A USMC light colonel steps into my cubicle, nearly collapsing it when her muscular shoulder accidentally grazes one corner. Startled into wariness, I quickly click out of the Word document I have concealed in the lower right-hand corner of my screen and pretend to move numbers around on a maximized Excel spreadsheet. I have been pretending to work on this same spreadsheet for about two weeks. I have been working on the Word doc – my next novel – for nearly four months.
“Kaczynski?” she bellows, pronouncing my name exactly like The Unabomber’s.
She’s looking for me. Service members are rare on this base. Civilians like me must outnumber them a hundred to one. Marines are ever rarer than sailors and I almost never interact with either. But she’s not lost. She came to find me. In surprise I stand up from my chair.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
Her uniform and command voice awaken something buried in my medulla oblongata. I’ve been out of the army for six years, but my grasp of military customs and courtesies, drilled into me over eight years of ROTC and active service, come back to me like riding a bike. My back stiffens, by knees unlock (the only way to avoid passing out on long parade days), and my thumbs almost instinctually find the seams of my trousers.
“Is it Kaczynski?” She looks at the nameplate hanging in my cube. It lists my title as FMTP INTERN. (It may as well say FUCKING NEW GUY.) She makes another game attempt. “Co-za-now-ski?” This is a popular mispronunciation. I’ve never quite been sure where the “-ow” sound is supposed to come from.
“Causin’-ooze-key, ma’am,” I say, pronouncing it phonetically.
“Stephen.” At least she has gotten this part right. Sometimes I get Stefans or even Step-Hens. “Cause-now-ski.”
“Nailed it, ma’am.”
“Not so hard. Follow me, Ski. The admiral wants to see you.”
As I follow the colonel, my mind is racing. What could I possibly have done to catch the attention of the WSS commander? Or was it the NAVSUP commander? I’m just a lowly little intern. Sure, sometimes my supervisor lets me brief the vice-commander when a conference comes up or something, but that’s more to give me warm and fuzzies and feel like part of the team than anything else. Why would the admiral send a greensuiter – or I guess in the Navy they ought to be called bluesuiters? – to get a civilian financial analyst like me? Also, which admiral?
“Ma’am, are we going to see Admiral King or Admiral Yuen?”
“Who? Don’t play dumb, Ski. The old man. Admiral Fall.”
Fall? I don’t know any Admiral Fall. There are only two admirals at Mechanicsburg Navy Depot and there hasn’t been a change of command that I know of. Naturally, I don’t know every admiral in the entire fleet, but I’ve never even heard of an Admiral Fall. Except for, well, the sociopathic warlord in my novel. But this is real life.
My mouth goes dry and I look behind me. We have been walking for some time through twisting and turning pathways, even though my office building in landlocked Pennsylvania only really has one main hallway. Now, though, we’ve reached a place I don’t even recognize. The walls – “bulkheads,” marines would call them – are chrome. And leaking. And…
I look out a porthole. Yes, a porthole. Not an ordinary window like in my building. A seagull on the wing luxuriates in the balmy air. A sun that seems to fill the entire sky is reflected in the sparkling, primordial water. This is the ocean, and my office is 500 miles inland. And listing off the port side of what I’ve already recognized with a sinking feeling as the imaginary aircraft carrier Providence is a tropical island.
“Patusan,” I whisper.
This is it. The main island of the titular GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO. A place I made up. Well, really my distant relative Joseph Conrad made it up, but I appropriated it for my novel.
“It’ll still be there when the old man’s done with you,” the colonel says.
I turn to face her and for the first time I notice her nametape. West. That would be LtCol Olivia West. I named her for Herbert West of Re-Animator fame. No wonder I never recognized the woman. She doesn’t exist.
“Livi…” I say, then catch myself, “Colonel West…”
“Lieutenant Colonel West,” she corrects me.
She’s surprisingly hung up on protocol for a fever dream. Is it possible my horror novel is true and I just thought I made it up? Did Zhuangzhi dream he was a butterfly or did the butterfly dream he was Zhuanzshi?
Of course, I’ve never met a marine that didn’t hate the army’s somewhat abbreviated system of address for ranks. So that behavior still could have come entirely from my subconscious.
“Lieutenant…colonel…” I agree, “Is Crunchy still alive?”
Her eyes narrow. Her fingers twitch at the brutal KA-BAR knife hanging on her belt. Now I wonder briefly if marines actually wear KA-BARs on their belts. That’s a detail I don’t know offhand. I know the knives are very popular with devil dogs, but I don’t know how they wear them. Is this detail proof that I’m hallucinating or proof that I’m not? I have no way of knowing.
“Fuck do you care, mister?” she growls at me.
Oh, shit. I just asked the deadliest killing machine still alive about her secret lover. And probably sounded halfway like I was threatening him.
I smile in apology and open my mouth to reply but realize I have to swallow the real answer: “I’m just trying to figure out how far into the book we are.”
My mind races.
“I went to the academy with him,” I lie, since I never went to any academy and for all I know neither did Crunchy. (Poor kid never did get much of a backstory.) “I always figured he’d be dead by now.”
An uncharacteristically wistful grin deforms Livi West’s face. A twitching frown quickly replaces it and if I didn’t know West better I would swear her eyes are turning misty.
“Yeah, Crunchy bit it. Unfortunately. Things are tough all around. Old man’s in here.”
She taps a door. (A “hatch” I guess I should call it.) I swallow a thick lump in my throat and step into Admiral Sinclair Fall’s imaginary stateroom. The room is just as I described it in my book.
Fall is immediately recognizable within. Dwarfing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the admiral’s presence is one of crudely restrained physicality, like a caged tiger. No, there’s no mistaking Fall in his resplendent white uniform, with the only even slightly out-of-place element a small pink ribbon.
But Fall is not alone. Two other men flank him.
It takes me a moment to place the man to Fall’s right. (Stage right. My left. Whatever.) He is young, with wiry hair and the look of hash-induced madness in his eyes. His clothes are somewhat nerd couture, but he doesn’t look anything like the billionaire he is.
“Rand Bergeron,” I realize and am startled to hear myself say it out loud.
Rand smiles a shit-eating grin like no one else on what’s left of the earth can muster.
“Aw, you really know li’l ol’ me? I’m touched. Touched, I say, Kozinski.”
Apparently even my own fictional creations can’t even get my name right. He sure sounds like Rand, though. Which means the last person…
“This man’s presence is a blasphemy,” the self-proclaimed “bishop,” Coughlin Sonntag, says.
Sonntag is elderly, though the purity of his faith seems to give an uncanny strength to his palsied limbs. Or it could be all the zombie goo he constantly ingests. In fact, his entire left arm is missing, replaced with the desiccated limb of one of the walking corpses he worships.
If Sonntag has already lost his arm, then this is very late in the book indeed. Almost the grand guignol finale. I hope I don’t get swept up in it…
“Now, now, Padre,” Rand says, either forgetting or simply not caring that Sonntag is Protestant, an affectation I recall with a grimace that I gave him, “You keep saying that. But I say: why make an enemy when you can make a friend?”
“There is no God but God!” Sonntag declares with all the fire of a Plymouth Colony pulpit-pounder. “The suggestion that this…author,” he pronounces the word with palpable distaste, “Can shape our world and even dictate our actions offends me. It offends my sensibilities and it offends the eye of God!” The spittle flew from his lips as he condemned me.
Yup, that was Sonntag all right. I reach up and run my fingers around my collar to loosen my turquoise tie. The mountain of a man called Fall, who has been quiet up until this moment, now opens his mouth and speaks with a carefully considered, reserved, almost delicate tongue.
“I agree with you, of course, Bishop Sonntag. Yet Bergeron has a point. We must be willing to be…practical. He may be a devil or a genie or we may indeed be fictitious…although of course I find any of these possibilities exceedingly hard to believe. However, if he does have some power over us it may be wise not to kill him outright.”
“Kill me?” I practically whisper.
The tie feels more like a noose now. Fall never smiles, but Sonntag is pleased by my discomfort. It falls to Rand, though, forever the wheeler and the dealer, to try to haggle with me. He claps his hands on my biceps and I’m surprised that they don’t feel slimy.
“No one’s gonna kill you, Stevie-baby. The admiral’s just trying to put the fear of God in you. Everybody’s real big on God around here. Not me so much, but I get by. Let me guess: I got you pegged for an agnostic, too.”
“It’s…complicated,” I reply.
“I agree! Damn complicated. Let’s talk, though, about what’s going to happen around here in the next few days. Could you, for instance, just end the whole apocalypse thing? Like, make every corpse just fall over dead?”
Rand mockingly wraps his hands around his own throat and sticks his tongue out sideways in a mockery of cartoonish insta-death.
“I…well, that’s just bad writing.”
Sonntag takes a step towards me, his zombie hand outstretched and damning me with a single index finger.
“Bad writing was when you sought to supplant the Bible with your own word!”
Fall lays one of his hamhocks on the missionary’s shoulder.
“Restrain yourself, bishop. At least hear him out.”
Fall leads Sonntag to a chair and they both seat themselves, waiting patiently. Fall rings a bell and whispers a few words into the ears of the steward who responds. A few moments later the man is back with a tea service, and Sonntag grudgingly pours himself a bone China cup.
“Just to be 110% on the same sheet of music here,” Rand says, “You can’t end the apocalypse or you just won’t?”
“I…” I actually have to think about it, “Can’t. It’s a cheat. It’s beneath me.”
“That means he won’t,” Sonntag growls, but he doesn’t rise from his seat.
“It’s not just that,” I say, finding my words at last, “I mean, it’s the integrity of the story, yes. But it’s also that you three are just…awful. The he worst villains I’ve ever created. Callous and monstrous and heartless. The things you do to people…and the way you justify it to yourselves…it’s unspeakable.”
The triumvirate seems to, as one, exchange a raised-eyebrow glance with one another.
“Sure, I could change what happens to you in the next few days. But if I let you live I’d be unleashing an unwholesome evil on the world. The things you’d do…the taboos you’d violate…the extremes you’d break…history itself would weep if I let you continue.”
I look around the room at the three dumbstruck faces. Not to tootle my own horn but I have acquitted myself rather well. Rand, in characteristic fashion, is the first to speak. He is shaking his head slowly.
“I tried to give you the soft sell. But you begged for the hard sell. Remember that. I tried.”
“Stop preening, Bergeron. It’s unseemly.”
Fall fixes me with a cold, hard stare, but notably he doesn’t rise.
“What I hear you saying is that you absolutely have the capacity to rearrange our fates. Not only do you know what happens to us, but it is well within the bounds of your power to affect the outcome. And furthermore that you categorically refuse to do so. Is that correct?”
Fall nods and picks up a small bell. It is a servant’s bell, probably for calling for tea and the like. But when it jingles it no steward enters. Instead, an entire platoon of rough-and-tumble marines pours into the stateroom. But these are no ordinary marines. Around their necks are metal collars with blinking red lights. Sex Drive collars. Mind control devices.
And each marine is dead. There even stands the leering, half-rotted face of Crunchy, LtCol West’s fallen lover. Fall has taken advantage of the apocalypse to replenish his ranks with mind-controlled zombies. And they are all eyeing at me hungrily.
I feel two sets of ice cold hands grab me. I struggle, but it is in vain. A hard metal collar is fitted around my neck.
Sonntag leans towards me with a smile. He folds his dead hand and his live one together.
“Now I think we can begin this discussion in earnest.”
They are the last words I hear before I feel the pinch of a hydraulic needle pierce between my vertebrae and dig into my spinal cord.