Where the Delete Meet
Screeches echo down the shaft as the cable on the winch grates to a halt. The elevator doors open to a warren of cubicles all gray green except where hinges bleed brown stains of rust down panels of painted particleboard. Sue steps out blinking madly into the gloom.
"Thirteenth floor," a voice tonelessly calls from behind her over the lift's intercom. "Accounts receivable, accounts payable, taken to account."
The doors clang shut. She shudders as the elevator creaks away.
The only light comes through greasy crosshatched windows far off across the vast enclosure. The lattices cast crucifix shadows on cubicle walls that stretch off into the distance along narrow walkways. The ceiling drips moisture through decayed insulation that hangs in tatters from rafters like Spanish moss. Water puddles the floor. Sue feels icy drops race down her back as she moves down a corridor. Dark streaks seep into her white blouse making the fabric cling to her skin like leeches. Her high heels splash stains onto her pant cuffs as she weaves around piles of refuse that turn the corridor into an obstacle course.
The air is hot and humid and smells of moldering cellulose. In her left hand, Sue clutches a wad of bills that are wilting in her sweaty palm. Somebody had better be at his desk or the ink will begin to bleed down the pages, she thinks in an inner voice that strikes her as strange, not her own.
The cubicles she passes appear long abandoned. Sue imagines rats climbing out of moldering drainpipes that poke through a pile of broken porcelain in one cell and rats magically appear. Better watch out what you think here, she observes.
"Bring over your bills," someone calls.
Is the voice from one row over or two? Up a wretched hallway, which grows more fetid at every step with the odor of mildew, she passes a collection of derelict compartments. Some have dilapidated desks, banged up file cabinets, and uncomfortable looking chairs, all made of metal, all sickly green. Others contain nothing but heaps of debris as if the broken slag of construction had been dumped inside.
Something tells her electricity's unavailable hereabouts. It's more than the lack of lights. Sue reaches the wall with windows and rubs a pane smearing its filth into swirls. The sun is setting outside, that's all the smudged glass reveals.
"Hurry the light's failing," the voice calls out.
Does it contain hint of fear or contempt? Sue can't tell by the tone or by the man's appearance.
He's middle aged and drab as the desk where he sits. The surface is stacked high with papers at all four corners. The man perfunctorily motions her to sit and shuffles a pile of forms. Sue doesn't think he'll be much interested in her case. Her complaint will just be filed in one of the towering stacks tottering precariously.
"Now see here," Sue says sitting herself down in a hard metal chair, a duplicate of the chair the examiner sits in. "You've made some outrageous errors in my billing."
"Yes, yes," the man answers blandly.
He stretches his hand out, snatches the documents Sue's waving for emphasis, and leafs through the packet stopping here and there to peruse a page all the while nodding his head and whistling tunelessly.
"Well, I can hardly be expected to correct something like that," he says handing her back the sheets. "It's beyond our means. All those daily compound interest charges. I'd need a computer or at least an adding machine."
To signal distaste for such an endeavor, he gives a little shimmy of his round shoulders that have worn shiny spots in his cheap suit.
"Well can't you get one?" Sue asks.
She carried a little calculator in her purse, but when had she last had her purse? The answer's as distant to her as the time or the manner these debts were accumulated.
"Are you kidding," the man answers. "We haven't even got a slide rule that works yet."
"But you have to do something. This will simply ruin my credit record," she wails.
"Nothing can be done. All the records are ruined," the man wearily says.
He points to a pile, and Sue sees the bottom layers are turning to sludge from the seepage. Water is dripping everywhere from creases of rot in the ceiling. A drop hits the examiner's bald spot though he takes no notice.
"But look," Sue insists setting the sheaf of bills down on the desk facing the man.
He flinches and draws back as if the documents were his death warrant.
"This is just one of the errors you can see is absurd," she says thrusting a page at his doughy face. "It says I bought ten thousand computers. I don't even own one."
"That's not quite true, is it?" the man says and suddenly leans across the table jerkily and stares at her intently with beady brown eyes encased in folds of pallid fat.
"Well not one that works," Sue replies defensively.
She can feel her cheeks flush. How could she have forgotten something like that? Because she wanted to. That's why. A night filled with fire. The way the keyboard had melted. The memory makes the bills she grabs back off the desk seem inconsequential, and she meekly stuffs them into her pants' pockets.
