Chapter 1: The Powerchord Desolation Plays
The Seattle Times was basically worthless these days; there were maybe two pages of want-ads and nothing ever fit John’s equally worthless skill set. Every day he burned hours combing the paper, the online job sites. Four months on from graduation, still nothing. It’s hard to stay positive, he thought as he slid back into his pajamas after a long day of doing nothing, when the recession is an asshole.
It really didn’t do much to counteract the brutal global economic situation that his degree, history with a medieval concentration, was basically really expensive single-ply toilet paper. Dave’s not lying when he says that he warned John about the liberal arts, Rose told him too, but all their exasperated I-told-you-sos made him double-down on optimism. He’d graduated with honors, from a decent local university, that counted for something, right? And everyone knows that education and analytical thinking opened all kinds of doors.
Besides, what did they know about it anyway? Jade took a cushy military-industrial-something-or-other secretary position (that she couldn’t talk about) offered by one of her Grandpa’s old friends. She didn’t even bother finishing school. Rose was traveling Europe, money no object, flirting with a Library Science degree or becoming a TV psychic when she came home; Dave, in a move no one saw coming, gave up music for investment management and just started his MBA at a freaking Ivy.
Sure, he was happy for them, and nothing as stupid as jobs or money was going to come between them. Yet, their good fortune and his failure to get anything going made it a little hard to keep his head up when they talked. So they just didn’t very much.
In fact, he was running out of things to say. Since that past June, when lazing around was still novel and fun, the days when he sat on the porch of his low-rent but only sorta-shitty Eastside apartment and couldn’t even find the energy to pick up a book or anything, John thought about Sburb. A lot. At first he’d pester his teammates, trying to reminisce about sweet saves and kickass fights, to speculate on how the trolls were or, in gloomy moods, wonder what the fuck had actually happened to them, what was real. Not one would indulge him.
“Hey, I’ve worked hard to put that shit behind me,” Dave said, and it was true. He and Rose both returned to the real world, dusted themselves off and immediately set about building something stable for themselves. They made plans and lists, scaffolding holding them in place, and blocked out the shadowy time-out-of-time they spent clawing though Sburb’s underbelly. There was no tempering all the game’s darkness out of their lives, that was for sure, but Rose insisted that whatever else existed out there, in them, practicality had to be their ruling principle. Jade lied boldly, and badly, said she didn’t remember much at all of back then but did you know she just got an award for the best garden in all of Georgetown?
Eventually, John stopped trying. It seemed cruel to keep bringing up what his friends wanted so eagerly to erase, but it made him sad to think that what held them together, the most important day for them as friends, was ugly and unwanted. And it pissed him off: everyone had achieved some kind of balance, an integration with their new-old lives, but John was stuck in between, feeling like he was constantly off-balance and with his feet floating just above the ground. At least in the game he knew what he was supposed to do.
During the dry spells, he missed them, though, the easy way they would chat through all-nighters and boring classes, the rotating circuit of vacations and breaks they hammered out in huge email chains. Their absence in his day to day was a bad scrape on the skin of his core self, healing slowly and leaving speckled scabs he wanted to pick. It was tough to not talk, but the less he rubbed the wound —the growing gulf between him and his only real family— the less it hurt. But it did still throb.
Summer wasn’t so bad to start, even with Rose’s preoccupation and Dave’s muted crowing about acceptance letters and Jade’s weird hours and complete inability to account for her time. He had a few interviews, nothing special, but enough to make “I’m sure I’ll get something soon!” sound convincing. He played Risk online, read the assigned books that he skimmed in favor of finishing his thesis (“Technological innovations in close-range weaponry after the Battle of Agincourt”, a real page turner!) his last semester. It still didn’t seem like real life had started yet, and the temp agency kept him afloat until July.
September, though, felt damp and lonely and John was dying for a kegger, or a lecture, or something. He’d heard from his buddies who graduated ahead of him that that first fall was vicious, the first break from fifteen years of routine left you reeling and disoriented, viscerally longing for things you actually liked least about school: bookworms could taste Swamp Frog punch and pot smoke when they brushed their teeth, frat dudes wandered into bookstores with a bemused itch they couldn’t scratch. For his part, John couldn’t stand sleeping in, nowhere to be in the morning anymore, even though he could barely get it together enough to brush his hair for 10 am classes this time last year.
He set three different alarms on his phone for every day, each popping up on his phone with a motivational message: 8:30, “Wake up, fuckass!”; 9:30, “Get a job, jerk!”; and 12:45, “Fucking do something today, god.” Sometimes he thought it was the only thing really keeping him on any sort of schedule at all, and there was so little daylight that he was greedy for all of it.
On a mild and rainy Tuesday, John woke to the jerk alarm and settled in to read the news and the want ads, but there wasn’t much of either. California sea lion population rises in Sound, read one headline, under the 54 point lead story: Biggest concert in town—sold out! It perplexed him that that was the big news of the day, but the subheader gave some context: Seventy-one killed in brutal ticket line brawl. Jesus, okay, maybe that was something worth putting on the front page.
He applied for the single opening he felt hit the right mix of I-can-do-this and I-won’t-die-of-boredom —a file clerkship at a warehouse— and switched over to some other job sites. “Wanted: 1000 regular jackoffs for highly-paid manual labor!” Well, shit, maybe today was his lucky day. He hadn’t tried in a while, but he was pretty sure he could still swing a hammer.
ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG]
EB: hey, check this out.
TG: what the fuck am i looking at here
EB: a job listing, idiot. they’re hiring a whole lot of stagehands next month.
EB: it’d be pretty cool to work for a band.
