Edition 24: More than Flies by Brennan Gilpatrick
On the surface, life is crowded, chaotic and dangerous. Dallas is caught unluckily at the end of his shift with a delivery to the undesirable Ghost District. One unfortunate misstep and Dallas lands in real trouble, in the land of mechanical nightmares. Brennan Gilpatrick leads us into the horror of an overpopulated world and how the unethical choose to fix it. SY
Though he couldn’t hear her over the roaring crowd, Dallas knew the old woman was pissed. Her beet-red face and violent hand gestures made that very clear. He could only guess what obscenities passed through her grinding dentures as he ignored her. She was furious. Hell, she had every right to be. She’d probably been standing around for half an hour, waiting on an eggroll that took less than a minute to prepare. Hers were among several fists beating on the cashier counter, demanding their orders from Great City Wok. Dallas gazed across the restaurant; his coworkers scrambled like ants to appease the starving masses. He resigned to fiddling with the broken cash register, as the futile task would easily consume the remaining ten minutes of his shift.
“Can you even hear me?” the old woman screeched, leaning over the counter.
“I’m fixing the register, ma’am,” sighed Dallas. “Please take your order to another—”
“I just want my fortune cookie, asshole!”
He knew the kitchen’s cookie supply dried up an hour ago, but the task of searching gave him a place to hide.
“Of course.” He beamed. “I’ll go grab you one.”
He turned away from the crowd and snuck back into the kitchen. The flames of a dozen stoves flooded the room with meat-scented smoke, rendering blind shouting the only mode of communication. He wandered aimlessly through the fog, dodging frantic fry cooks in search of ingredients long depleted. The heat was unbearable, but he only needed to endure for ten more minutes. Then Great City Wok could kiss his ass goodbye.
“Dallas!” a disembodied voice called.
He spun around. Mr. Kobe emerged from the steam, sweat drenching his face and uniform. A manager’s nametag hung askew from his breast pocket.
“What are you doing?” asked Mr. Kobe.
“Uh…getting a fortune cookie. For a customer.”
Mr. Kobe shook his head. “Forget that. I need you to make a delivery.”
He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his breast pocket and handed it to Dallas, who read the order with a gaped jaw.
“Mr. Kobe,” he said slowly, “this is in the Ghost District.”
“I get off in ten! Can’t you find someone else?”
“There is no one else!”
He vanished back into the smog. Gripping the slip of paper, Dallas approached the nearby take-out counter, snatched a waiting sack, and marched out the back door. He knew nothing about this order except the address, yet already decided that he despised the customer. Bastard.
His Camry was practically an antique, but it was all his minimum wage could afford. He opened the car door and peered up at the flow of hover traffic dominating the skyline, searching for any police officers that might take issue with his primitive exhaust system. Nothing. Good. He hopped behind the wheel, tossed the bag of food in the passenger seat, and began his slow journey to the Ghost District.
The hovercrafts overhead moved with terrifying swiftness, unhindered by any earthly obstructions. Below, Dallas sat in gridlocked traffic, making his snail’s pace way through the metropolis he called home. A downed public AirBus laying ablaze in a busy intersection forced him to detour. Spontaneous gang violence in the middle of the street: another detour. Though all the diversions wasted a fair amount of time, he doubted traffic would go much faster in their absence. He blamed the sluggish speed on a suspicion he developed long ago.
The city held too many people.
Everywhere he went, it felt overcrowded—teetering on the edge of riot. He could not remember a time when Great City Wok (home to the shittiest Chinese food ever, in his opinion) wasn’t jam-packed because every other restaurant reached overflow capacity. Some could escape in their hovercrafts and live above the crowds—floating on magic carpets of wealth—without ever touching the filthy ground. The rest, like Dallas, sat in traffic. They sat and did their best to survive.
As he pushed through the city, towers of glass and neon transitioned to concrete and darkness until the light of civilization became a distant glow in the rearview mirror. Finally, hover and ground traffic diminished to almost nothing; he had reached the Ghost District. That’s what everyone called the Far East side of town.
It was a crumbling portrait of the past, left untouched by the hi-tech miracles that blessed the rest of the city. Burning barrels lined the sidewalks, casting vagrants’ twisted shadows upon ruined buildings. Shreds of old posters wisped from rusted lampposts. Most displayed catchy slogans—propaganda for a war long since lost. Dallas equated the residents to specters, drifting about the necropolis with ragged clothes and pale, ashy skin. He had only delivered food here on a few occasions, and he had hated every one of them.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.
