s house.
As I walked up the path to the front door, my jaw started to ache. I put my hand to my mouth, and tentatively opened and closed, trying to feel where the pain came from. My teeth banged together just once – “Tok!” Damn it.
Brandon was still slumped on the couch. He seemed startled to see me again. Because the old me would have just left him there.
“Come on,” I said through clenched teeth. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Brandon asked dreamily.
“To the lab, to see the shark bus. Don’t worry. I bought snacks for the trip.”
* * *
Half way to the lab, I had to pull the car over. If I didn’t stop I’d have an accident. There was a gloomy, isolated spot under some trees. No one would see us there.
That was the last coherent thought I had for a while. I lost control. My stomach was screaming with need, and my jaw was throbbing. I opened my mouth to talk to Brandon, who was dozing in the back – just tell him what was going on – and my mouth started opening and closing violently, like I was having a seizure. Tok, tok, tok! My teeth kept coming together, cracking under the force of it.
But it was okay, because I wasn’t really there. I was somewhere inside my head, far away – like I was lying in the back of my own skull, six feet from the holes that were my eyes. Just watching through those holes to see what was happening out there. Watching with only vague interest. My body knew what to do, so I didn’t have to act or think.
My hands leapt on the groceries and tore into them. Fistfuls of cold meat, shoved down my throat. And my teeth bang, bang, banged away. Oh look, part of my front tooth broke off and landed in a blob of hamburger. Interesting. And then I watched myself eat that cold, greasy meat, and felt the shard of tooth scrape along my throat as I swallowed.
This meat would taste better warm, I thought. It would taste better bloody. It would taste better if it was screaming and fighting back. But it would do. I gobbled it down, ripping steak apart with my bare hands, blood spattering all over my shirt and the seats and the floor. My teeth smashed through the meat, my tongue dragged it down into my gut.
There isn’t enough food, I thought. There isn’t enough food here. I’ll never be full. There isn’t enough food in the entire world. I could eat a herd of cattle. I could kill and eat an entire football team. An entire apartment complex full of people. Not enough. There would still be that blazing, bottomless hunger in my stomach, demanding more, and more. Never satisfied. Always hungry.
Bits of packaging went down my throat, pieces of plastic. Bone in the pork chops and lamb chops. Would I choke? No, I wouldn’t. I could eat anything, and this thought gave me a strange sense of pride. I could literally eat anything or anyone.
Tok, tok, tok, tok!
And then the frenzy became too much to watch or think about. My body wouldn’t even allow that tiny piece of consciousness to stick around. It required all the resources available to feed and feed and feed. The entire world went red as my body devoured it all. And then the world went black.
* * *
It was dark when I woke up. Things felt slow and stupid. And there was pain. For a second I thought it was a bad hangover, and then I remembered what was really going on. My face hurt, like I’d been smashed in the mouth with a baseball bat. And my throat – swallowing so much, so fast had torn it raw. Bloated and sick and… I saw my face in the rear view mirror and barely recognized it. Bloody, scratched…
I opened my mouth a little and moaned. It was stupid, under the circumstances, but I mourned the loss of my perfect teeth. It seemed so ridiculous. My teeth had always been so great, a useful salesman tool, and now I just had broken bits of white. It hurt, so bad, it hurt…
There was a sound in the back seat, food being carefully unwrapped. I lifted my hand and adjusted the rear view mirror. Brandon, in the back seat, opened a hamburger package and stuffed some raw meat into his mouth. Slowly. Not a frenzy.
“What… what are you doing?” I mumbled. I’d bitten my tongue several times and it hurt to speak.
Brandon swallowed down a lump of raw hamburger, obviously not enjoying it. “We’ve got to stay on the same feeding schedule. If you’re full, I have to be full. I don’t know what your plan is, but I know I’ll mess it up if I suddenly go into a frenzy.”
I laughed weakly. “Good thinking. I need you to get us past security with your pass and the door codes. But I’m not sure I have a plan, really. Just get to the shark bus, and get inside it. See where it will take us.”
Brandon laughed weakly. “That’s more of a plan than I’ve got. I’m… messed up, right now. I killed and ate my family today.”
“I need you, Brandon. You’ve got to help me.”
“Okay. I’ll give it a go.”
I started up the car.
