They put me in this cell eight months ago and locked the door. I gaze out through the window at a world ravaged and barren. There Famine rules, and her sisters Death and Despair.
Three times a day they bring me sumptuous feasts. Steaks. Chops. Lobsters swimming in butter. Pancakes and bacon and every kind of omelet you can imagine. I eat and grow ever fatter.
The guards who roll these banquets in look like skeletons. Their ribs strain against their skin. Their lips drool as they lift off silver lids and fragrant clouds fill the air. But they don’t take a bite. Not one.
They keep me well supplied with women too. Lord, you should see them. They are tall and short, lush and lovely. And they all exist for one purpose.
To please me.
Why, you ask?
That is the question I’ve asked myself ever since they brought me here. Why do they go to such extremes to keep me happy when the Great War made the entire world barren? The wine, women, and song they provide must drain what little wealth remains. They treat me like the king of the world, and my slightest wish for pleasure, no matter how frivolous, is always granted. There are only two problems.
(1) I can’t remember a damned thing before the day they brought me here.
(2) I can never go anywhere or contact anyone outside.
One day I’m listening to a Bach concerto, when an idea strikes me. They are fattening me up for the kill, so they can eat me!
But it doesn’t make sense. Why waste all that sumptuous food for a few pounds of overfed flesh? It would be foolishly wasteful and my meat wouldn’t go very far. Besides, my captors are not cannibals. At least, I don’t think they are.
I pat my swollen stomach and sit back on velvet pillows. Soon another explanation comes, and I sit up in fear.
They plan to sacrifice me as an offering to . . .
But that’s the rub. To whom? To what possible God?
I settle back, realizing that theory makes no sense either. Seeking an answer to my imprisonment is as foolish as asking the guards, who never say anything.
The door to my cell rattles and opens. Mr. Black, my warden, enters, followed by several guards.
“Please come with us,” he says.
I rise from the soft, scented couch and take a (last?) look around, feeling the beginning of fear. I call this a “cell,” but it’s a large square room with a thick carpet and lavish furnishings. Still, it comes with a lock, and I’ve never been allowed out even for exercise.
I search the warden’s eyes for a sign, something that tells me why he’s here, what this is all about. His black eyes lead to eternity. I retreat in panic.
“Mr. Mann,” he says, his voice deep as death, “please come with us.”
I get a grip and head for the door. Outside my room (for the first time ever), I move down a corridor surrounded by guards. The Warden marches at my side.
After an elevator ride, we enter a new corridor. We walk, we walk. We turn left, then right, then left again. How big is this place anyway?
Eventually we stop before a black door. The warden knocks and the door opens. He turns to me and smiles.
“Mr. Mann, we’ll leave you here.” Gently, he pushes me inside.
The door closes behind me. I see two men in rumpled suits. One is smoking.
I stare at them. They stare at me. The man on the right, the one who’s smoking, ambles forward and looks me over. He shrugs.
“I don’t get it. What is he doing here?”
The other shrugs too. “You might as well ask, what are we doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look around, for God’s sake.”
As the man scans the place, I do too. There’s almost no detail. This room goes beyond nondescript. Except for a table and a few chairs, it’s almost featureless.
“I see what you mean,” the smoker says. “This room looks unfinished. Why’s that?”
“It’s obvious,” his friend says. “The writer has absolutely no idea where he’s going with this story. The opening is over the top but it ain’t bad – a prisoner treated like an emperor for some mysterious reason in a post-nuclear-war world ravaged by famine. Problem is, the writer has no clue where to take it. So you and I are basically twiddling our thumbs while he keeps scribbling, hoping that the situation generates a viable plot thread. View it as a lame exercise in metafiction.”
I’m as lost as the smoker. “Meta – what?” we ask simultaneously.
He lifts an eyebrow. “It’s an artsy-fartsy term. Basically it’s fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction and whose characters may be aware they’re in a fictional work. It – look, I don’t have time for a crash course in literary criticism.” He points at the man’s cigarette. “What’s your brand?”
The guy studies it and frowns. “Damned if I know.” He pats his pockets. “And I don’t have a pack.”
“Uh-huh.” The other comes forward. I notice he’s black, though I’m sure he wasn’t when I entered. “And if you search your memory, you’ll find you don’t know if you drink coffee or what your name is.”