He parked his car next to a busted fire hydrant, grabbed the food bag and stepped out onto the street, pressing the lock button twice for good measure. As he approached the apartment complex, he spotted two bums eyeing his car hungrily from a nearby bench. He quickened his pace and entered the building.
The lobby was a hazardous victim of an abandoned renovation. Large chunks of the tile floor were missing, exposing a network of rusty pipes. Deserted jackhammers and hard hats laid scattered on the floor and reception desk, mingling with dimmed LED work lights. To his left, two elevators were sealed with caution tape. Across the room: a door labeled “STAIRS.” He sighed, hopping from one patch of tile to the next. The faint light of the dying LEDs left much of the ground shadowed, transforming each leap into a guessing game. He reached the door and pulled it open—
A high-pitched siren shrieked outside, stopping him in his tracks. He recognized the sound immediately: car alarm. His car alarm. He spun around and sprinted toward the lobby entrance. His second stride missed the tiles and he fell onto the pipes below, sending his whole body tumbling to the floor. He landed hard, face first, on a bed of steel tubes. His grunt harmonized with a loud metallic moan.
The pipes snapped.
And Dallas fell.
He dropped into darkness, freefalling straight to oblivion. After an eternity of screaming, he landed, but not on the cold hard ground he was expecting. The surface felt soft and thread-like. It bent and vibrated upon impact, tangling around his limbs in a random frenzy. By the time the shaking settled, Dallas had become hopelessly ensnared. His body was locked in a Christ-like pose, legs together, arms stretched wide.
He lay still for a moment, recovering from the dizzying ordeal. Once the nausea passed, he attempted to sit upright. The cluster of fibers held his arms and legs tight, allowing him to lift no more than his head. With a grunt of defeat, he crooked his neck back to observe his surroundings.
At first he saw nothing but darkness. After a few seconds, the fibrous structure suddenly illuminated, emitting a soft, greenish glow. Dallas now realized that he was caught in a complex system of translucent cables, stretching farther than his eyes could comprehend. Within the network, countless black objects laid spread out in random clusters. Some of them thrashed violently; others remained completely still.
By the time Dallas realized they were other people, the glow faded away. Two heartbeats later it returned, then faded, and then repeated the cycle. He felt a wave of goosebumps envelop his entire body. What the hell had he fallen into?
“You’re a quiet fly.”
Dallas threw his head to the right. A thin elderly man lay tangled a few feet away, his limbs contorted into painfully unnatural positions. One of the fibers wrapped itself tightly around his balding cranium, locking his bright blue gaze in Dallas’s direction.
“What?” Dallas gasped.
“You’re quiet, relatively speaking,” the old man said. “Most of you can’t shut up when you get stuck! Buzz your little lungs out.”
Dumbfounded, Dallas listened to his surroundings. He heard no buzzing, only sobs and screams. The hysterics echoed throughout the subterranean space, growing louder when the lights went dim.
“Buzz, buzz, buzzzzzz!” the old man chanted.
“Sorry about him.”
Dallas peered down towards his right leg. The new voice came from a twenty-something year-old girl, ensnared inches from his thigh. Her jet-black hair concealed half of her face, and running mascara stained the other. This, and Dallas’s view down her low-cut red dress, enveloped her in a dark eroticism. Had Dallas not been so terrified, he might have noticed.
“He’s been talking crazy since he got here,” she continued. “His way of dealing with it, I guess.”
“Dealing with what? Where are we?”
Now Dallas looked to his left. Another woman, this one middle aged and conservatively clothed, rested in a heap close by. A bead necklace donning a crucifix pendant tangled messily over her eyes.
“Our souls are being purified!” she preached. “After this, we shall pass on into paradise! We will be one with God!”
The girl in red sighed. “And that’s her way of coping.”
“Please, tell me where I am.”
“Wish I knew,” she said. “I was walking home from a party, and it felt like the ground just opened—
“Shut up!” a voice hissed.
Below the clergywoman, a stocky man in a ruffled suit and tie splayed out belly-down among the fibers. While the rest of the company swayed and twitched naturally in their bound states, this man seemed hell-bent on remaining perfectly still. Rather than move his head, he glared at the girl in red by rolling his eyes upward, and spoke with the lip movements of a ventriloquist.
“Do you want to die?” he whispered.
“Mister,” the girl in red replied, “I don’t think it makes a difference.”
“Like hell it doesn’t!” he rasped. “It’s attracted to noise. If you people don’t shut up, you’ll bring it right here!”
The old man above chuckled. “What about that teenaged fella? He didn’t make a sound!”
“He squirmed too much. For the love of God, just stay still and shut up.”