Though it was only eight at night, the neighbourhood around the lab was eerily silent. Suburban houses, dark and still. I drove past them, down to the shore, where the lab was located. There were a few other warehouses nearby. No sign of life anywhere, but lots of empty cars in the parking lot. I found a spot near the building and parked. When the engine died, the only sound was the buzzing of streetlights overhead. The warehouse where the shark bus was stored looked so ordinary – just another big rectangular building. Hard to believe it contained anything weird or dangerous.
“You ready?” I asked Brandon.
“Yeah, I guess. Should we bring some food with us?”
“I suppose we’d better.”
I had devoured nearly everything in the seat next to me, but there was still a lot left in the back with Brandon. We each took two bags of raw meat and started walking across the parking lot.
The tent, which had been put up for the investors’ unveiling, was still there. A low breeze flapped the fabric slightly. Then someone leapt out of the tent, unnaturally fast, running at us. A man, a small man, his teeth smashing together – tok, tok, tok! And a roaring noise, almost a scream, coming out of his broken mouth.
“It’s Chris,” I said.
And then Chris Dollar was there, right in our faces. But not attacking. His formerly child-like features were rough, crazed. His little blue eyes bugged out and the teeth kept tapping away. Despite the misery I felt seeing him, I couldn’t help but think of him as a rabid chipmunk.
This is my fault, I thought, as I stared at my former best friend. But then I wondered why I felt that way. Chris made the shark bus. Wasn’t this all Chris’ fault? Both our faults?
Chris inhaled deeply, and a look of disappointment crossed his features. Presumably he now knew we were sharks and not prey. He couldn’t eat us. But then he smelled our supplies, our meat. His eyes narrowed. With vicious delight, he ripped one bag from Brandon’s hands, and ran off across the parking lot. We watched in silence as he fled.
Brandon said flatly, “I just got mugged by my boss.”
We went into the building. The lights were on in the marble lobby. There were no security guards. Things almost looked normal, if silent. We met several former employees who were now scouring the building for food. None of them were full enough to be sane. These sharks stole the three remaining bags of groceries and ran off to feed. We stuck to the main halls. After being “mugged”, we were pretty much left alone.
From one office, there was the sound of a man’s distant sobbing. Whether it was a shark now bloated and momentarily sane, or a regular person hiding from the carnage, I couldn’t tell. Then again, if it was a normal human, sharks would be smashing down the door to kill the guy.
Here and there were puddles of blood, bits of gore. Bone fragments. A piece of broken skull. I had expected corpses everywhere. But the sharks didn’t waste their food. Everything was consumed. Even the puddles were shallow, nearly dry, as though shark people slurped up as much of it as they could. The thought of people crawling on their bellies, sucking blood out of the carpet, made me feel queasy. And a little hungry. Uh oh.
Brandon punched a code into a panel on the large steel doors, then swiped his card. We entered the observation deck. Looking down, we could see the shark bus, lit up as though nothing had ever happened. We stared down at it. The area was ominously silent, giving the shark bus a holy feeling.
“I think it did this on purpose,” I said suddenly. “The shark bus – it deliberately turned us into monsters.”
“What?” Brandon asked in surprise. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I wasn’t even sure where the idea had come from. It just bubbled up out of nowhere. “The design… It’s not supposed to have any intelligence. Not really. But sometimes when I look at it…” I turned away from the window. “Let’s go.”
We went down the stairs to the main level, out to the pool. On either side, the tentacles were still locked into place. I rushed over and pulled several pins and hit a release button. The shackle came undone, and the tentacle dragged itself across the floor and into the water. Brandon did the same thing on the opposite side, and the left tentacle went into the pool as well.
Brandon motioned to the side of the shark. “There’s a gangplank, over here. We just prop it up to the door and…”
I grabbed him by the arm to stop him. “We don’t board it that way.”
“What do you mean? That’s how you board it. There is no other way.”
“There is,” I insisted. “We enter through its mouth.”
“What are you talking about? Even if we could get past its teeth, we’ll be diving into the thing’s stomach. We’ll be digested. It’s a living animal. I’ve seen the design specs. There’s no connection between the mouth and bus interior.”
“I know it doesn’t make any sense, but… I just know we have to do this. If you want me to go first, fine.”
“How do you ‘just know’? What the hell are you talking about?”
“I just know. That’s how we do it.” I felt himself getting frustrated. My muscles contracted with a violent, painful rage that was entirely alien to me. The hunger was starting to come back – a glimmer in the distance, but definitely there. There was no time to discuss it. I began stripping down to his underwear. “Open the gates to the ocean.”