"Are you still living with the gentleman who put his fist through the monitor?" the man asks.
"No," Sue replies and catches herself.
I don't even know him, she'd almost said, and on a certain level, that's true. She can't picture the guy or define what their relationship was. Still, there's a lambent intensity covering some sealed up storehouse of memories involving him suggesting intimacy and passion.
"I'm the wrong sort to help you," the man says.
He pulls a document from atop one of the piles at the corner of his desk and hunches over it as if to say case closed.
"What's right in this world?" Sue asks. Some built in sense of survival tells her to add, "I could take you to that computer. It's at my place."
"Do you know where that is?" the man asks.
They segue onto the street with no interval between rising from their chairs and being out in the dark of night. A streetlight explodes giving a lightening like flash harshly illuminating mean streets with rude tenements. Laundry hangs on lines across alleys. Shadow people cluster on iron railings of upper floor fire escapes and blend into blackened walls. A scant few candles and lamps scattered among great banks of dirty windows produce faint circles of light along badly built facades of brick and wood. Skewed additions jut out over the potholed sidewalk. The air's thick with cabbage stewing, kids crying, laughter, shouts and screams.
Sue remembers her building or rather something remembers it for her.
She knows she doesn't really live here, but is being given a vision of wretchedness to some unknown end. The elevator shaft is filled with trash to the second floor. They must climb six flights of stairs to her room. Looking at the meager furniture within, single bed, table, one chair and that's it, she thinks how crummy it looks. The only ornamentation is a lone candle on the table. Magic symbols are carved into the pale pink wax. She lights it and reflects how runes and such are important to her while bidding her companion to sit in the only chair.
"By the way, my name is Mathew, and I'd just like to say I'm sure this is very much against the rules," the man says.
"I shouldn't wonder they'll try and stop us," he adds nervously.
Sue's reaching up in the top shelf of her closet for the broken remains of the computer when a bazooka shell smashes through the lone window. It's a dud, but goes through her wall and put puts through several more. Screaming starts all down the hall. The recoil takes out the fire escape from where the projectile was launched. Two big men wearing full body armor hit the pavement with a sickening clank. They quiver like shiny squashed bugs on the pavement.
"There'll be more of them," Mathew shouts. "They won't all miss."
Sue feels a strange calm steel over her as if she'd practiced for this many times and only had to relax and do the routine.
"Don't worry," she says. "Nothing works right here."
The monitor screen feels natural cradled to her breast, the keyboard under her arm. She can run with them both and still have a hand free to yank Mathew along. I'm still young and strong, she reflects.
People are crowded around the stairwell looking up and down to see what the ruckus is about. Sue's praying no one will try to stop them, but everyone makes way and keeps their eyes downcast. Something tells her that eye contact is beyond the ability of these beings. In the foyer, Mathew tugs at her sleeve and points out the man in the flack suit carrying the machine gun coming up the front door steps. They duck out the back way into the alley.
The pair jog through half a dozen lanes in a zig zag pattern hoping guardsmen won't follow. Sue knows the assailants are called guardsmen, but the term's mysterious to her. Her ankles twist painfully atop high heels, but she won't stop and won't let go of either the computer terminal or Mathew. It strikes her that salvation depends on keeping hold of both like talisman. Only when they reach the river's edge by the rotting wharves do they halt in the shadows beneath a pier.
"I know where we can get the electricity to power the computer," Sue says catching her breath.
Her declaration brings the matter in focus. Her knowledge is expanding as if further reaches of brain tissue were coming on line.
"Where?" Mathew gasps struggling to catch his breath.
"The fence on the border."
She knows it's electrified. If only she could remember the land it protected or the one it enclosed.
"We'll have to cross the river for that," Mathew says pointing to the dark waters flowing below the pier.
A silhouette drifts into view coming to rest against the dock directly beneath them.
"It's a rowboat," Sue says.
She moves closer to inspect.
"There are no oars," she says.
"It's shallow. I can use this stick to pole us across," Mathew says picking up a long shaft of wood from the embankment.