As the suit dropped his gaze back down, Dallas struggled to swallow the panic rising in his throat.
“What’s he talking about?” he asked the girl.
She closed her eyes for a moment, breath held, containing a panic of her own. When she peered back up at Dallas, her eyes glistened with a hint of tears.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Dallas, I’m not sure how to tell you this. We aren’t alone down here.”
“I know,” he said. “I can hear the others screaming.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Then the fibers shook. Dallas felt them vibrate, shaking his whole body. After a moment of stillness, they shook again. And again. Faster. Harder.
Something was coming.
The clergywoman began to pray, loudly chanting Hail Marys. The suit remained silent and still, gripping his bonds with newfound desperation. The girl in red whimpered softly. The old man started whistled a tune, one Dallas recognized but could not name. His heart was racing too fast to concentrate.
“What is that?” Dallas asked.
More chanting. More whimpering. More whistling.
“What is that?!” he repeated.
No responses. Only hysterics.
“What the fuck is that?”
The old man switched from whistling to singing:
“…and the Itsy Bitsy Spider climbed up the spout again!”
Something heavy pulled at the fibers beneath Dallas. He looked down. There it was, sitting below the helpless group. It was massive, at least twice the size of Dallas’s car, its abdomen a twisted mass of bloodstained steel and thick, greasy fur. Eight legs of long hairy femurs linked by mechanical joints led down to sharp metallic claws. Its head boasted two razor mandibles and countless tiny yellow eyes, all of which seemed locked on one person: the suit.
In a blur of scuttling legs, he vanished, completely lost beneath the arachnid nightmare. It worked in silence, leaving only the suit’s muffled screams to hint at the slaughter in progress. As the cries faded to whimpers, a soft grinding became audible, like the spinning of a hundred tiny saws. When the whimpers died, the Spider turned and crawled off across the glowing web. Only a gaping hole remained in the suit’s place, the broken fibers drenched with fresh blood. After a few seconds, the snapped cables rose, stretched out to each other, and reconnected.
The panic escaped. Dallas screamed, swore and lashed out his arms and legs in a desperate attempt to escape the web. The harder he pulled, the tighter the fibers wrapped around his wrists and ankles, digging ever deeper into his skin. He did not feel the pain, nor did he hear the clergywoman criticizing his blasphemous language. The image of his impending eight-legged demise flooded every ounce of his consciousness.
Instantly, the plea halted Dallas’s thrashing limbs. Beneath him, the girl in red trembled uncontrollably. The early signs of a bruise darkened her cheek.
“Shit, I’m sorry!” Dallas cried.
“It’s okay,” she replied, sniffling. “I did the exact same thing.”
“You’ve got some nerve taking the Lord’s name in vain down here,” the clergywoman said. “I bet it takes you next.”
The mere suggestion summoned tears to Dallas’s eyes. He clenched his fists and shot a spiteful glare in her direction.
“You’re fucking delusional,” he spat.
The Clergywoman smirked. “And you’re damned.”
Dallas’s whole body began shaking with rage. Sensing another barrage of kicks on its way, the girl in red called up to her abuser.
“Ignore her, Dallas. She’s scared, just like the rest of us.”
“I’m not scared, you little whore!” the clergywoman snapped. “God will protect me from the Beast, as he protects me from all evil.”
“Wouldn’t be so sure,” the old man interjected. “Saints taste just as good as sinners.”
“You know nothing of saints!” the clergywoman shouted. “You’re a sinner! You’re all sinners!”
Awestruck, Dallas moved his attention away from the manic sermon and back to the girl in red, a crimson beacon of reason in his eyes.
“How can she believe this crap?” he asked.
“She’s coping,” the girl in red replied. “We all are.”
“That’s not coping! That’s insanity! Why would God put us here?”
“Does it matter?”
The quip hit Dallas like a punch to the stomach, leaving him speechless for a moment.
“Yes it fucking matters!” he said finally. “If I’m in Hell I want to know why—”
“Not Hell; Purgatory!” the clergywoman corrected. “This can’t be Hell. I’m here.”
The old man cackled.
“It doesn’t matter what you call it,” Dallas said. “It’s bullshit anyway.”
“Then why do you question the Lord’s motives?” the clergywoman asked. “Because you’re scared? Scared of His judgment?”
“He’s got nothing to judge!”
“Don’t be so arrogant! We’ve all sinned. This is how God purifies our souls.”
“This isn’t God! It can’t be!”
“Then explain it! Why else would we be here?”
“Who cares!” the girl in red screamed, silencing them all. “I’ve seen all kinds of people come through this spot. They all tried to explain where we are and why we’re here. And you know what? It didn’t change a thing! Didn’t matter if they were good, bad, loud, or quiet! They all left the same way.”