With Brandon watching, I dived into the pool. The water was freezing cold, causing my entire body to jolt with raw excitement. I opened my eyes and swam directly towards the shark’s mouth.
I’m going to die, I thought. I’m insane and I’m going to die.
But at the last moment, the shark’s mouth opened as wide as it could, and I slid inside. At first I thought I’d get stuck in its throat – hot, dark flesh squeezed me from all sides, but instead of holding me still or crushing me, it undulated, pulled me along, thrusting me deeper into the shark. It seemed to go on forever, this tunnel of flesh. Just when I thought I was going to run out of air, I was spat out inside of the bus, on the floor, right next to the control panel. It was like being reborn – I was nearly naked, gasping for breath, coated in organic slime.
How did I know this would work? I have no idea. The knowledge was just suddenly there, in my head. And I was as certain as if I’d deduced my conclusion with hours of thinking. I felt controlled by an external mind – or in contact with something bigger than me.
After a moment to recover, I struggled to my feet and looked out the window. Brandon stood at the edge of the pool, his mouth hanging open. Then he yelled something I couldn’t hear, but it was probably, “How did you do that?” Or, “That’s not possible!”
“Yeah,” I muttered, grinning, “and eating your family makes perfect sense. We’re long past possible, you goddamn idiot.”
As I watched from inside the bus, Brandon fiddled with a control panel. The doors to the outside world opened up with a groaning sound. Behind the shark’s tail was the ocean. Waiting for us. Then Brandon stripped to his underwear and dived into the pool. He headed for the shark’s mouth. After a minute or so, he was regurgitated into the cab next to me.
There was a hidden orifice, inside the shark, right beneath the control panel. A long seam opened up, spat Brandon out, and then closed again. When shut, it was invisible. Entirely unnoticeable. I knew instinctively that this orifice was not part of the design. No one had planned for it. Somehow, it had simply come to be.
“How… the hell… did you know?” Brandon managed to say, even as he choked for breath.
I didn’t answer, didn’t help Brandon to his feet. Instead, I looked at the control panel before me. It was as complex as the controls for an airplane. I’d never seen it before, except in drawings. Until now, I’d never given it any thought. How to start this thing? My hand held out over the panel, I waited for some sort of sign. No one had ever driven it before. Not even a test run. Chris had said it wasn’t ready yet. One particular button begged me to press it. I did, and the shark sprang to life. It turned about in the pool – surprising there was enough room – and swam out the open doors and into the ocean.
The shark moved gracefully, without sound, with little vibration. And it was fast. Boats floated overhead, the moorings of docks were to our left and right. In seconds, we were out of the marina and moving into deeper waters.
“Can’t you feel it?” I whispered. “Can’t you hear the shark bus, whispering to you inside your head?”
Brandon got to his feet, groaning. “I’d say you were crazy, but I just swam directly into a shark’s mouth and lived. It should have torn me to pieces. I should be in its stomach, being digested, but I’m not. Why couldn’t we have just used the door?”
The question brought me the answer. One second it wasn’t there, and then he asked me and I knew. “It would have been an insult. Like forcing a bridle into a horse’s mouth. It knows where we have to go.”
“And where’s that?” Brandon asked, slumping into the co-pilot’s chair.
“No idea,” I lied. Because I was pretty sure I knew where we were going. But it was crazy, impossible, utterly insane. We were going to the zoo.
The inside of the shark was as clean and unfeeling as an airplane cabin, except the pilot and co-pilot chairs weren’t separated from the passenger seats. Everything was pearl coloured, polished, a mix of organic curves and cold, practical appliance. It was supposed to feel like a spaceship. The windows were huge, nearly invisible, allowing us to see the ocean all around and above. Far behind, the shark tail swished back and forth, the two safety tentacles trailed on either side.
The sight was incredible, even at night. It was dark, but the moon was above somewhere, sending a blue-white light into the depths. The plants, the fish, the ocean floor – it all had a ghostly look that shimmered as the water moved.
As the shark traveled, it seemed to be heading down, deeper, staying close to the sandy bottom. The tentacles seemed to feel out currents, guiding us – like antennae. The descent into the ocean made me feel small, and dangerous. We were going somewhere incredible, unaccessed by most. My breathing became tight and shallow and my sides hurt. A sort of pleasant claustrophobia – that’s what I felt.
And that hunger, brewing again, like a storm cloud in my gut, getting ready to shoot lightning into me and make me insane with need. Muscles kept clenching and contracting, preparing me for some kind of outburst. I felt strong, animalistic. Brandon shifted uncomfortably in the seat next to me, obviously feeling what I was feeling.
“Where are we going?” Brandon whispered. “You’re not steering or anything. How does it know where to go?”
“It’s part of some kind of plan,” I whispered back. Whispering felt right. “Turning us into monsters, making us feed. It’s all a part of a plan.”
“What is this thing, this shark? What did Chris Dollar create?”
A god, I thought – but I couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud. Somehow Chris had tapped into his genius, his unconscious, and brought out an ancient god. Maybe there really was something to that nonsense I used to say at sales pitches – tapping into evolution. Maybe the shark stopped evolving because it was waiting for something to make that final step, push it that extra inch, turn it over and show what it had been hiding underneath it all these years.
It was darker now. We should have been blind, down so deep, but we could see – that blue, moonlight glow was still there. Maybe our vision had changed, with our shark infection. The landscape seemed lunar, otherworldly, bare, without vegetation, as though we flew in outer space, not the depths of the ocean.
There was a hole. I sensed it coming up ahead a few seconds before I even saw it. A vast, oval hole, a cave, big enough for a jumbo jet to fly into. Not a cave. It was a mouth – a huge mouth at the bottom of the sea.
“Put on your seat belt,” I said, doing up my own.
“Why?” Brandon asked, then saw the mouth up ahead. “Oh hell, what’s that?”
“That’s where we’re going.”
The mouth on the ocean floor stretched open just a little wider, anticipating us, ready to devour us. What creature could have a mouth so big? It appeared to be toothless, no tongue, and yet recognizably a mouth. Just the shape, and the way it moved.
“We’re little fish,” I whispered, “swallowed by a bigger fish, about to be swallowed by an even bigger fish.”
Was this the mouth of the world itself? Or some vast underwater creature? How would we ever know – such small things as us?
The shark bus plunged into the hole, straight down. It was pitch dark now. We were forced back into our seats by the sudden downward plunge, and the shark picked up speed. I had never bothered to turn the lights on. Now my hand crept forward and once again seemed to know what button to push. Lights on the outside of the shark lit up, allowing us to see that we were in a pink, ribbed, fleshy tunnel – an enormous throat – going down into the belly of… of what?
“This isn’t possible,” Brandon insisted. And of course he was right. None of it was possible. And the shark picked up even more speed. We were pushed back harder in our seats, and I blacked out.
* * *
When I came to, I looked out the window and saw trees. Grass. Park benches. Next to me, Brandon was just opening his eyes, getting his bearings. As we unbuckled our seatbelts and got to our feet, there was a hissing sound – the door to the shark bus had opened up.
“Now we can use the door?” Brandon grumbled.
We walked over to the door and looked out. The shark bus was floating on the surface of a river, bobbing gently. And ahead of us, was a very familiar park. Grassy, peaceful, no one about. The shark was so close to the grass, I stepped out, and was on dry land. I felt a little ridiculous, walking around in my underwear. But, in a weird way, it seemed entirely appropriate. Aren’t we always nearly naked in our dreams?
When I look up, I thought, I’ll see the sun, glimmering through water, and fish swimming around. And when I looked up that’s exactly what I saw. It was as if I were in an underwater park under an invisible glass dome.
“I’ve been her before,” Brandon said, standing next to me.
A path was up ahead, and I started walking towards it. “Oh, have you?”
Brandon followed after me. “I’ve been here,” he insisted. “But it was a dream. This can’t be real.”
“I dreamt it too,” I said. “Want to go to the zoo?”
“You… you know about the zoo? In my dream?”
“In our dream,” I corrected him. “Let’s go kill and eat the man train.”
Because that’s why we were there. I knew it. I’d always known it, all along, without really knowing it. The idea had been there, just under the surface – like a name I was struggling to remember. Kill and eat the man train. That’s why we’d been changed into retarded shark vampires. That’s why I had the dreams, over and over, about the idiotic fleshy monstrosity – a man broken into a machine. That’s why the shark bus had brought us to this place.
“You know about the man train?” Brandon asked. “I… I thought I was going crazy, having that dream over and over. Wait… Did you say kill and eat…?”
The park was so ordinary. A cobblestone path, trees, bushes, benches. Even the sound of birds and insects. A nice, warm summer day. Nothing remarkable. Except we were underwater, and fish were overhead. And here was the sign for the zoo.
“Are you hungry, Brandon?” I asked. “I’ve got a killer hunger building. Don’t you?”
“Stop, don’t even.. Don’t talk like that. Just that word, hunger… It makes my stomach throb.”
“You don’t look bloated anymore. Like you’ve digested everything. Are you ready for more?”
“S-soon,” Brandon said, and moaned. “But not… just… yet.”
“Me too,” I said. “But I think we should get ready.”
We walked through the turnstile. We passed cages of ordinary animals. They stared at us, silent, only vaguely interested. I’d seen it all so many times before, it barely registered. And I knew where I was going. When an intermittent “Clang!” noise filled the air, I knew exactly what it was.
The most off-putting part of the experience was how it was much it was like my dreams. I’d always thought reality was more solid than dreaming – that wakefulness had a more realistic quality. Dreams are supposed to be vague and implausible. But it wasn’t like that at all. Seeing the man train while wide awake, it was exactly the same as dreaming it. Hardly any noticeable difference.
Except maybe the bruising. The man train was much worse than before. I realized it had been getting more and more beaten as my dreams went on. Its stretched flat face was like a boxer’s. The nose – just two nostrils in the middle of its face – dripped blood. The eyes were blackened. And yet, there was still that idiotic smile. The box-shaped rear end of the train was so bruised it was almost black. And yet it continued to roll back and forth on the track of bone, bashing itself stupid.
“My stomach,” Brandon groaned, “is killing me.”
“We have to get inside the cage first,” I said. “Don’t go into a frenzy yet.”
There was a door, on the right side. Not locked, just a sliding bar. I opened it and we stepped inside. Closer now, we could see how the man train’s corners were angular, precise. The skin, stretched taut over bone, was moving as the train breathed in and out. We could hear it breathing raggedly through its bloody nostrils and clenched teeth. The eyes were dark green, crazy, no eyelids. It couldn’t blink.
“It looks so real,” Brandon whispered, his voice was almost drowned out by the sudden CLANG as the train hit the bars face first.
“It is real,” I said. Maybe more real than anything we’d ever experienced before.
The train hit the bars, paused for a second, rolled backwards, and hit the bars again. There was a three second delay between each crash. My hunger was building, but it wasn’t quite there yet. How frustrating, to want to lose control and not being able to do it.
“We have to knock it off the tracks,” I decided. “This next run backwards, help me push it.”
“Are you serious?” But Brandon took up a position next to me, getting ready.
It was such a ridiculous monster. About the length of a small sofa. And something about the skin looked more like a couch than a living thing. A living sofa, with a sofa like intelligence?
The stretched, distorted blanket of skin reminded me of something – photographs of a 500 pound man who had lost all his excess weight. When the fat man got fit, his skin hung loose. There was a picture of him holding it up to show it off — big floppy bags of skin around his belly and hanging under his arms, off his legs. Doctors performed surgery to remove the baggy tissue. I’d always wondered – what did the doctors do with all that flesh? I assumed they’d just thrown it away.
Now I knew better. They took it and built a man – a broken man, a man thing, an objectified distortion of a human being. A degraded monster. They built a man train.
“On three,” I said. “One, two…”
And Brandon and I gave the train a sudden shove from the left side. It turned out to be much lighter than we’d expected. A train engine, even a small one, has weight on the tracks. But this thing was more ghostly, more feeble. A tent-like mock up of a train engine.
The man train tipped over, fell off the tracks, and hit the floor of the cage, skidding to a stop. The wheels continued to spin for a moment, then gave up. The train began to scream.
The mouth had always been locked in that stupid smile. I assumed it wasn’t capable of shaping its mouth into anything else. But now the mouth was a round hole, screaming and screaming, more like a siren than a human voice. One long note – panic and fear? No. There wasn’t any emotion to it. This thing was purely mechanical, without soul or feeling.
But the scream was horrible, painful to hear. I stepped forward and kicked the train in the face. It was a hesitant kick, seeing as how I was in my bare feet. But it didn’t hurt me. There was something soft, brittle, yielding about this ridiculous monster. Teeth went flying out of its mouth, skittering across the cage floor. But it continued to scream.
“Shut up,” I yelled, and kicked it again, aiming for its mouth. Maybe I could break it enough so it would be silent.
The train’s mouth bit down on my toes. I let out a yelp and drew back. But the bite had been pathetic, feeble. This man train wasn’t capable of any strong emotion – not even to preserve its own miserable existence. All it was capable of was smashing against the bars and screaming. As soon as I pulled my foot away, the train started making the noise again. So I kicked again, aiming for the eyes. One popped out of the socket and lolled on the end of a fibrous stalk.
“Help me,” I said to Brandon, and he started kicking as well. We kicked and punched it and I felt bizarrely like I was fighting living furniture. I grabbed the side of it, for better purchase, and the flesh felt real, human, but also taut and unnatural. As we kicked, the two of us began to slip into shark frenzy.
I knew it was upon me when my teeth started clacking together, sending stabbing pain through my face with each TOK! TOK! TOK! Then my muscles contracted and spasmed and I felt a tremendous animal strength coursing through my body. Primitive, savage, passionate, insane.
Before I lost complete control, I reminded myself that this was what I was supposed to be doing – killing and eating the train. I felt its side – there was a long bone, running in a line, forming the box like shape. I grabbed it as firmly as I could, and kicked its middle. It snapped in two, one jagged end of bone punching through the flesh. A red, almost syropy blood sputtered out of the hole. I stuffed my fingers into the wound and tore it open, making it bigger. The skin was so tight it was fragile, and ripped easily – like tearing a bed sheet in two.
“Why are we doing this?” Brandon asked. His frenzy was further away, it seemed. “Why are we killing it?”
“Because (TOK!) it’s not (TOK!) supposed (TOK!) to exist!” I yelled. And then I couldn’t speak anymore, because my mouth was chewing through the side of the train.
And Brandon quickly joined me. The screams of the train turned into pathetic gasps and moans. Bones ripped out of it were thrown across the cage. The internal organs were foreign and inhuman – as distorted as the outside of the thing. Was this odd rectangular lump a lung? Was this long strand of blue wiring some remnant of a colon?
My conscious mind fell deep into me, and my body took over. I watched myself, six feet back inside my own head. Could that really be me, ripping and gnawing at that thing in a cage? Of course it was. It had to be. Even as my body picked up some mysterious organ and stuffed it whole down my throat – I still had difficulty believing I was doing these things.
Now it feels like a dream, I thought. Now, back here, so far from what was going on. But I’d felt this way so often – detached like this, watching it all from miles away. My whole life, I’d been like this. Mechanical and unreal. But not anymore. Not after this man train is killed and eaten. Everything will be different, after that. Not just for me, but for all human beings.
I was saving humanity, was that it? By killing this train. Saving every human being from the mechanized lives we fall into.
The heart, in the middle of the train, was black, wrinkled, and pathetic. Like a raisin the size of a melon. I watched my hands grab hold of it. Brandon took the other side. The two of us pulled in opposite directions, and the heart tore in half. We each devoured our share. The train shuddered and died, and the two of us continued to feed.
Can murder be beautiful? Can killing a stupid, helpless thing be right? I wondered about this as I watched my body attack. Then the curtain of red fell in front of my eyes. I wanted to watch, but my body insisted my conscious mind was in the way – using up valuable resources. Then everything went black, and my body continued tearing and eating and destroying without me.
* * *
When I awoke, I was sprawled on the cage floor. My face, arms, my whole nearly naked body – all of me was sticky with that syropy red blood. I turned my head. Brandon was in the opposite corner, lying on his back, snoring. I felt slow, bloated – like I’d just woken up after eating three thanksgiving dinners.
In the middle of the cage, where the man train used to be, was a shattered carcass. Bones snapped in half, marrow sucked out – the white pieces were everywhere, like matchsticks. Sheets of bloody skin, the size of pillowcases, draped on stalks of bone — flags celebrating death. A broken, bloody, rectangular box lay nearby. When I nudged it with my foot I realized it was some kind of skull.
I tried to stand up, fell back on my ass, and then staggered up again. I had to get moving, before Brandon awoke. I had to get out.
The train track of bones was busted up, pieces of it everywhere. Uneaten. The tracks had been too dry and dead to feed upon. I tried to move through the bones as gracefully as I could, but in my bloated, overfed condition it was tough going. I slogged my way through, making a lot of noise.
Brandon opened his eyes, sat up. But by then it was too late. I was outside of the cage, sliding the bolt closed. Even though it was just a sliding bolt, I knew Brandon wouldn’t be able to open it. That was how it worked.
“Wh… What are you doing?” Brandon mumbled.
“An empty cage,” I said, “has to be filled. One of us has to stay behind.”
“What?” Brandon grumbled. Then he snapped awake. “Stay behind? You son of a bitch!”
“We killed an exhibit. I don’t know for who, or what. We can’t see them – the zoo keepers. Which is why the zoo looks empty to us. But they’re here, around us. I don’t know who they are. But I know that we can’t just kill one of their exhibits without replacing it. And you’re the replacement. I know it, Brandon. I just…”
My voice trailed off. The sign, which once read “Man Train” now read “Man Shark”. But Brandon wouldn’t be able to read the sign from inside the cage.
“Is that why you wanted me to come with you, you bastard?” Brandon spat. “So you could lock me in here and escape?”
I shook my head. There was more to it than that. And, really, even while I knew what I was doing, I didn’t consciously know. All of it was somewhere inside my head, only coming out as required. There’d never been a plan. It all just came together. I was just a receiver picking up a signal.
“I’m cured,” I said. “I’m not a shark any more. My hunger, it’s completely gone. Eating the train cured me. It cured everyone who turned into a shark. Almost everyone.”
“Except me,” Brandon said, standing up, grabbing hold of the bars. “That’s what you’re saying. That I’m still shark. But I’m not. I ate the man train too! I’m just as cured as you are.”
“You’re not. The hunger is still in you. When I say the word ‘hunger’, it vibrates through you. Not just a word, but like a calling. Hunger. Hungry. Starving. Famished.”
“Shut up, shut up!” Brandon screamed, shaking the bars with inhuman shark strength. Then he fell back. His astonished face showed he now knew it, the way I knew it.
“It’s not fair,” Brandon whined. “Why me? Why do I have to stay behind?”
“Because you killed and ate your family.”
“So what? Plenty of people did worse than me! They killed! They ate!”
“But you’re here, in the zoo. They’re not. You can pay the price. They can’t.”
“So you’re going to leave me here, punish me. Is that it? Who put you in charge? You’re the bad guy! You stole. You cheated on your wife. Why should you be the hero?”
“The shark bus chose me. It made me wake up, get off my ass, and change, for the better. I’m in my underwear. My teeth are wrecked, and I’ve eaten some kind of demonic dream train. But I’m better, now. I think everyone will be better, now.”
“Except me,” Brandon said.
“It’s not fair. It’s not goddamn fair.” And he started to cry, slumping forward against the bars and falling to his knees.
I stepped forward, on the other side of the bars, ready to comfort Brandon. But at the last minute, I changed my mind and stepped back. And narrowly missed being caught by his flailing hands.
“Oh, so close. My next meal, right there in front of me, and he gets away! Damn you, Dale. Damn you for depriving me of your meat.”
“Goodbye, Brandon,” I said, and walked away, leaving my former partner trapped in a zoo, trapped in a dream.
I walked down the cobblestone path, through the garden. The shark bus was there, on the river, the door wide open. I stepped inside, went to the control panel, and pushed a button. The door hissed shut, the shark went underwater, and began moving. I got into the captain’s chair and snapped on his seatbelt. It barely fit over my bloated stomach.
Maybe this was co-evolution after all, I thought as the shark swam. Humans had built the shark bus, thinking they were breaking and enslaving another animal. Instead, the four million year old animal broke, and then fixed, humanity. And now I would go back, the man train gone, and things would be different. Not just for those who were once sharks. For everyone. Something about destroying the man train would change all of humankind. I wasn’t sure how. But things were going to be different.
* * *
There’s a filthy kitchen inside my head. A woman lies there, among debris and garbage. Her shirt tattered rags, she’s naked from the waist down. The last meal she had was a rat – eaten three days ago. Dried blood from the rat carcass is still smeared on her mangled cheeks.
Then something changes. It’s hard to tell what it is. The air feels different – as though there’s less tension. The woman uncurls her body, waking up. But there’s no rush to it, no panic. Her muscles are slack. There’s no sense of a tightly wound spring. This woman in my head isn’t an animal anymore – it’s a person.
“Oh my God,” she says. Her voice is hoarse, gravelly. “Oh…”
She turns on her side, then struggled on to all fours. Her head lifts up, looking around the room, at the mess around her.
“Oh my God,” she says again – both expressing the feeling and testing her voice. She hasn’t been able to speak for so long.
It seems that she’s alive, human again. Her eyes blink, blue and clear. Slowly, tentatively, the woman crawls out of the garbage and gets to her feet.
Everything is different.