TG: jesus egbert you really are just shit for brains
TG: a job a band none of this qualifies for a anything this is something else completely
TG: have you even heard of them before
EB: of course! they’re huge! i don’t live in a cave.
TG: no cave just a fairy fantasyland full of prancing derpicorns and giant enchanted stupid asses that sing and dance
TG: have you ever even heard their stuff
EB: no, but why would that matter?
TG: because it does
TG: if you knew what a clusterfuck of morbid bullshit and bodily harm the metal scene is you wouldnt even play at this
TG: do you even know what this shit is like bet you don’t know brutality from beethoven
EB: yeah, jackass, i do. i listen to some pretty hardcore bands.
TG: oh really
EB: yeah! i really like tenacious d. they’re metal!
TG: i just cant even what is your problem man
TG: youre just putting on your spongebob snorkelkit diving straight into the deep end of an ocean of piss and blood
TG: not even noticing the piranhas and dead babies floating and shit
TG: do some goddamn research john
EB: i did, though.
EB: they pay really well and have really good benefits.
EB: it’s like the biggest employer in the country.
EB: i think it’s a good opportunity.
TG: for what balling up your life like an old coupon circular and making a three point shot into a dumpster
TG: shoosh nothing but net hear that the crowds going wild
EB: whatever, dave.
TG: watch that and then tell me this isnt literally the worst job you could apply for
TG: and you arent going to end up disemboweled or with your head caved in or something
TG: persistently vegetating in so many different ways theyll name a new salad after you
TG: spoiler the main topping is your diced kidneys
TG: its the healthy option gross incest cannibal metalheads are gumming on across the nation
EB: so it’s pretty intense. and there is a lot of blood.
EB: but that’s cool and part of the show. its theatrical.
EB: like gwar.
TG: youre so far in denial youre basically a mummy with concrete shoes
TG: oh wait thats after you do the stupidest thing in your life
TG: seriously fuck this
TG: why dont you move somewhere theres gotta be better job markets
TG: or shit join the army youre less likely to get blown up
EB: so maybe it’s a risky gig.
EB: but i can handle it! i’ve been through worse.
TG: egbert open your eyes this isnt the game this is real and fucking dangerous
TG: but you know what go for it if its what you really want to do
TG: its not like I was looking forward to turning into a dirty old man with my best dawg or anything
TG: hitting on your wife at your wedding and giving your toddlers booze
EB: dave, come on!
TG: nope no plans at all for a normal life with my oldest and closest friend
TG: youre right john this is an amazing chance for you to skip all that
TG: not dying in excruciatingly retarded ways is seriously overrated
TG: go ahead take the job go die for dethklok
EB: thanks dave! i really appreciate your encouragement.
EB: you’re really supportive.
EB: no, really, thank you!
EB: great guy, best friend!
ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead[TG]
Screw him, John thought huffily; he’d never be able to make this much loot anywhere else, he could pay off like half his student loans with one month’s work! And as for the danger... alright, the video was disconcerting. But most of the corpses looked like fans? It had to be fake anyhow. No entertainment in the universe is awesome enough for that kind of risk, people aren’t that stupid.
He opened a new email, copy-pasted his generic cover letter and hovered over the send button for a moment. Could this be as disastrous as Dave made it out? Nah, he was just being a downer and flying off the handle like usual. And besides, John had to make three job contacts a week to keep getting his state-issued check.
When the screen blinked “Sent!” John rose stiffly, stretched and headed for the bathroom. As he passed his kitchen, he remembered the single can of beer he had stuffed next the milk weeks ago. He’d said he would drink it for luck when he finally felt good about a job. Maybe good wasn’t the right word, but he definitely felt positive about this one and that's enough. He reached in and grabbed it, rolling it in his hands, trying to rub off some beneficial juju.
John clunked down again in his desk chair and popped the tab on the beer. Hey! He’d gotten a response back from email@example.com almost instantly. Rejected already? God. Did they even read his resume? He took a sip and clicked the conversation open; eyes wide and choking in surprise, he sprayed his monitor with skunky Keystone Light. “Orientation begins tomorrow at 6 am,” it said. “If you have your own tools or firearms, please bring them with you.”
Not quite the kind of acceptance letter he’d hoped for. But beggers maybe shouldn’t act so goddamned snobby, John thought as he mopped the screen with his sleeve. Pouring the terrible lucky beer into his dying philodendron on the desk, he opened up the email’s attachments and settled in to fill out some major paperwork, each page asking again and again for the address of his next-of-kin.
Chapter 2: Toccata and Fugue State
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.
Warning: it gets graphic.
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
EB: and then I had to carry boxes
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.
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.
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.
Chapter 3: Stubborn Throes
"That was not happening. John was never going to just quit."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
With time and adjustment of expectations, the experts say, the human animal can get used to just about anything; since he began his stint with Dethklok, Inc., John basically ran a double-blind peer-reviewed ninety-nine variable research study on that shit 24/7, and was actually pretty pleased with the results.
The job, in a lot of ways, was just a job: same ride to work, same hurry-up-and-wait first hour, trying to figure out what needed to be done next. There was the same kind of bloated bureaucracy hovering just overhead that he imagined ruled other big companies.
He was assigned, as he’d hoped, to the boat-building squad, a huge operation spread out along the coast of the Sound, hundreds of stooped figures knitting together lumber and rope into fierce-looking —and historically accurate, he was pleased to note— vessels that lined the beaches. Disappointingly, when they were handing out tools on his second day, John couldn’t wrap his busted fist around a hammer’s handle and had to accept a planer instead.