At this, Dallas’ stomach lurched with despair.
“We’re not escaping this,” she continued. “You can pray and kick all you want, it won’t make a difference. We’re—”
She stopped speaking. Her eyes locked on something behind Dallas, who tilted his head back in response. A hulking black mass sat half a football field away from the group, its infinite yellow eyes darting back and forth between potential meals. A single question dominated Dallas’s mind:
How does it choose?
The beast charged, shaking the web with every step. Dallas shut his eyes, but his ears remained open. He heard the gnashing of mandibles, the scraping of tiny blades tearing through flesh and muscle and bone. He recognized the voice behind the shrieking, the mixed pain and confusion. Drops of fresh, warm blood splashed against the left side of his face. After the screaming stopped and the sound of saws trailed off into the distance, he opened his eyes.
A bloody crucifix hung from freshly mended fibers.
Once his tear ducts ran dry, Dallas joined his fellow prisoners in forlorn silence. He could not say what thoughts occupied their heads, but he predicted they were no less depressing than his own. For hours, the trio spent no more energy struggling or debating. The creature could take any one of them at any time; all they could do was wait.
“I’m not a fly,” the girl in red declared.
Dallas awoke from his morose daze and looked down, puzzled.
“He calls us flies,” she explained, gesturing up to the old man, “and we’re not. We’re people.”
“Might as well be flies,” the old man grunted.
“Relax,” Dallas said. “He’s coping, or whatever. And you’re the one who said nothing matters—”
“We matter!” she said. “We’re not just bugs stuck in some spider web. We’re human beings for Christ’s sake!”
The old man shrugged. “I didn’t coin the damn term! It was management’s idea. Guess it helped them sleep at night.”
Baffled, the listeners tried to comprehend the old man’s words. Despite their best efforts, his statements remained gibberish.
“What are you talking about?” Dallas asked.
“It ain’t easy, dumping a dozen folks a day with a smile on your face. Gotta, oh shit, what’s the word…”
While the old man pondered, Dallas shared a bewildered glance with the girl in red.
“Dehumanize!” bellowed the old man. “That’s the word! Gotta dehumanize the poor bastards. Makes the job easier.”
Dallas looked to his right. The old man, his head bound, stared right back.
“Population control,” he replied. “Too many flies, not enough space. Or food, for that matter. We needed a predator to keep things in check. Happens in nature all the time.”
“He’s really lost it,” the girl in red muttered.
The old man laughed. “Sure have! I used to know all the pitfall sites by heart. But they keep setting up new ones—can’t keep track anymore. I must have walked through that alley off Deckard Street a million times, no problem. And now, out of the blue, it’s a pitfall? Why didn’t those sick fucks give me the memo!”
His voice became heated and irritated. Dallas heard no madness in his tone, only true, honest-to-God bitterness.
“Um, sir?” he ventured. “Who do you work for?”
“Why are you humoring him?” the girl in red scoffed.
“’Cause he wants answers,” the old man said. “That’s what I always hated about this process: we never give anyone answers. A man’s gotta know why he’s been put to death.”
“Why?” Dallas asked, starving for truth. “Why are we down here?”
As if on cue, the fibers began to sway, softly but surely. While Dallas felt his muscles tense, the old man simply smiled. His blue eyes dimmed with a sadness long repressed.
“Because you’ve got the worst luck in history, kid. You were born in a world with lots of people, and no places to put them. Of all the cities left to call home, you’re stuck with the one built over that…thing. I think they made it back during the war, when creating unstoppable killing machines seemed like a good idea. They can’t let it get hungry and go to the surface, so they use suckers like you to keep it fed. Kills two birds with one stone.”
The swaying evolved into violent shaking. It was near.
“It wasn’t personal,” the old man continued. “You weren’t chosen. You were just in the wrong dark place in the darkest of times. Tough luck.”
The web bounced and vibrated without mercy. The next death was imminent, but Dallas didn’t care. He was absorbed in the old man’s words, hypnotized by the confirmation of his worst fear:
The city held too many people.
“Get away from—!”
Something hot and furry smacked against Dallas’s leg. Looking down, he saw a gigantic pastiche of coarse hair, pink flesh, and blood-coated metal lying where the girl in red once existed. Then came the pain: flaming agony that slashed back and forth through his ankle. He screeched in anguish, struggling in vain to pull his leg from beneath the feeding behemoth. When he found himself on the verge of passing out, the slicing ceased, and the creature strode off to its next execution.
