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The Shadow Over Tacoma

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gardenGnostic [GG] has begun pestering ectoBiologist [EB]
GG: hi john!
GG: dave said you got a new job
GG: congratulations!! :)
GG: you must not be home yet
GG: but when you get back I want you to tell me about your first day!
GG
is an idle chum!
EB: hey jade
GG: oh hi!
GG: so how was your first day as a klokateer?
GG: did you have fun?

EB: i killed a guy
GG: what?!?!!
GG: D:

EB: and then I had to carry boxes
GG: DX

Yeah. Today pretty much exploded John’s expectations of corporate retreats.

He was dead tired, victim of the kind of exhaustion that renegotiated your body's limits every second you remained awake, and faced with Jade’s hounding for details and interjections of concern and his own screeching nerves God damn. He just couldn’t deal with it. Closing out the Wikipedia window and telling his sister-friend that he had to crash right fucking now and not to worry, he’s fine, John flopped face first, fully clothed, into bed. A hot shower in the morning, rinsing away the blood and other... stuff still in his hair and under his nails, would go a long way to make him feel human again; but, face buried in his pillow, he didn't think it would work before he slept.

In the moments before unconsciousness, his arms and face aching and bruised, he laid back and desperately fought against the dark; he’d never been afraid to sleep, and even now it’s wasn’t really fear, but tonight, the bible-black midnight felt alive, writhing against his senses and penetrating his mind. The shadows were grinding against each other, and him. Maybe tomorrow he would talk to Rose; she would sympathize better than anyone with the only real answer to Jade’s frantic query “What the fuck happened John???!!!”

Shit had gotten equal parts brutal, grimdark and real.

XxXxX

Standing in the park, waiting to submit his paperwork and board those airboat-hovercraft things with all the spikes and sharp edges, John looked around and decided that whoever was running this human resources department had a pretty skewed definition of “regular”. Must be pretty solid on the jackoff part, though. His new comrades we mostly men, long haired and dirty, wearing black or red Dethklok merch; they were boisterous and profane, showing off scars from shows, and most were his age to balding, though there were some impossibly young teens and even more bizarre oldtimers. Guess they might be experienced carpenters looking to get in on the good pay the job promised, but it was just as likely that they were deranged sexagenarian fans looking to get close.

John smiled tersely at one of the middle-aged dudes nearby who kept staring, a biker maybe with a grey buzzcut, a crooked nose and huge gold belt buckle with two chickens facing off under a banner that read “COCKFIGHT.” There might not be a water cooler along the body-dense coastline, but that was no reason to be rude.

“I’m gonna slit you from nose to navel, boy,” the stranger responded with a wolfish grin. Well, he was obviously unhinged, and John resolved to maybe cool it on the camaraderie and keep his eyes on the ground or the sky. He tried to shuffle away when boarding, but he couldn't really shake anybody off his tail in this carpool mosh pit.

The ferries proved just as unsafe as they looked, creaking and groaning under the crush of so many bodies; when the open fans that propelled them revved up and the boats lurched then shot forward, the weight eased considerably. People flew off and hit the water, hard enough to bounce like skipping stones— to his left, one kid, thin and excited, lost his grip and sailed straight back off his boat, limbs windmilling until he hit the metal blades of the propeller two crafts behind. A roiling crimson train spread in the high wake, the air misty with pureed viscera. John’s mouth dropped into a wide "O", and he gripped the gunnel so hard it cut deep into his palms.

Their destination was a beautiful wooded island —it probably had a name, John couldn’t remember, but he thought it was probably a wildlife preserve or Native American holding— with a makeshift stage, not big enough for a band, and harbor. Across the water, some adorable harbor seals reconsidered their haul-out and slipped lithely back into the Sound. The thinned herds of workers alighted the transports next to a huge container ship, way too big to actually navigate the narrow passages between spits and tombolos. Maybe they dropped it in from the sky, John chuckled to himself, earning a glare/growl combo from Mr. Stabby the Unfriendly Coworker. Maybe he should try harder to put some distance between himself and that freak.

For about fifteen minutes, several hundred people just stood there, shiftless and murmuring. A tap on the microphone and a nasal "ahem" brought everyone’s attention to the stage. It held a dozen or so black-hooded figures and one neutral-looking man, completely nondescript in a tailored charcoal suit. His palms rested lightly on the side of a podium, he raised his bespectacled glance over them crowd and nodded before beginning his address.

“Hello, ah, welcome to the Pacific Northwest Region Klokateer orientation. Today you’ll begin the most strenuous job training ever devised; be aware that, ah, the expected mortality rate of this build-out is around 89%. If you survive, your first paychecks will be issued in 13 days; you will be given your uniforms seven days after that. The concert is on the 6th of October: if you have made it that far, you will be offered permanent employment and the brand of The Gears. Until that time, you are entirely expendable and beneath contempt, like fleas or, ah, lice. Let’s make sure this tour goes exactly as it should— without a fu-” (An unseen guitar squealed. Weird, John thought.) “-ng hitch. Now, please turn your attention upwards and enjoy this informative video.”

The businessman exited the podium and, escorted by three people in similar suits but with the same standard-issue face masks as the stagehands, walked off into the woods. So weird.

A soundtrack boomed from the direction of the tanker, and above them, projected straight onto the clouds of the overcast fall morning, an macabre but cheerful animated logo squawked construction details and zipped over blueprints.

The job was divided in two parts: some of the new laborers would be building the out-sized performance stage and assembling speaker towers as high as the Space Needle; the others would be taught the rudiments of shipbuilding and tasked with filling the whole Puget Sound with Viking ships —knarrs, Facebones the Mascot said, the giant kind that were made to travel ever-westward over the ocean— to hold the concert-goers.

John, staring up slack-mouthed and with his kink in his neck, thought this whole thing was actually pretty cool, in the reliving history-type way that he had always found appealing in college. He liked the nerdy overlap of serious concert-logistics and Renn Faire sensibilities; maybe he’d get to carve the dragon heads! But the creepy cartoon put his excited geek-out on ice with the trainees' first assignment.

“Okay! Now everybody find a partner, and beat them to death with your bare hands! Ready, set, GO! HAVE FUN!”

Immediately, the hushed tone of the crowd erupted into shouts and screams, the dull thudding of skulls on rocks and bones cracking rising in cacophony of pain. John stood gaping and horrified as a burly woman, easily 4 inches taller than him, took a hard swing at his face.

This, John reflected soberly in the instant his adrenaline spiked, overriding conscious motion and reflexively dodging the meaty fist soaring towards his temple, is totally fucked up.

His evasive action successfully put him under the swing of the crazy-eyed giant-lady, and her punch connected with a hollow pop against the mouth of a man behind him. With a new target, she totally forgot about John and he deftly stepped aside, in the middle of a swirling vortex of aggression. How lucky, everyone around him seemed to have already found someone to beat on; maybe he could get through this without any blood— Oh fuck, THAT GUY!

On his hands and knees in the rough, dark sand, John wretched from the waves of nausea —funny how your stomach misreads pain, a word game altering hurt to hurl— as he was repeatedly booted in the gut. Rolled flat on his back, he had a chance to look at the guy: yep, it was the same surly customer who’d threatened him in the park. What vague thought he could pull together as wiggling sparks set off his vision like a bonfire and his arms and legs revolted against any central control fit under one heading: unsurprised.

The rude dude’s mouth twisted from the violent-gleeful smile John had witnessed before into a sharp-toothed scowl that reminded him of something he'd seen before but couldn’t catch recollection of; the sour maw was opening up and appeared to be spitting language (and spit) down at him.

“—too fucking easy, you pansy-dicked cuntlicker.”

“Whaaa?” John confusedly slurred, rolling over and pushing up on to one knee.

“I said, you deaf candy-assed cockboy, it ain’t even sportin’ to kill you. What the fuck are you doin’ here? Why ain’t you in a kitchen somewhere making me a sandwich, you pussy?”

“Ahhhh…” Balling up one fist and raising it near his bleeding face, John felt stronger, the pain rolling out like a tide and was replaced with rage. Who the fuck actually taunts people like Bond villians in these situations? And, clearheaded for a moment, he determined he really fucking hated the sandwich thing. This guy fucking sucks.

“Go get your Easy Bake Oven and make me a cake, you Betty Crocker motherfucker.”

John’s high, clenched fist shook involuntarily; that was it.

He sprung from his crouch and was on the man, left hand delivering a tooth-cracking uppercut and his right snagging the collar of his shirt. He was moving faster than he ever thought he could, everything bright and blurring like overexposed photographs. It was like he was high, or skydiving, or both at the same time. All hopped up on survival instinct, he was a beautiful animal, a destroyer of worlds.

The look in his foe's eyes as the grey head see-sawed back from the impact of the punch and then forward from the pull of his clothes was a watery terror, remorse, the dawning of realization at a grave mistake. His tongue bleeding and savoring the blood and bleeding still in a delicious loop, John smiled, tucked his chin down and with cartilage-liquefying momentum drew his forehead into that stupid asshole’s nose.

Pain in his front lobe, a crack, then his sight turned black.

When John came to, vision sliding in from the corners of his eyes and his consciousness cresting like a sleek monster rising from the sea and about to stomp Tokyo, he was leaning against a folding table laden with industrial-sized coffee machines and about a gross of doughnuts. He was pretty much definitely alive. His hands, God, his hands looked gnarled and swollen and slick with a thick red sheet of what felt like chunky latex paint. A black gloved hand was shoving a thorny paper cup into one of them; he looked up to see bloodshot blue eyes peering from holes in an executioner’s hood.

“Dude, here, coffee. It's good: craft services is metal since the Duncan Hills endorsement,” rasped a disembodied voice. John silently nodded his gratitude and painfully grasped the beverage. Curiously, the top of the black liquid was vibrating. Was the dark roast alive, an eldritch brew intent on breaking the last shard of his mind?

Finding then re-railing a sane train of thought, John found his busted up hands and taut-to-snapping nerves simply shook the cup at an absurd frequency. His mouth was still bloody —from when he bit his tongue or from something, someone else?— and the first sip tasted like sin.

Bleary-eyed, John surveyed the utter fucking mayhem: dozens of regular Gears were sifting through bodies, piling them up on carts and taking them to the water’s edge. They were just dumping the dead in the Sound, fish and birds converging to nip at rigid, floating flesh.

He found his voice —hoarse from unremembered screams— and asked the Klokateer beside him, “Is that... a good idea?”

“Offdensen has an Ecology Squad. They’ll figure it out.”

Shrugging, John took another gulp. That made sense; he had no idea what most of those words meant, but it sounded right. The coffee was good, it’s warmth spread through him pleasantly. Yet when he saw the next cart of dead trundle past, he nearly sucked it straight into his lungs. On top of the bump of corpses was the remains of a big man, now broken and twisted. His head looked like five pounds of knobby hamburger, broken teeth jutting out at impudent angles. At his waist, yellow light glinted. COCKFIGHT. John gagged into the coffee cup.

The Gear beside him, holding out a red-glazed doughnut, followed John’s gaze and simply stated, “That’s brutal.”

What had he done, and why couldn’t he remember? His heart raced, everything spun, then calmed as he took deep breaths and eased his mouth back down to the lip of the cup.

Maybe it was for the best. Whatever deep dimness seized him and let him do that to another human being was best left unexamined; a feral instinct obviously lived in him, a will to live so fierce it could obliterate a man’s face... it made John shiver, whole body jerking and slopping the coffee a little. It was perfectly likely he didn’t ever want to know.

Reaching out gingerly for the pastry his colleague patiently extended him, he decided that shiver, that trill along his spine of fear or maybe even pleasure, should probably be forgotten until he was more himself. After he'd gotten closer to John-ness, less like a wolf with fur on the inside.

Coffee break at a new job. This was regular people stuff. His lip split, a tiny pain comparatively, as he smiled: Jesus, there were tiny skull-shaped sprinkles on this doughnut. Okay, normalcy might be shot to hell, but he could still recognize a good joke when saw one. Undeniably hungry from his exertions, he swallowed a chunk of blood-spattered dough and didn’t even care.

XxXxX

Yeah, John thought as he laid staring at the ceiling out of one unpuffy eye, things really got a out of hand.

But the rest of the work day was actually excruciatingly normal. He finished his break, washed briefly in an eddy and then spent ten hours pushing his hands (more like mittens made from clotted cream and tenderized steak, now) to the brink, unloading wave after wave of supplies. When a high, sharp whistle pierced the drizzling night, he got on the ferry and came home. Only the second time on the route, his commute was already mind-killingly dull and suited for blankness.

Too tired to clean up more, too scared to take stock of his injuries, John slumped down in his desk chair. He would answer Jade, of course, but first, since he was calmer, saner (and curious, honestly), he started a three-click investigation: what the hell caused that black out?

He found a couple different theories, no way to know conclusively: maybe the impact from the headbutt caused some brain damage. He could be blocking it out after the fact, his subconscious deciding the truth was too dangerous, that seemed most plausible. Or maybe it was a dissociative fugue, more like the ancient Norse berserkers than modern trauma victims. They were immortal outlaws in bearskins, snarling and tearing through the countryside, awareness sharpened to their axes’ edge and no further. Murder-drunk and blood-lusty: Odin’s human panzers.

He couldn’t be sure, John thought as he slipped into the deepest sleep of his life, since it was only his first day and all, but that sounded pretty God damned metal.