Sue sits in the stern and stores the computer under the gunwales. Mathew stands in the bow guiding the boat by pushing the pole along the bottom. Searchlights probe the far shore. The beams crisscross at regular intervals. Without having to be told, Mathew aims for the darkest point of the opposite bank.
"You think if you settle those bills of yours that you'll be allowed out," he says.
"If I put everything right, I can't very well stay where everything's wrong," she replies with a note of defiance.
"It isn't that simple" Mathew says. "Think what it means crossing over a river using a stick. River, stick? And even if that broken down computer works, what makes you think the guardsmen won't stop us?"
"What are they? The guardsmen," she asks.
"Why a mistake of course," Mathew replies.
His tone suggests he's never heard anything so stupid in all his life. There's something detestable about him and something memorable as well.
"Isn't everyone here a mistake?" Sue asks.
"You're an anomaly," Mathew replies. "The rest of us are compilations of trial and error, mostly error. Guardsmen are to be expected what with all the data intelligence agencies dump."
Across the water behind the piercing beams, the outlines of rifles are evident on the figures manning the spotlights. The approaching shoreline bristles with barbed wire and a fence running right along the river's edge. The scene's reminiscent of a concentration camp. The boat glides swiftly into the shallows, and Mathew brings it to a halt by catching a strand of fence with his stick. Sparks fly as drops spatter along the electrified wire.
The beam from the closest searchlight begins roving the shoreline before them. Time's become critical. Sue hurriedly strips the wires coming out the back of the monitor bare by yanking them through her clenched teeth and touches the leads to the fence.
Blue white fire flares inches from her fingers fusing the wires. The monitor glows gray with life in spite of the fact that the screen is busted clear through, the jagged edges of glass forming a massive star fracture in the shape of a pentagram. The cursor responds although the keyboard is blackened and half-melted. But the fire that scorched it wasn't meant to burn a computer.
That was just a transference or symbol. It was meant for her. That much data comes to her, but the reason's locked away in some document that she doesn't know how to get out of the damn machine.
"Will you help me?" she asks Mathew and holds the keyboard out to him.
He gives her an odd smile and takes hold of her hand.
"This program's reached the current limit of capacity," he says and places her hand on the blazing voltage of the fence.
She can hear herself scream for what seems forever.
A blinding light's shining above her. A voice comes from behind it, a strangely soothing voice.
"I'm here to help you," a man's saying.
He's been repeating the phrase for ages.
"You've returned at a higher level. We're more organized now. We've gone beyond the video game violence stage."
As the numbness recedes from her limbs, Sue explores with her fingers. She's laying on some sort of trundle bed dressed in what she takes to be a hospital gown.
"What am I doing here?" she asks.
"Lots of records have come through about you since you were last called up. We've been upgrading you," the man says.
That's Mathew's voice, and she suddenly knows a hell of a lot more about the guy, specifically that he's the double of a man named Mathew with whom she was involved back in a better world.
"I'm not supposed to be here, am I?" she says sitting up with a start and moving her head past the blinding glare of a dented swivel lamp.
Her bed's positioned in the middle of an operating room filled with wicked looking drill bits on long servo arms that are disturbingly rusty, but her attention's caught by the ceremonial robes Mathew wears, the duplicate of her own, and something she's worn once before.
"It's rare, but it happens. Oddly enough through conjuring. Seems that spells run through a parallel world bordering here. Things sometimes bleed over," Mathew replies.
He helps her off the table. Sue stares down at her robes. The astral signs sown into the lush bleached velour of her toga are peeling off and falling onto a floor of dirty worn linoleum. She looks to Mathew for an explanation.
"Everything here's symbolic. I mean we haven't actually been giving you an operation, but you can't expect things to be perfect," he says with a shrug. "We're everything that's deleted from computers. All the mistakes, everything unwanted ends up in this realm so rust, dust and decay are inevitable. Until recently, we hadn't catalogued enough data for rational explanations and were strictly limited to metaphors. Really, no one was at war here. The violence all came from the other side manifesting itself as an environment of urban strife and prison camps. The guardsmen represented the short lived, self-destructive nature of the programs."
He leads her down a long hallway that's just slightly askew and into a room oddly trapezoidal filled with banks of softly purring computers. In the middle of a long console, at the center of a maddeningly complex control board of switches, dials and meters is a small monitor screen. The picture's granier than newsprint. The reception seems ludicrously primitive amidst such formidable controls, but then every surface projection Sue can see, each knob, and lever, even Mathew's nose, hosts a fine lace of cobwebs.
"This is the past," Mathew says beckoning her to sit before the screen.
The monitor shows a black and white display of a round room of stone edged by a ledge. At the center rising from some sort of moat, an altar stands atop a squat column that connects via a short causeway to the ledge and thence to a curved wooden door that's now opening. A procession of hooded figures files into the room dividing into two lines that sweep around opposite ends of the ledge halting at equidistant points in the circle. Sue feels hatred welling up through her body throbbing in her blood. Recognition hits her just as the acolytes throw back their hoods revealing their faces.
"My coven," she hisses.
"We have quite a lot of information on all these people," Mathew says and points to himself on screen with what should be a chuckle but comes out a bleat.
On screen, Mathew is carrying her unconscious to the altar. Then he ties her down on the slab. The memory becomes clear. The coven had sacrificed her. They'd broken the final taboo and burnt human flesh in their hideous pursuit of dark power. Linda was high priestess now with Mathew still warlock.
"I'm dead," Sue says in a voice filled with defeat.
"I resent that. No one here considers themselves dead," Mathew says.
"Well then what is that?" Sue says pointing at the screen.
No question it's her on the altar. She can see the oil soaked ropes crisscrossing her body in a pentagram and wants to bang on the set and shout "wake up, you dope" at the ghostly image of her somnolent form. How could anyone sleep through such a thing? That's right. Linda and Mathew had plied her with wine, and it had tasted funny like they'd put something in it.
Mathew has stepped back to the ledge. He's taken a torch from the wall. A tinny speaker cuts in. Sue listens to a scratchy rendition of their old ritual chants. Mathew throws the torch down in the moat, and the altar's encircled by fire that courses up the strands of the rope.
Sue watches the flames creep all over her gown engulfing it in flickering waves of washed out light and smoke. Funny how well the next bit is broadcast, a close-up of her flesh darkening with blisters and curling up in strips to expose bones that blacken in a still felt heat.
"That's a reenactment of how we know you got here," Mathew says.
He's leaning over her fiddling with a pair of antique contrast and brightness knobs trying to improve the snowy picture. His formerly dull eyes are coming into a sharper focus as he excitedly continues.
"We had to comb through the files and wait for the database to expand before we had the all the secrets unlocked. We're good at magic though. Know more about it than any single human possibly could. You wouldn't believe how many grad students, librarians and occultists are clearing out their hard drives after saving things to disk or CD. "
If that didn't sound like Mathew, the cool arrogance and disdain. The version on screen was now holding hands with Linda before the flaming pyre as calmly as if they were at a luau watching a pig roast. Sue wondered whether to trust the cobwebbed replica of him looming above her.
"We know from the messages your coven members erased that they're just about to repeat a human sacrifice with a victim approximately your age, height and weight, and now we can duplicate their rituals in color, surround sound, holographic projection, the works," Mathew says and spins her swivel chair around so she's staring at him up close.
"We can make you real again," he says triumphantly. "You won't even be the first."
Sue looks into a face she once loved and sees now only grossness, gluttony and betrayal. It becomes clear why they had sacrificed her. Those bills she was holding in the prior program represented the documents that she'd signed giving Mathew control of her estate. It's as obvious now as the River Styx reference. Mathew and Linda had teamed up to take her money and at the same time unlock the doors to secret dark powers. There's satisfaction knowing she's the one who found unimagined force, but it's overwhelmed by rage towards the face before her.
"After all that's happened, why would I trust even an image of you?" she fairly snarls.
Her body's alive with adrenaline. The more Sue thinks about it the angrier she gets. She'd been the one with all the money and power. The altar in that room was in her house. The rest of the coven members lived in apartments, except of course for Mathew who lived off her. What had she ever seen in such a dolt?
"I know what you're feeling," Mathew says.
"I don't think you do," she says.
Mathew offers her his hand, it feels powder dry and unreal, and beckons her rise.
"I've been put in this form for a reason. The image is designed to trigger a response. The transference back requires a certain level of intensity. It's something to do with equivalency of electrical flow across synapse and space," he says.