Dallas peered toward his ankle to survey the damage. At first, it seemed as though his entire leg had been severed. But after attempting to bend his knee, he realized that it actually dangled over the edge of a new hole. The surrounding fibers squirmed as they began to seal the tear. In the process, the chords entrapping Dallas’s body loosened and expanded, providing slack for the mend.
“Looks like you’re luckier than I thought!” the old man cheered.
Dumbstruck, Dallas looked to the elder once more.
“What do I do?” he asked.
“Get out. Tell people what’s down here. Don’t let them play God anymore.”
“But who’s ‘them?’ Who do you—”
“It’s closing, kid!”
Dallas looked back to the hole. It was indeed closing, and fast. In the span of a millisecond, he forgot all his questions, ignored all his fears, and leaned forward. The moving fibers bent under his redistributed weight.
And Dallas fell.
After only a few seconds, he crashed feet first into a deep body of water. The liquid felt warm as it engulfed his body, flooding his mouth and nose with the flavor of sewage. Once fully submerged, he enjoyed a brief moment of serenity as the sound of bubbles replaced the screams, then he kicked and pulled his way back upward.
With a triumphant gasp, Dallas broke through the surface to sweet oxygen. Above him, the glowing tapestry of misfortune stretched out forever, entangling countless victims whose pain he understood all too well. When the web’s luminance faded, a single light remained shining from across the cavern. It spotlit an elevator door, which seemed to hover just inches above the water level.
He waded toward the exit, minimizing his splashes to avoid potential detection. Every inch forward was an inch closer to the door, to the surface, and maybe even to safety.
Halfway to his destination, a deep roaring sounded, like thunder in the distance. Seconds later, the roaring faded, and then returned, louder, closer, more distinct. He looked back over his shoulder, immediately recognizing the noise’s source. It came from crowds of people tangled in the structure above, all reacting to a giant figure speeding past on the web’s underside.
The fastest swimmer on Earth could not have matched Dallas’s speed. Fueled by pure desperation, he tore through the water without any notion of pain or exhaustion. As his fingers grasped the concrete edge protruding under the elevator, a rumble of screaming innocents erupted directly above his head. He pulled himself onto the platform, prompting the door to creak open automatically. As he darted into the compartment, the beast splashed into the water, drenching his back. The elevator began to rise as something large and furious rammed itself into the door. After a few more impacts, the barrier crumbled, but Dallas had risen just high enough to avoid the consequences.
The nightmare was below him.
Ripping through caution tape, Dallas dragged himself out of the elevator and into the apartment lobby. He was now well aware of the deep, messy gash in his ankle. The intensity of his swim reduced his limbs to jelly. He slumped over and lifted the bag of Chinese food resting near a crater of snapped pipes. Pausing, he stared at it for a moment, then, despite the pain it caused, laughed all the way out the front door.
His car was in shambles. The wheels and hubcaps were gone. Interior: completely hollowed out. Naturally, the headlights were smashed. He felt another fit of laughter rising within him, but a metallic clanking from behind quashed the urge. He whirled around, relieved to see a severely unkempt man working his way down a fire escape. Upon reaching the ground, he stormed straight toward Dallas, eyeing his bag of food.
“That Chinese?” he asked.
Dallas raised an eyebrow. “Uh… yeah.”
The man snatched the bag away.
“Where the fuck you been? I ordered this shit hours ago.”
“Sorry,” Dallas shrugged. “Couldn’t get to your room.”
“You gotta take the fire escape! I said that on the phone.”
Dallas felt his left eye twitch. Fucking Mr. Kobe…
“That would’ve been nice to know.”
“Well I ain’t paying for this,” the vagabond declared. “Probably sucks anyway.”
He spat on the ground and trudged off the way he came.
Dallas turned his back on the derelict apartment, facing the distant inner city. He wanted to take comfort in the sight of home, but his newfound knowledge spoiled the sensation. He wouldn’t see the crowds anymore; he would see men, women, and children, all living in total ignorance of the nightmare waiting beneath their feet.
Convincing all these people of the truth seemed beyond impossible; yet the idea of saving them, inspired a motivation he never found behind the Great City Wok cash register.
He slipped his jacket off, wrapped it around his left ankle, and began a slow limp toward the glow of civilization. He would take his time, conserving what little strength and clarity he still possessed.
It was a long hike back to the city. He needed to watch his step.
Brennan Gilpatrick has written stories and screenplays since the tender age of five, his most recent work being the Cannes Film Festival Official Selection “Kia”. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he studies Film and Television Production at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong fan of speculative fiction, Gilpatrick’s top influences include Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison.