by Mac Tonnies
(Note: "Disintegration" first appeared in Alternate Realities Webzine. Illustration by Zakas.)
"The street finds its own uses for things." --William Gibson
My car stalled outside the stadium complex. I felt the engine kick, sending shudders through the fiberglass and acrylic . . . a sudden grinding, like the molars of a restless sleeper, as the gears locked.
Someone slammed into me from behind, shoving the Volkswagen across the rain-glazed pavement and into the rear bumper of a long white car in front of me.
The white car's driver got out, swinging the door into the side of an on oversized truck emblazoned with theater lights and faded bumper stickers. The driver's narrow face looked appalled, almost bloodthirsty, and I saw him reaching impulsively for something tucked carefully beneath his rain-slicked jacket...
Blaring horns, shouts...
I struggled out of the car, fingers numb on the handle, emerging into a world of cold rain, idling engines, the Christmas-tree blur of taillights and half-glimpsed dashboards.
The stadiums glowed with jaundiced light, concrete flanks and monolithic stairwells like components of a desolate sculpture. They looked like they had blossomed out of the pavement after some indeterminable period of gestation.
The angry driver was coming forward, babbling obscenities, and what doubt I had had about what was concealed in his jacket evaporated as he removed a small black handgun, which he waved vaguely in the air in front of him, the muzzle jerking in time with his words.
I hurried down a wet embankment and over a pallid yellow schematic of empty parking slots. The rain let up, then resumed with its former intensity. Behind me, I heard car horns weeping and bawling, punctuated with the desperate voices of drivers as they lowered themselves to the anarchy of the pavement. I thought I could hear a frightening bass "thumping" sound as my Volkswagen's metal skin met with flailing boots.
Someone took off after me, feet hammering on the stadium parking lot, sending rainwater fleeing in spectral curtains. I ran faster, already breathless, the yellow pallor of the stairwells phantom-like, something dreamt into being to quell my need to escape. The nearest stadium appeared truncated: a Babel tower left deliberately unfinished. At the top, refugees like myself might be hatching schemes to surmount the very rungs of night, leaving their concrete perch to dissolve into its own sodium vapor anemia.
My pursuer began to adopt my own labored gait, then abruptly disappeared. I wondered if s/he had existed at all, or if the sounds of pursuit were merely artifacts of paranoia. I slipped in the rain, hands spread to absorb my impact. They gathered abrasive constellations of grit as I went sprawling across the ground, unfeeling, eyes-ears-skin numbed by the too-soon assault of the night sky (too few stars, it seemed) and ice-cold cement. My chin and palms were bloodied, my limbs splayed ridiculously: spokes in a senseless mandala.
I lay gazing into the sky, conjuring illusory stars that fell out of position and went tumbling across the cosmos.
I forced myself to stand and continued to the nearest stadium. I had somehow lost the other one; had it been a trick of perspective? The parking lot stirred and spun beneath me, a vast pregnancy, the stitching of yellow lines intimations of impending fracture (a million novel forms rising like claymation monstrosities from a veneer of velveteen charcoal, mutant jungle flowers with helix stamens contemplating a vast, sudden migration to a dark and unsuspecting continent).
Time and space lost their usual symmetry. I slipped through vortices in the fabric of chronology. My memories were a tangle of raw incident. Somehow, somewhere, I could feel myself giving way to a crushing psychic weight . . . the wet sound of synapses tearing Velcro-like: half snap and half crunch.
I came to my senses in front of a bank of payphones. I put one of the receivers to my face, enjoying the oceanic hiss in my ear, the cool adhesion of the handle on my cheek. I stretched my lips around the mouthpiece and tried to breath, instead infusing my mouth with an multitude of forgotten dialogues. I inhaled until light-headed. Disowned electrons perched on the end of my tongue like trained insects at some macabre carnival.
Sated, I explored the base of the stadium: trampled mesh, restrooms grafted into the walls like chambers in a nautilus shell, pale curvatures of linoleum and puddled urine.
Again I heard footsteps. I ran, legs uncertain and autonomous. The wet concrete sucked at my feet like resin as I rounded a corner and raced delightedly up one of the spiral stairways I had seen from the edge of the road.
I ascended, warding off vertigo. I could feel myself drawn to the edge: some centrifugal aberration . . . the same reckless tropism that sucked forgotten explorers off the shores of the Flat Earth. Below, beyond, gleaming trivially through a haze of falling rain, I saw the city: billboards waxing alarming pastels, headlights raking invisible boulevards like ghostly antennae.
I paused for breath. Behind me, I heard a confusion of tramping feet. I resumed running, leaning to my right to avoid flinging myself into the opposite railing. The city below ebbed and gave off fractured aquarium light; for the first time, I noticed the bright dots of air traffic plying the dark like captive fish.