“That’s not true.” He scratches his head. “It’s Fred . . . something.”
“Hooray, the writer’s got a few facts, but not much. And when he wrote me in, he knew even less. I don’t know what my handle is. Nor, I’m sad to say, do I know what the hell to do with our guest. I know he’s a prisoner, but that’s about it.”
Listening to them talk, I’m getting more and more lost. Their words make no sense at all. I thought they were going to kill me. Surely they can’t be right about us being victims of some schmuck’s writer’s block.
The smoker drops the cigarette and grinds it out with his heel. “You’re right. There’s almost no details here. I don’t even know if I like women. The jerk who hatched this turkey must be heading toward a dead end.” He snaps his fingers. “Hey, could this be a minimalist story?”
The other shakes his head. “Naw, a minimalist tale has a purpose, delicacy of handling. The joker who still-birthed this aimless narrative is stymied and has no idea where to go. For all I know –”
Suddenly the door bursts open and two masked men leap inside. Unlike the others, they are finely drawn and wear brilliant red uniforms of elaborate detail. They both hold lethal-looking weapons.
“Oh, shit.” The smoker reaches inside his coat. “Where the fuck did I put that thing?” Finding nothing, he rummages through his pockets. His friend is more successful, but his gun barely clears leather before bullets kill them both.
One of the killers seizes my arm. “Come with us. Only you can save the world!”
They hustle me into the corridor, which is filled with dead guards. As we race toward an exit, I wonder why I didn’t hear any shots.
We crash through a door and run up stairs. Around and around, higher and higher. Once I fall but my escorts grab me and haul me up. Exhausted, I stagger through another door onto a roof. A helicopter sits unattended, its blades whirling.
In seconds we’re airborne, the city wheeling beneath us as we rise. Everything’s moving so fast, I barely have time to think. But one thing stands out. The pilot had said that I – only I – could save the world.
When I ask him about it, he doesn’t reply. The copter ascends.
“I did hear you say that,” the other man says. “What’s it about?”
The pilot turns the wheel slightly. “It’s classified. On a-need-to-know basis.”
The other man adjusts his mask. “At least tell me why we’re wearing these things.”
“So no one can identify us.”
“So no one can identify us? Who cares about that? We’re freeing a goddamn prisoner and just want to get him away. And if we’re going to wear masks, why these tiny, silly, pansy ones? They make us look like Zorro. Another thing: in our line of work, stealth and secrecy are essential. These faggy red uniforms practically shout that a mission is in progress.”
The pilot stiffens. “Uh-oh,” he says, pointing out the windshield. “Enemy at three o’clock.”
“And more at nine,” his colleague observes. He flashes me a look. “This man must be important.”
Important? This is madness. Surely, they have me confused with someone else. I have no special skills and can’t remember my past. My whole life has been that room where I received everything I wanted. It’s hard to imagine I ever wanted to leave it. As the copter rises, I find myself wishing I were back dining on lobster and watching strippers.
Soon the sky is filled with attacking aircraft. Laser and mortar fire strafes the air.
The man with the questions grabs a machine gun on his side of the copter. He fires in a continuous burst. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! He swings the gun on a tripod, blasting the enemy as an ammunition belt rattles like a snake.
Above, to the left, a plane erupts in flames. Gotcha!
The copter wheels, turns. For an instant, I see a deep giant crater far below in the heart of the city. A memory stirs. Nuclear attack, but when?
“Hey,” the gunner shouts to me, “use the Browning beside you!”
“WHAT?” I shout back over the sound of incoming mortar.
He sights on the enemy. “The M2! Help me blast ’em! Just sight and pull the trigger!”
ME? He wants ME to shoot the enemy?
A burst of fire narrowly misses us, shaking the interior. No time to argue. Turning, I find a machine gun beside me. How did I miss it before? I grab the handle and draw a bead on an attacker. Hold my breath and pull.
It erupts in a flower of flame.
In seconds I’m completely into it. I blast plane after plane. They go poof, they go kaplooey, erupting in pretty patterns. Fiery debris rains down toward the city. I swing the gun and pop another plane, then another and another. I’ve never felt better in my life.
Finally, except for us, the sky is empty. We’re kings of the clouds!
“Status report,” the pilot says.
The gunner inspects the cabin. “Everything looks AOK. Just a little superficial damage.”
“Good.” The pilot taps the instrument panel. “Everything checks out here too. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not sure,” his partner says. “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense.”
A pause. “Yeah, like what?”
“Well, just for openers, why are we using the M2? The darn thing’s antiquated. We haven’t used them in twenty years. But even more important, where did all the bad guys come from so suddenly?”
“What are you talking about?” The pilot adjusts his course. “They saw we were freeing Mr. Mann here and tried to stop us. He’s important to them.”
“And to us. But no one seems to know why.” He frowns. “If the devil’s in the details, then Satan’s laughing like a madman.” He points out at some burning debris. “To me, this huge attack is a plot convenience with cheap special effects. It’s a Deus ex machina to rescue a stalled narrative.”
The pilot snorts. “You should never have majored in English lit.”
“C’mon, think. There are more holes in this plot than you can shake a cliché at. The critics will ask how we destroyed a hundred planes and barely got our hair mussed.” He looks at me. “And our brain-damaged passenger turns out to be an ace sharpshooter, a regular Hawkeye. The end result is that the reader will find it impossible to suspend his disbelief.”
The pilot swings the copter around. “Hold on, we’re going back.” He glances over his shoulder at me. “You Okay?”
I nod. In fact, I’m better than ever before. I feel exhilarated and complete, liberated from my misery. But I do wonder about something. Why are we returning?
I glance at the gunner. He spreads his hands and shrugs.
Heading back, I see terrible destruction below. Outside the monstrous crater, the city and surrounding landscape are ravaged by the horrors of nuclear warfare. Something about the desolate scene stirs my memory. An expansive laboratory, the whir of centrifuges. And I . . .
I straighten in my seat. I am Dr. Joshua Mann, neurobiologist. I remember an assault on my lab, people trying to kill me. Something struck my head and the world went black.
“My God,” I gasp. “I’m Joshua Mann, a scientist. Men attacked my lab. I saw people die.”
“Yes!” the pilot said. “That’s good, tell us more.”
I close my eyes, feeling it come back. “I was injured. Something knocked me out. Later, our people tried to jar my memory. Drugs, shock therapy, everything. Then . . .”
I stop, drawing a blank.
The pilot continues for me. “Finally, on the advice of psychiatrists, we put you in an ultra-pampered environment. The latest theory is that for a work-driven, goal-oriented person like you, the boredom of easy living would be intolerable. You would rebel and your amnesia would lift.”
“But it didn’t work,” he goes on. “You chafed at the forced inactivity, but didn’t remember your work. Maybe, in time, that would have changed. But after eight months, we couldn’t wait any longer.”
He doesn’t have to continue. “So the government decided a little excitement was in order, that it might stir up my memories when nothing else could.” I frown. “Only you didn’t expect to be attacked, and by such a large force.”
“A contrived force,” the gunner says. “I still don’t think that scene’s plausible.”
The pilot glares at him. “What else is coming back to you, Dr. Mann?”
In my mind, more pieces fall into place. “My secret formula. I memorized it so spies wouldn’t steal it. The formula would lift the contagion, make the earth grow again. But there were people who didn’t want that.”
“Yes, the Enemy,” the pilot says. “They profit from a world filled with death. They’re like scavengers, living off carrion.”
The other man laughs. “Hallelujah,” he says. “It’s not only another plot contrivance, but a bloody cliché to boot. A secret formula. You’re going to convince me that a few scribbles on paper will save humanity?”
“Fasten your seatbelts,” the pilot says. “We’re about to land.”
We touch down on the roof where we started from and get out. Before we enter the building, though, the pilot stops me.
“Take off your clothes,” he says.
He starts to strip. “Because we’re going to change outfits.”
I hesitate in confusion, realizing for the first time that we’re about the same height and weight. Then I obey.
Soon, we’ve swapped everything but the mask. He removes it, then peels off his hair, making himself bald.
I gasp. I’m staring at myself! He looks just like me!
“Put the mask on,” he says, holding it out.
“How . . .”
“Surgical alteration to make me look like you. The enemy must think you’re in prison and beyond their reach. But it will be me taking your place while we fly you to a fully equipped lab.”
I take the mask, put it on. “That’s brilliant.”
The skeptical one snorts in disgust. “Bullshit, it’s just another cheap plot contrivance. How would they even know he’s a prisoner?”
“They’ve got a spy on our staff,” the man with my face says. “We know who it is and keep him away from Dr. Mann. At the same time, we control the information he receives, so he won’t know about this switch.” He pats my bright red uniform. “Thank God, our trick worked and jarred your memory. Our hopes for man’s future depend on you, Dr. Mann.”
His colleague steps forward. “You know, for the first time, this narrative makes some sense.” He stops, his eyes widening. “Man. Dr. Mann. I . . . I can’t believe I didn’t see it! Let me deconstruct this narrative, determine its deeper meaning.”
“Stop,” his superior orders. “I’ve had enough.”
“Just a minute,” the other says. “I thought this was a botched story by an inept writer. But I see it’s not! It’s deceptively nuanced, an amusette to catch the unwary. It –”
“I’m warning you,” the pilot says. “Shut your trap.”
“It’s actually a deeply symbolic allegory about the nature of man. You see, Dr. Mann
represents all men, just as Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress represents all Christians. And like men everywhere, Dr. Mann is a prisoner, confined by the existential limits of society.”
The pilot pulls a gun. “I’m warning you!”
“Yes, yes, I see it!” the other cries. “Ultimately, we are all prisoners in separate rooms, isolated from each other and exposed to life’s chaos and inexplicable events. Viewed from that perspective, the sudden, seemingly unwarranted appearance of enemy planes is ingenious, a profound statement of the human condition. It represents the unpredictable nature of life, the –”
BANG! The man stops talking and peers down at a smoldering wound in his chest.
The pilot smiles. “How’s that for a fucking plot hole?” He watches the other fall, then holsters his weapon in disgust. “Silly ass, I got tired of his jargon.”
I shudder, gazing down at the man’s body. “I rather liked him.”
The pilot leads me inside. There, I find Warden Black waiting for us.
“Welcome back, Mr. Mann,” he says to the pilot. He gives me a meaningful look, then nods at several guards. “These gentleman will accompany you to your destination.”
To the secret lab, he means, where I shall heroically endeavor to save humanity. Funny, though I’ve learned a lot, I still can’t say this story makes much sense. The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll be glad to get out of it.
My replacement seems to read my mind. “This isn’t just a story, you know.”
Not just a story? I start to ask what he means, but remember something. “It’s a novel, isn’t it? And this – is just the first chapter.”
He grins. “Worse than that. This is the first chapter of a whole action-thriller series. If it’s any consolation, it’s going to be popular. Over twenty best sellers.”
I groan. Twenty novels of this dreck!
I gaze at the new Dr. Mann, tempted to ask for my old job back. The life of a spoiled sybarite isn’t so bad, especially when you get laid often. It certainly beats getting your ass shot at all the time. But I guess I have a job to do.
I return to the roof, escorted by several men. Reaching the copter, I halt in amazement. The dead man’s sitting behind the wheel, munching a sandwich.
“I thought you were dead.”
He swallows. “The author screwed up again, forgot he even whacked me. Anyway, while these guards ride shotgun, I’ll be flying you to the lab.”
I peer at him in suspicion. “Hey, do I know you? You look familiar.”
He takes off his mask and winks. “Like you, I’ve had amnesia and just realized who I am. I’m Louie, your faithful sidekick in the series.”
Christ, I recognize him. He looks just like Claude Rains who played Louie Renault in Casablanca. That makes this chapter’s ending strictly a rip-off. I climb in the copter and sit beside him, trying to prepare myself for all that lies ahead. Deep down I know I’m even more of a prisoner than before.
“Louie,” I finally say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” *
* Originally published in Chimeraworld 2008, a book to rejected fiction. Well, it figures.
John has published twenty books and three hundred short stories, most of them science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal romance. He’s the former editor of Horror MAGAZINE and Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers Association. Recently, he’s focused on his Inspector of the Cross series which features a 4000-year-old hero fighting to save the human race from seemingly invincible aliens. The Merry-Go-Round Man, a coming-of-age novel featuring three boys in the fifties, can be found on Amazon and elsewhere.
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