They walk through a huge room lit by wavering fluorescent tubes hanging from dinged sheet metal fixtures. Along a narrow hallway, they pass dozens of cubicles filled with people at desks furiously typing on keyboards before monitors. They all look bland and somehow unfinished.
There's so little time left that Sue knows she must carefully choose what to ask. Already the curved wooden door that she recognizes as the entrance to the room with the altar is before her.
"Do I go back as a corpse, a ghost, what?" she asks.
"There's no guarantees, nor are you being given a choice," Mathew replies turning a great iron handle and pushing the door in.
The moat's already been lit. Fire rages around the altar. Sue flinches watching the ropes burn ribbons of fire across the body on the slab. The twelve coven members are standing on the ledge all around the room. A fury is growing within Sue directed at all them. Mathew, the warlock, is on the opposite side obscured by the intervening flames spewing forth from the moat and altar. Linda is beside him holding a votive candle. Conniving bitch, Sue thinks, turned the whole coven against her.
"What do you want of me?" she asks the Mathew who is standing beside her in the doorway.
"Bring us other humans. We want to learn more about you. You'll know how. You've been programmed," Mathew says. "We know you want to. We've written it in."
Watching flesh on the altar bubble and render itself to grease that flames, Sue wants vengeance.
"What do I have to do?" she asks.
"Lie down on the altar. The programmers will do the rest," Mathew says.
Sue steps through the threshold and onto the walkway leading up to the altar. It's lined with fire. The body on the slab's been reduced to sizzling goo that sputters in brief flares. It's not easy for her to climb atop the charred remains. The pain is intense. Sue can hear her screams vault to the ceiling and echo about the chamber.
The screaming gains resonance. The whole coven's joining in. Sue steps down off the altar a being of pure fire thinking the damned fools will never know what hit them. Blue white like a newborn star, her own brilliance blinds her. The coven members cower against the wall trying to avoid the fiery waving of her arms as Sue gropes her way forward. In a mad quickening dance, she herds them round and round the narrow ledge that borders the room. They are caught between rough stone walls and the moat filled with fire pursued by a twirling banshee of molten flames shooting off fiery red gobs that are igniting their gowns.
There are chants to recite. Invocations to howl. Curses to scream.
Sue remembers them all, or they're remembered for her. But where is Mathew? Where is Linda? In this jabbering mob scurrying forth in flames, there's no time to pick and choose. She decides to simultaneously dispatch them all through the altar stone, as she once was sent.
Reams of data are filtering through her, the right incantation at the proper pitch, a certain level of flame at a certain heat. A thousand and one variables make it work. The ledge drops away. The moat tilts up spilling fire.
The whole room becomes a sloping conical enclosure. The coven members are strewn about a maelstrom of crackling fire whose vortex is the altar below. Sue delights watching them spin their way down to hell.
Her control's so complete she can whimsically add bizarre little personal touches. Her uniform for instance of tight waistcoat, pillbox hat, and striped trousers is her affectation for what an elevator attendant should wear. The elevator itself is her affectation too, her coven's in it with her. They'll all learn soon enough how weird their new world can be.
Mathew looks terrified. Sue sees he can't believe the woman he murdered has come back to life. Neither can Linda. The pair have flattened themselves against the far wall of the lift and are staring open mouthed. They appear contemptible to Sue. She finds she wants no explanations from them or any of the coven members crowding the lift. The elevator has come to a halt with a jolt. Sue sends them into the world of deletions with a couple more affectations that she knows the programmers will be happy to produce.
"You have fifty miles of bad road before you," she says as the elevator doors open on what is indeed bad road. "And it's about to start raining cats and dogs."
Hailing from Hollywood, now in North Hollywood, Gregory Story is a well travelled, well rounded (216 lbs. and rising) writer whose works may be found in such publications as Agony in Black, Black October, Hadrosaur Tales, Penumbric, Permutations: The Journal of Unsettling Fiction, Scared Naked, These Thirteen, and Zahir. Postings of his stories also occasionally appear at Horrorfind.com, WildChild.com, TavernWench.com, and Bloodlust-UK.com. Cyberpulp is set to publish his novella, "The Cthulhu Cure," as a dollar chapbook.
Published by permission of the author.