I emerged on the stadium's uppermost level, my hands sticky and colorless on the back of a collapsible plastic chair. An airplane passed silently; I could make out its wings against the clotted sky, and imagined them as veined and restless as a mosquito's. I found an aisle leading from the stadium's summit to the playing field below. Even unwatched, it remained flooded with light -- not the sickly glare that had greeted me from outside but a fierce whiteness.
Vague forms stirred in the distance. Some moved guardedly in front of the illuminated playing field. Others sat in small congregations. Security guards, I mused... either that or stragglers from some long-ended spectacle. I couldn't believe that so many people could go unnoticed, free to use the stadium as they saw fit. I kept low to the wet steps and plotted a meandering course that would allow the briefest of intersections with the playing field.
Burdened with cold and exasperation, the light far below took on messianic significance. I wanted to bathe in it, find solace in its seeming stillness (oily parking lot water lifting away from my skin in membranes of fading glimmer).
One of the seated figures tilted its head, regarding me. I hurried on, limbs shuffling to the adrenal blaze in my chest and temples, trying to imagine that the sudden pattering behind me was nothing but rain.
I turned and saw an emaciated figure keeping pace with me, the hem of a threadbare overcoat licking the wet steps.
The figures at the bottom of the stairway turned to face me. Their stillness was meditative and absolute. Their eyes, though indistinct with distance, were somehow rueful and disapproving. They blinked at me, arms hanging at their sides like those of a hung person, fingers curled into loose fists.
I stopped, looked about, my ears ringing in the stadium's vast silence. A cemetery calm descended. The figures, frail and anonymous -- little more than silhouettes -- removed themselves from their seats one by one. A few of them approached me, arms still at their sides, chins tucked into their thin chests.
One of them, the closest, touched me. Its hand was long, without flesh. Its knuckles appeared to be hammered out of old metal, its wrists articulated aluminum pipe. A wet sighing sound came from the thing's invisible mouth. A sound of mourning, I thought, terrified: a precise liquid keening that went on and on as we stood facing each other on the stairs. The figure's coppery breath tickled my wet face.
Fingers prodded my back. I turned, numbed by the surrealism. My predicament had become a waking fiction, an impossibility. Reality had taken on the garishly urgent texture of underground cinema.
The figures ushered me down the steps, past rows of empty seats that shone blue-black with rainwater. They steered me to my left and out into the stadium's periphery: a dim corridor of glass-enclosed sports memorabilia and barricaded concession stands, mop buckets standing in squat plastic vigil.
We entered the nearest restroom. The soles of my boots were silent on the tile. As the others assembled around me and turned on the lights, their monotone breathing grew stronger, yet uniquely purged of resonance. Their feet clattered as they progressed down the rank of stalls. I saw no urinals; this must me a women's restroom, I thought dimly. I suddenly felt guilty and voyeuristic. The pale fluorescent light lent the sinks and prefab stalls a harrowing institutional quality, as if these were structures built to last till the end of the time. I wanted to scream, run, vomit . . . Sensing my agitation, the figures escorted me farther into the long, sloping room. We passed a stained tampon lying on the floor, filthy but reassuringly human.
We reached the end of the restroom. I sloughed out of my fear like an astronaut shedding a spacesuit. The last two stall doors had been ripped from the hinges to accommodate heaps of debris. I had never seen such an eclectic variety of garbage: empty soda cans, shreds of Styrofoam, broken dolls, tangles of metal that looked like they had been yanked from the guts of cars, scratched eyeglasses, empty toothpaste rolls, yellowed circuit boards from outdated computers.
The figures, I realized, were made out of the same discarded stuff. In the restroom's light I could see the battered headlamps they had gutted to form owlish silver eyes. Webs of frayed circuitry lined the interiors of their makeshift skulls.
The figures seemed to delight in my stupefaction, glancing among themselves with a marionette's imbecilic delight. Their joints creaked in painful unison. They stood before me draped in the muddy, tattered clothes of street people, famished metal bodies ticking and sighing with secret clockwork. Could beings like this die? I wondered. They wouldn't have to if they kept themselves repaired, replacing an appendage or organ when one rusted away. I imagined them systematically rooting through dumpsters and scrap heaps, eyes ablaze as they went about dissecting engine blocs and exhaust valves. The night was their laboratory.
One of the figures emerged from the adjacent stall, dragging the naked, comatose body of a young woman. Her hair was dark, pungent with toilet water. Even in sleep, her skin had gathered together into gooseflesh. Her neck and wrists bulged with distended veins.
Bladed fingers traced glistering cryptograms across her torso. Eyes made from disposable cameras clicked and buzzed in appraisal. In seconds her intestines lay exposed, still undulating as they leached nutrient from a forgotten meal. The figures knelt around her, rain-beaded faces inscrutable. Then they grabbed at her entrails with vine-like metallic fingers. Rusted scissors emerged from mud-caked pockets and slashed expertly at her excised chest.
I fell to the floor and grasped my head in my hands, crying. The figures continued their work. I could hear them rifling through their collection of trash, selecting tubing to be used in place of intestine, panels of cracked plastic to replace skin. They moved with effortless speed, their clumsy-looking heads wagging from side to side, lantern eyes flashing.
I got to my knees, revulsion giving way to astonishment. The woman had been almost entirely transformed. Flaps of skin littered the floor like parchment. One of the beings began picking them up and draping them over a towel rack and inspecting them as if they were maps. Indeed, the more I looked, the cryptic diagrams the beings had made before proceeding with the surgery looked like city schematics, roads and overpasses intersecting with hemoglobic intricacy.
I heard footsteps from the restroom entrance and turned to watch another being approach. Unlike its cohorts, this one was amazingly tall -- at last seven feet -- and utterly without superficial detail. Its mechanical organs trembled nakedly, held in place with yellow filament and braided coat hangers. The creature seemed ancient beyond belief, poised on the edge of physical impracticality.
It squatted, torso wheezing, knuckles scraping the floor. Its head was a mass of tangled wire and tarnished aluminum. It sported a kind of headdress made from ribbons of Mylar foil and brittle newsprint. And it stank of mold and rust.
As it watched the proceedings, it craned its neck in an unsettlingly human-like manner. I recoiled, only to find myself closer to the operation. My hands slipped in blood. One of the surgeons brushed me aside with its steel-hard shoulder, barely noticing me.
The skeletal newcomer steepled its fingers and absent-mindedly picked a scab of rust from its sharp chin. Its mane of paper and foil rustled in an unfelt breeze. We looked at each other in silence, deaf to the clicking of scissors and rending flesh. It appeared to consider me, its thin, amorphic face twisted with alien emotion. I sensed desire and fear, the recognition of an obtuse kinship. Our species were reflections of one another. By entering the stadium I had surrendered myself to a clandestine truce with unknown parameters.
I jerked as if awakening from a light sleep. The beings behind me lobbed handfuls of severed tissue into the toilets, which flushed noisily. What was left of the woman lay twitching on the floor, an ill-defined thing of muscle and beaten chrome, wire and tendon. Where her eyes had been were the bottoms of soda bottles, held firm against her exposed skull by veins of solder and packing twine. Her jaw had been removed, leaving her tongue to swish in the rank air.
A fusion, I realized. An experiment. But one of how many?
The beings finished cleaning up, splashing the floor with water from the sinks to dispel the lacquer of blood. Their movements betrayed practice, endless rehearsal. They had done with before and would continue to do so, egged on by evolutionary fervor. I couldn't take my eyes of them; they had the feisty innocence of hatchling wasps.
They figures left the restroom, moving in clumsy lockstep. The hybrid ambled behind them, shedding bits of wire and slivers of duct-tape. I followed, swimming in awe and exhaustion.
The tall figure with the absurd headdress waited for me in the corridor, all lean shadow and pensive glimmer. For the first time I saw its makeshift genitalia: a scrotum of cellophane, pendulous with washer fluid. A rusted sparkplug and been fastidiously crafted into what could only be intended to be a semi-erect penis.
The figure approached, arms outspread as if crucified on invisible beams. One of its fingers fell away on a small hinge, revealing a hypodermic needle. I flinched, but the needle was already embedded in the soft of my neck. I gagged, clutched my throat, the corridor melting around me.
Someone or something broke my fall and placed me gently on the concrete floor.
I awoke in the stadium parking lot. My skin was numb with cold; my neck ached where the being had shoved the needle. I sensed an infection blossoming beneath my skin: a spiky rash that followed the fractal schematic of my nerves as certainly as buses down endless streets.
I rolled onto my side, managed to stand. My car lay next to the embankment, wheels and undercarriage bared to the gray sky. The assailants from last night had shoved the Volkswagen off the road. It had tumbled down the incline, leaving an ugly stripe in the wet grass.
My keys were still in my pocket. I ducked down and pried the driver's side door open with numb fingers. The inside of the toppled car was shadowy and placental, a postindustrial crypt. Several seconds passed before I noticed the human body crumpled on the asphalt several meters away.
I scurried away from the wreck, past a spray of shattered glass. My own face, pallid and distended with decay, stared back at me, shards of windshield winking from the lacerated forehead. My eyeglasses had been shoved rudely into my skull.
I knelt, morbidly fascinated. I groped for the stiff, jaundiced face, trying to knead warmth into the lifeless skin.
But my hands, unruly appendages of metal and taut spring, left only reluctant furrows of blood.