But damn if he didn’t find a visceral pleasure, something sensuous and joyful, in running his fingers over the gently curved, splinterless boards he’d shaped from raw barked trunks. It was tough, physical work, sure, and the pace was demanding, but he felt stretched to the comfortable edge of his endurance at the end of the day, happily worn out.
He’d really only just gotten the hang of it, getting really good at knowing the right angles and pressure, when they made him switch to riveting the thin steel sheets to the hulls. That was a way different experience: jolts in his arms and back, his knees creaking from the up and down glide over lines of bolts. Even so, it only took a day, about, until the stiff vibration that he felt in all his bones at once each time he pulled the trigger on the pneumatic gun felt pretty ok, too. Better than ok, actually, it felt like a deep-scratched and carnal emblem of shit he’d accomplished.
Lunch breaks were pretty much standard work-a-day stuff, too, and John made some acquaintances with the dudes (and that huge woman who almost clocked him on the first day, Varla, she was nice!) who worked close to him. They...were still really weird, all basically completely crazy: excitable and fannish and not all that bright on average. Decent enough to chat with over a cup of coffee, but John was glad that he hadn’t given anyone his full name and no one cared to ask it.
Dumb, he could deal with; into a different kind of “lifestyle” than his own, no problem. What actually bugged John, made him stand a few feet away from clumps of loud-talking quintets and trios until someone motioned him over, was the universal focus on "brutality". It was like a freaking camp-out sleepover, flashlights on faces and gruesome ghost stories. And, worst of all, it cast an uncomfortable light on the still-black box he’d shoved the events of that first initiation brawl, making a shadow-monster of himself against his own conscience.
That first taste of murder they all shared was pretty much all John had in common with the lot of them. Most had seen Dethklok live, or had friends of friends who’d visited Mordhaus or were casualties of band one way or another, and their conversations monotonously gory and gross. Some had families and even recounting banal life shit was tinted with domestic brutality— one guy, about his age and living with his pregnant girlfriend, showed off a fresh knife wound. “She fucking cut me,” he elaborated proudly, “’cause I left the seat up. Chicks get pretty metal when they’re knocked up, dude!”
That guy was pretty funny, probably closest to a legitimate work friend he’d made, and John was pretty sad when he cut his arm off above the elbow with a circular saw, bled out, and was set adrift. Didn’t even make it to payday.
89% mortality the business man claimed actually seemed pretty conservative, as more and more cadavers were pushed unceremoniously into the salty tide. He couldn’t tell if those alleged ecologists ever showed up: all those lovely trees felled and turned to lumber, constant overhead flock of carrion birds and the bay itself, Jesus. Every morning, schools of fish sped alongside the ferries, a Pavlovian swarm; pods of Orca were showing up for the floating buffet, though they didn’t much like scavenging and started picking off easy live prey, unwary workers who tumbled off the ships and straight into waiting jaws.
It was unsettling as hell, but John learned from the departed to pay fucking attention at all times. There were just too many possible fatal mistakes, and even that, the constant watchfulness, toeing a line between an uneventful day at the jobsite and permanent game over, came like second nature.
Jade blustered at him every night when he came home, afraid the stress of such vigilance would eventually wear him down and make him more vulnerable than ever. Like clockwork, she checked in on him, by turns sympathetic and shouting, and it became clear that they were all talking about him. There was probably an “Egbert is Doomed” troll-style memo somewhere. But mostly, he was glad to hear from her more often, and tried patiently to explain that no, it wasn’t just about the money and yes, he was being more than careful, and of course, he knew his luck could run out and he could step wrong or breathe wrong even and end up doing the dead-man’s float out past Vancouver.
She, more than Rose and certainly more than Dave (who still maintained that he was a fucking moron and aggressively reminded him so), wanted to understand, wanted to know what exactly his reasons and feelings and all his whys were though this whole ordeal. He could never really put it into words, the way he lapsed easily into this new cycle, how it made him feel to give his hands purpose again. How most mornings he hummed and smiled, the dawn bright and full of promise while the briny breeze whipped around him as he settled in to work.
Early on, John was grateful that Dethklok was so damn prolific; it meant that he only had to hear each song maybe twice a day, not that he could really tell them apart. It was all wall of sound and crazy beats, a driving rhythm that pulsed through the wood and woven steel-wool sails that hung from the completed masts. He could hardly handle the deep reverberations climbing up his fingers and crawling through his ears to meet in his ribcage and do weird things to his pulse, a constant war between his cardiovascular system and the heavy throb of bass and drums.
This must be how Dave felt, maybe still feels, he thought, the knock of time battling against your own natural tempo. When he asked though, his friend answered with scorn and John could imagine the tight-lipped disgust on his face as he said “Fuck no, Egbert, time is a strict 4/4 deal all day long and it’s organic as hell, matches perfectly and just flows right through. This is another reason metal is bullshit and you should get the fuck out.” Every conversation the same, always ended in open threats or veiled concern and all sorts of angry coolkid crap, giving him the business and trying to get him to quit his job.
That was not happening. John was never going to just quit. Fuck, he’d come so far, had done...things already that made cutting out, just not going in one day sound so cowardly and lame. And maybe it was stupid, and it was going to kill him, but he wouldn’t go down that road, where he’d always know that he was needled into defeat by a collapse of courage. So, instead, he had to find a way around it, a way to flow with the weirdness and the maimings and the heightened senses that kept his body safe, but his soul vulnerable to that punishing beat.
His musical tastes had always been kind of all over the place— he still loved the Gershwin that his dad taught him piano on, broadened into pop-punk and ska and alternative bands. A little classic rock, when he was in the mood. None of it really gave him a handle on the audio assault he felt like waves crashing on rocks. Skimming away rough wood and drowning in all this goddamn metal, tasting it on his tongue like that first day’s sanguine flow, he decided to surrender.
First thing he could grab onto was the soaring lead guitar, the lightness of it, wind whipping rain upwards and sideways and in infinite spirals. The solos were interesting and accessible —could he play them on his shitty Yamaha? probably— and after getting his bearings, doggy paddling through the top notes, he switched frequencies, trying to decipher the singing. Well, growling. Sometimes it was easier than others, but wouldn’t strain to understand; it was just another texture, scratchy-wool over the guitar’s silk. Though:
“You've conquered pain/ You've conquered fear/ You fear not your mortality...”
Yeah, there was something to get there, its meaning a dark leviathan slipping along the uglier face of truth. From the clipped and hoarse vocals, John tuned into the hard strum of the second guitar. (Which guy played what? The blond did the high notes, maybe? God, no wonder people looked at him like an asshole when they talked about the band.) The downtuned hum of chords mimicked the bass line, sometimes hardly there, and then those drums. Those fucking drums.
When John finally got his check, the first thing he did —even before paying his rent— was to go to iTunes and drop $250 on the whole Dethklok discography. Since he first really heard the music, savoring the vibrations in his tools and smiling at familiar phrases, the quiet of his house had been a cruel reversal. He laid in bed, sometimes still jumpy in the dark, and he felt mournful, something missing, like reaching out for a lover and finding only warm, fragrant and vacant sheets.
He had resentfully suffered the silence for too many fitful nights, confused and at a loss. (But what was he going to do, pirate the shit? Now that would be a stupid move.) When he could finally put on a short playlist, let those drums he’d been in withdrawal for since the speakers clicked off at quitting time wind around him, he found he would drop off quickly and sleep deeply, wrapped in the comfort of a rhythm he’d started to call home.
This last bit got a little away from me, so I've added in a chapter and hope to finish up soon. Thanks you all for your good vibes and encouragement, and thanks to Dellaluce for not laughing me off the face of the planet when I brought up this idea and for everything else. <3 all around!
Oh and here's some more metal, what's quoted in the story: The Gears.
Chapter 4: Heretic Pride
"His back smacked against the waves, followed by his head dunking under, arm still holding the tiny flame aloft. It fell, still burning, and the whole world erupted in fire."
tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB]
TT: Good morning.
EG: hi rose!
EB: today’s the big day.
TT: Yes, I suppose it is. Have you decided what you’ll do on the off chance you survive the concert?
EB: we talked about this, i’m going to be fine!
TT: I certainly hope so, though the ample precedent of past tours does raise doubts. Really, it’s what comes after that concerns me.
EB: well, it seems pretty dumb to come all this way and not cross the finish line.
EB: but i’m still thinking it over.
TT: That’s all I really am looking for, signs of serious consideration before you commit to a life-long course devoted to shadowy forces.
EB: god, look who’s talking!
TT: I intend to leave the coercion and dissuasion to Dave and Jade, but I do insist on forcing you to examine your options fully.
EB: gee thanks.
EB: seriously, everybody on my back all the time...
EB: i mean i’m so crazy buff now, my muscles have muscles.
EB: but you guys are still pretty heavy to lug around complaining and getting on my case.
TT: Oh, pardon us! We hadn’t considered that showing care for a friend would be such a tiresome burden!
TT: Do forgive us, John. I would weep until the end of my days knowing you skipped happily into Death’s icy embrace while you were "cheesed off" with us.
EB: i keep telling you, if you just listened to the music, you might get where I’m coming from here.
EB: bluh bluh, huge pitch.
TT: And what makes you think I haven’t taken your incredibly timely and leading-edge recommendations? Or that I’m so ignorant, I hadn’t already come to appreciate Dethklok on my own?
EB: wait, what?
TT: Honestly, there are literally tribes of bushmen who heard death metal before you.
EB: rose, are you telling me you’re a...
EB: SECRET DETHKLOK FANGIRL??
TT: John. They summoned an extremely powerful Finnish Lake Troll with a single song. I had a professional obligation to investigate, as well as a personal interest.
TT: This is basically my entire wheelhouse.
EB: haha, i guess so.
EB: why didn’t you tell me though?
TT: Because I am not the “fangirl” you suppose, and it perhaps would have dulled my pleas for caution even further, causing them to ricochet ineffectively off your thick head.
EB: YEAH RIGHT!!
EB: you want me to get you backstage?
EB: i hear master explosion likes blondes.
TT: Oh, I’m sorry John, did I miss something you said? I was dodging all this falling rubble.
TT: My hysterical guffaws brought this entire hotel down around my ears! I only barely escaped with my life! So many others weren’t as lucky, it was very “metal”.
EB: ha ha. hotel?
EB: where are you now?
EB: what’s in scotland?
TT: Hollow hills and the timeless forces that reside therein.
EB: oh, cool.
EB: anyway, I should get going.
TT: Yes, I guess so.
TT: In all earnestness, John, please be careful, and think seriously about your future.
TT: Is the thrill you are so obviously enamored with equal to the price you’ll pay for serving your dear, deadly “Masters”?
TT: You’ll never have a normal life.
EB: pfft. would I have anyway?
EB: that doesn’t seem like a thing that was going to happen.
TT: Point taken.
EB: besides, normal is dumb!
TT: You say that now, but when the time comes to make such sacrifices, it will be too late to reconsider.
EB: come on rose.
EB: have i ever been scared of a little sacrifice?
TT: Certainly not, and it’s equally admirable and stupid. But this is different; you’ll be called on to do things, horrible things you maybe can’t accept.
TT: In this case, I sincerely wonder whether you are to act as the lamb or the knife.
EB: at least, that’s the answer i think would get me an a in that philosophy class i took.
TT: Very astute. Maybe you have a promising career in the Academy before you after all.
EB: alright, i really gotta go!
EB: i’ll tell you all about this badass show later, ok?
TT: I look forward to it. Goodbye, John, and good luck.
ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT]
Doesn’t take much to get ready to head for the transports, so John could cut it a little close; he was already in his uniform each morning when he answered Rose’s messages. In fact, since he got it he hardly took it off, the soft and cool cotton definitely more comfortable than he anticipated. The mask, especially, he thought would be rough and gross and a pain in the ass, but it felt like a combination of a well-worn t-shirt and expensive satin sheets, loose enough that his breath didn’t stir it—though he did have to switch to contacts all the time.
Most surprisingly, what he liked better than the silky feel or the breathability was the facelessness. It was a daunting idea at first, like losing a part of himself, but as days passed in the camp, his plain clothes were an unwanted mark of distinction, his face felt like a liability. On the day they passed out the black duds, it only briefly occurred to him that it might be weird to want it so badly, to see such an achievement in anonymity.
“It isn’t surprising at all, John,” Rose stated smugly the next morning (always that way: Jade at night, Rose in the morning, Dave randomly, whenever he reached critical mass). “Your deep desire to belong, to feel needed within a family structure, and your innate leadership ability that you feel most comfortable engaging from a position of equality makes it only natural you would seek this sort of oblivion. We knew you were going to join some kind of cult eventually.”
It sounded a lot less fucked up in his head, for sure. But when he thought about it in her terms, all he could say was “Oh,” as he fingered the soft edge of his brand new nonidentity.
John looked around his room, pretty bare and dingy. Everything important, all the movable things that mattered—pictures from the first and latest vacation on a volcanic jewel in the middle of the Pacific framed in bottle-green glass, a “Don’t Mess With Texas” mug, an “Ithica is Gorges” shirt, his diploma—was shoved loosely in a box. He left the gritty sheets on the bed, his general wardrobe in the closet. Only the essentials, the things he would carry forward to a possible new life in the belly of a dark castle. Of course, most new inductees wouldn’t even get transferred to Mordhaus, and he honestly hadn’t decided anything yet.
Still. Just in case.
Getting these fucking people in the boats was terrible. Excited and drunk, carrying new-bought merch and food, they swayed and tipped across the beach and fared worse on the water. It didn’t help that the knarrs were past capacity, due to a shortage of space from the tanker; it was supposed to get moved out, make room for another 2500 fans, but snagged on a rocky shoal the week before. The boats for that sector displaced and beached, people just had to cram into others and crawl over each other, jockeying for position. Some of these morons were trying to get closer, to figure out the rigging and steer, strung up stupidly in a mess of rope and cables.
By showtime, fans were loaded up, the more expensive seats leashed and staked to the beach, holding them closer to the stage. There were a handful of drowning deaths, a non-fatal assault or two, but it seemed well within acceptable limits for a hundred thousand tweaking thrashers. The dark and sludgy waves, red-tinged in daylight but looking now like oil all the way down, were small and rolling and dotted all over with white Styrofoam cups. It looked like the night sky itself (not this one, chunky-overcast and threatening rain, but a clear one with thousands of stars) spread out between the sands and lapped at the keels.
John was wired and jittery, snapping his fingers and swinging his arms like a little kid. A thick slap thumped the back of his head, coupled with a throaty chuckle from the tall figure that stepped up beside him. Another anonymous recruit, but the height and the lumpiness of the black-covered torso were familiar to him.
“Oh hey, Varla!”
“Boy, you are just wiggling around like a damned puppy. It’s unprofessional,” she scolded playfully.
True enough, it was probably pretty unmetal to be this amped up about the show, but standing between the surf and the stage, in the glow of light tests and the shadow of the speakers, he felt dwarfed and electric. This was huge!
Even so, he attempted to compose his shit. “Sorry. I’ve never seen them live before, you know. It’s exciting!”
The woman snorted and clapped him hard on the shoulder; her teasing had bruised him up before. “Poppin’ your cherry then? Don’t worry, precious, they won’t be gentle!” She moved off, testing the hold of one of the tether spikes with her body weight, then hoisting a twenty-pound sledge and driving it down another few inches, then on to another. Varla was pretty great: John wanted to make sure he found out her number when it was assigned, keep in touch maybe.
They’d been instructed to face out, to watch the waves and crowd for potential problems, woodworkers-turned-security. John scanned the impatient mass of bodies, trying to tamp down the giddiness, be stern and yeah, professional. But it started at his feet, the rumble as the amps go live, and he whipped about to face the stage, wind floating up his hood. The first chord is struck, held to test the sound and in the pregnant space between it and the next strum, John has thrown up an arm and whooped, no chance for better judgment to elbow in.
“Shut up, asshole,” grumbled someone to his left, jaded and menacing.
A big figure slid in between him and the growl. “Leave him alone, Cyrus. It’s his first time.” John grinned at Varla so hard he was sure she could see it even through the face covering and imagined her doing the same.
The stage was bright red and blinding, the huge footlights glowing like pyre-light; bright and burning, five figures stood not thirty feet from him, blurs of arms and hair and, just, holy fuck! Those drums!
They reached out and burst through him, a fist inside his throat clamped on his windpipe. His heart was going crazy trying to match the speed and his ribs were tuning forks catching and holding the deep vibration. Pebbles were hoping up and down the beach and then slipped in minor earth slides beneath the water. Everything was humming and John could not breathe.
Music washing through him, over him, bouncing off the remaining trees and even echoing off the high rises in Seattle, John rode the crest of growls and blast beats and guitar notes lifted like black birthday balloons; his body stopped fighting, pulse settled in to a frantic pace, and he felt like a bird that drops from the sky and flaps it’s wings barely avoiding a clunking collision. It felt right, normal, like he had never not been folded into a noise louder than he ever thought possible, and once he was riding it, skimming over the shockwaves rocketing from the giant towers like it was his new natural element, he remembered himself, his responsibility, and turned back to the Sound.
The water was churning and above, the boats rocked with a rippling corpus of fans, throwing horns and headbanging and shoving each other in a friendly manner. They were just rocking out, and he felt fierce kinship, an overwhelming fondness for these annoying fuckers that rose up and choked him again. Over their heads, the image of the stage projected on the silvery surface of every sail, quick cuts from cable-suspended cameras focusing on different faces and instruments mirrored back at all angles. Cool, he’d still get to see the show.
The Big Boss, the stern and business-like manager who waited in the wings, was probably grimly ecstatic: the show, a seventy minute set with no encore, had gone without a fucking hitch. Some casualties had stacked up —John saw a barely-dressed woman, on her way backstage and escorted by one of the Skank Patrol Gears, get huge swathes of exposed skin ripped off by a gang of jealous girls— but nothing had stopped the onslaught of music even an instant. The ultimate success.
John was spent, exhausted, wrung out like a grody gym towel, and though he never wanted this feeling, the grim elation of the sound and dark fellowship with the other Klokateers and metalheads to end, his body couldn’t take much more. He was pretty sure Q-tips would be dragging scarlet crusty clumps out of his ear canals for weeks.
The band launched into a particularly heavy rendition of “Go Forth and Die”, marked on the internally-circulated setlist as the final song, and when it ended, John waited for Explosion’s signature way of ending the show (“Thanks, now fuck off.”) and was puzzled when it didn’t come. Instead, sounding less like a gravel-voiced god, more like a person, albeit still a snarling hulk of a dude, the frontman addressed the crowd. Behind him, Pickles fidgeted his sticks on the cymbals and the brown-haired guitarist adjusted his hand on the frets. Watching over his shoulder, John nervously thought of all the things that might be wrong.
“I know I said we would never fucking do this,” he grumped into the mic. “But it just feels, right you know. It’s been one of those shows.”
John looked straight into the singer’s eyes, covered by veil of hair but flashing emerald. He hadn’t noticed, but the rest were already playing, quietly building to a crescendo of ringing strings and thudding bass. He locked on to Explosion’s face (Oh god, he’s looking right at me, John squealed internally, coupled with an endless concatenation of ohshit ohfuck ohshit), and he knew what came next, could hardly believe it but knew it more surely than his own name. From behind his mask, he mouthed the words as they arced like a current across the fjord, and the guitars, full volume now, thrashed and wailed in solidarity.
“We call out to the beasts of the sea to come forth and join us.”
And they did. John snapped his head back to the wet edge of the beach, and saw dorsal fins slice between hulls. Sea lions peeked out of the surf, black eyes shining. Metal for fish, John thought, and of course they loved it, had been waiting in the sanguine water for this moment, just like the land dwellers had. Unaware of the deep ones brushing their backs against the ships, ready to revolt against them, the crowd lost its shit.
Every head flipped forward and back to the beat, thousands of forked fingers thrust against the clouds. One man in a studded-leather kutte, curly tangles past his shoulders, put his face in his hands and wept for joy. In every set of eyes pointed passed his head and fixed on the five men rocking out behind him, John saw an awe he could only describe as rapturous. This was history in the making, this was fucking in a confessional during mass, a wicked religiosity; even the other Klokateers murmured, elated. John thought his heart had exploded, and clutched his chest, feeling the song through his body, double music from within and out.
To make up for the shortened intro —decided after accented bickering heard like a hiss through the backup mics— Skwisgaar hurtled like a brake-cut truck into an extended solo, shredding the high melody with flashfinger speed. John watched as a dude in one of the front boats lifted his burning Zippo over his head and grinned like an imbecile. Ugh, he felt like the dorkiest motherfucker here, and even he knew that was completely uncool. But he didn’t expect Explosion to notice this one act of douchebaggery.
“Where do you think you are, asshole?” came the growl from the speakers, talking over the flying scales of the Swede’s Explorer. Nathan turned to look at his bandmate, the bassist, and shook his head sadly. “Put your fucking lighter down. Seriously who does that? Fuck that guy.” Murderface repeated the sentiment with squishy-mouthed vehemence, and the crowd roared agreement, receiving it as if it was carved in stone, the first commandment of a new creed.
The moron with the fire’s face crumpled in terror. He was being lifted up, higher and higher by scratching hands; his boatmates and fellow fans wrenching him above their heads and, in swift and merciless judgment, cast him over the side and down into the salty depths. His back smacked against the waves, followed by his head dunking under, arm still holding the tiny flame aloft. It fell, still burning, and the whole world erupted in fire.
In the time it took John to bellow a surprised “Fuuuuuuuck!”, Puget Sound combusted, crackling and alive, the tallest pillars of orange-red racing back toward the huge container ship, which, he realized in a flash, must have been leaking fuel for days. The remains of the tank exploded, flaming shrapnel cutting through the sky on a shockwave that capsized the half the knarrs and knocked him flat on his ass five feet from where he’d stood.
Hot and battered, John weighed the merits of not getting up. He felt like he’d landed head first on a boulder stranded in magma. The sea was almost too bright to look into, masts like trellises for the blaze dropped their sharp sails; a half-corpse landed near him, neatly sliced vertically like a side of beef and disgorging brains and entrails out on the sand. Screams formed an endless harmony, a new brutal new choir comprised entirely of pain.
Pyrotechnic flares vented towards the sky: an incendiary mix of oil and water spraying in a fine mist from the whale pod’s blowholes. An Orca, squeaking-sonar rage and burning alive, rose up and crashed into three boats, dumping people into the greasy flow beneath where they roasted and choked in the toxic liquid. Even on the still-sea worthy craft, no two people were not on fire.
No, I don’t think I want to, John decided and he willed himself unconscious. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping for that jet-cool nothingness; when it didn’t come, he wrenched his head up and with stinging smoky vision, saw the cutest fucking thing.
The pinnipeds, some as bulky as two or three men, barked in torment and dragged their singed skins out of the firesea. They wiggled and flopped between the beached corpses and flotsam, and directly in front of John’s face a seal pup whined and shimmied toward him. It was no bigger than a terrier and its eyes were huge and pitiful.
John released his breath and it came out as “dawww.”
The poor little guy, orphaned and charred by forces his fuzzy little brain could never understand, lit up like a child shown an ice cream cone, face preternaturally articulate and humanlike. As it shuffled towards John, it opened its mouth—a grimace, a nasty grin belying vicious intelligence—shit!
Its teeth were marbled yellow and crimson plaque, bits of flesh wedged between spiky incisors. He lunged with a keening shriek for John’s face.
Rolling away, John tongued a mix grit and bile. Hankering for fresh mammal blood after weeks of acquiring the taste, the little seal flopped hungrily at him, slaw-jawed and snarling. His mind shat itself, only prayers demanding blackout filtering through the crackling static of dread, and his body moved stiffly and automatically to shove the ravenous beast-baby away. His hand connected with its ragged smile and earned him an arterial bleed across the flat of it, but it was effective. A little dazed and withdrawn from the push, it whined then wheeled back for another bite.
John scrambled to his feet, feet pumping and hands grappling for balance in a four-legged crawl. He hadn’t gotten far before he felt a nip at his shoe. Muttering terrified obscenities, he kicked wildly at fangs at his ankle, when his hand felt smooth wood. A handle. Varla’s heavy mallet.
He hoisted it weakly, barely two inches off the sand, and swung blindly behind him. A shiver of resistance creaked in his arm, the blow connecting with a wet thwap that reminded him of Gallagher’s melons. A wet spray of viscera soaked through his pants.
Struggling to stand, gripping the hammer like it was the only real thing in the world, John couldn’t believe he hadn’t passed out. Where was that comforting blankness he longed for? Not coming. He surveyed the horror of incarnadine coast—his coworkers overrun and being devoured by maddened sea creatures, bodies of fans burnt and bobbing in the scorching water—and sucked in an acrid breath of mostly oil-smoke. What now?
There was a path, narrow but navigable, leading to the trees, and he started up it at a trot, head swinging from side to side searching the grisly scene for unexpected obstacles. Burning carcasses and frying wood stank like rancid-charred pork chops melding to a filthy grill, with overtones of black toast like he was about to have a seizure, and John decided to get the fuck out before he joined the barbecue.
Halfway to the forest, he stopped cold: a shout emanated from the stage, picked up and broadcast through what speakers still worked. There was a mix of horrified mumbles and an adenoidal but understandable voice: “...seals attacking. Loose seals! We need the helicopter now!”
The manager was screaming into a microphone and walkie-talkie at the same time, standing with only three or four unarmed Gears between the band and a surge of pissed-off pinnipeds. With his free hand, the Big Boss fired a small pistol into the sickly-pink first-degree flesh of an enormous bull sea lion, chambers clicking empty before the beast even began to slow its wobbling climb up the low-set stage.
Fuck. The band, creeping backwards against the drum set, looked goddamned petrified. One of the black-hoods threw himself bodily at a roaring animal, rolling with it and punching until his throat erupted in a volcanic spray between the force of jaws. Fuck.
Dethklok devoured by Sea World rejects? That, thought John, is not fucking happening.
One last look up to the safety of the treeline, John pivoted and rushed towards the stage, swinging that fucking hammer and decimating a swath of bodies, feral-fierce animals and people alike. He could dimly feel goopy sludge splattering against him with each blow, but didn’t react to it. His eyes were fixed on the Masters’ faces, each step feeling lighter.
Up the short side-stair in a flash, John dove forward from the top step, landing heavily and sliding on wet shoes between Offdensen and the menacing bull. It was a hideous pulsing hulk, exposed gristle and muscle twitching where skin roasted away, and when he struck it sideways on the collar, the whole six-foot length of it jiggled.
Not enough. The animal fell halfway to its side and swept at his feet with a long flipper, raging noises still rolling from its gore-splattered chops. Adjusting his grip to the very end of the handle, maximizing torque with an intuitive motion learned long ago, John rose up on his tiptoes and let the hammerhead touch his heels before arching his body forward, every muscle in his core propelling the blow.
The sea lion’s head detonated spectacularly, raining blubber and blood and grape-sized dollops of brain-matter all over himself and the men behind him. He’d put a fist-big hole in the floorboard where the fleshy mammal skull had been reduced to jelly.
Scoping out the remaining animals, still marauding up the beach and onto the stage, John didn’t wait to see if the band was okay, and he couldn’t hear their hushed declarations of the extreme metalness of his movements over the double-thudding metronome of his pulse in his ears and the walloping strikes of his weapon.
Who the hell knows how long he strode through the throng of brutish forms? Everything slowed as he considered each step, each angular swipe of the sledge; it was the opposite of a fugue, John thought, it felt like a precise and artful dance, his arms and legs responding to decisions about direction and speed in the moment he made them. Smashing the hell out of these chubby murderous fishfuckers, he felt more in-his-body, more rooted and steady and aware than ever before. He’d been sleepwalking until he picked up this hammer, and now he swore he would never put it down.
So when a fellow masked-man reached for his arm, pulling him toward the ladder floating up towards a Dethcopter, he almost bashed his head in. It took a second to become sensible of the chop of the blades, to recognize the band already climbing to safety. John relaxed his sword-arm, dragging the business-end of the hammer behind him and clamored up last, gripping and rising above the rust-red beach, still singing with fire.
“Hey hammer dude, that was pretty fucking brutal.”
John shook himself back to reality; he was zoned-out and crashing now that flight had push out all his fight.
The Big Boss was droning on: “And that’s why I tell you to never do encores.” But it was the dark-haired giant addressing him directly, seated in the center of his bandmates all wrapped in cozy-looking crimson blankets. Remembering his manners, John dipped his head humbly and answered “Thank you, my lord.”
Toki’s eyes were shining and fixed on him. “Yeah! Thats am the most kickings ass! Cans we keeps him, Charles? Canst we?”
The manager was rubbing his head, obviously shook up from the close call Dethklok seemed insensible to.
“Well, ah, of course, Toki. I don’t really know what you have in mind, we ‘keep’ all the Klokateers…”
“Yeah, but isn’t there something we do sometimes? A Purple Heart or something?” Pickles chimed in.
“We have a variety of hooded sweatshirts we use as motivational tools and rewards.”
Nathan snorted. “Always fucking hoodies with you. Give this guy a nickname.”
“Oh, yes. Right.” The manager looked John in the eye; he was covered head to toe and felt completely naked under his full attention. “We have a tradition of allowing some Klokateers a moniker in addition to their PIN. What’s your number, soldier?”
John felt embarrassed, heart racing again after just cooling down. “I don’t have one yet, sire.”
Offdensen nodded, never shifting his sight, and addressed a Gear beside him, one with a copper badge etched with “HR #23”, who reached into a canvas bag at his hip and drew out a sheet of paper, a PDA and a pen. Checking the device for available numbers, the man wrote “#1025” in a short blank at the top of... well, it looked like an Employee of the Month certificate he’d seen in the Microsoft Word template folder.
“So, this nickname...” the manager offered to the band, who looked back at him with blank stares.
“Well, what do you want it to be?”
“Oh! Let’s call him Hammers Guy!” Toki shouted and clapped his hands.
“No, that’s fucking stupid,” the drummer slurred. He pulled a bottle of amber liquor out from under his seat cushion and took a long swill.
“Then you picks it, Pickle! Probably thinks of some dildos name. Like Dildo.”
The red-headed man, looking pretty sloppy already, cocked his head to the side and opened his mouth. A mashup of Upper Midwest vowels and drunken slobber that sounded like “aaaah-EEEEE-sssayt-aaaah-tttOOOO” poured out and the rest of the guys started shouting him down.
“Can’t gives him none-since names,” John heard Skwisgaar declare with bored conviction, voice carrying over the swarm of bickering.
“No, fine, that’s fine!” Offdensen rejoined testily. “Write that down.” HR #23 did as directed, handing the sheet to John when finished.
It had his new number on it, and a transliteration of whatever Pickles said on a line marked “(phonetic)” underneath. Across the top, a vaguely worded commendation directed him to bring this sheet to the Mordhaus Identification Office, where the nickname and number would be carved onto the bearer’s badge. Stapled to the lower left corner was a $5 off coupon for Hot Topic.
John studied the document’s inkjet script and, though he suppressed loopy giggles with every ounce of self-restraint he could muster, felt touched. Yeah, it was basically recognition for just do his job, but this wasn’t just any job and he did perform with some zazz; it wasn’t such a big deal to be needed, like on the stage where he stood between the musicians and a grisly death, but to be wanted? His heart swelled in a way he wasn’t ever sure it had before, maybe a long time ago in a universe that he could never regain, and he felt like he was floating again on blustery drafts of connection, like he had before the concert went catastrophically awry and he thought he would swell and burst trying to wrap his arms around the crowd.
Torn between gallows laughter and grateful tears, he tried his hardest and mustered a straight-faced “Thank you, sires,” before tucking the honor between his knee and the hammer’s handle resting on it for safekeeping. Two seats down, a battered fellow Gear, left leg jutting out at a very wrong angle, said quietly in a recognizable smoky rasp: “Nice job, cherry. Was it good for you too?”
John smiled and flashed a thumbs up at his friend, relieved she made it; leaning his head back against the seat, he shut his eyes and began to doze.
He had to wait until the next morning to return all the frantic offline messages from his three friends, each growing more and more irate as the news from Seattle filtered out, with the business office’s careful spin of course. The fire had reached the waterfront of the city, but burned itself out before any real damage was done; Puget Sound was a smoldering wreck, tales of freakish marine life pouring out onto the blogosphere. Fish markets were closed indefinitely.
Each of his chums watched the situation carefully and got more and more batshit worried as the night drew on. Dave alone wrote a thousand-line screed full of obscene and panicked metaphors between midnight and 6 am, non-stop it looked like. They were palpably relieved he logged on in his... well, it felt like a dorm, computer lab and recounted the tale of his first night as an honest to god Klokateer. He was especially proud that he didn’t have to embellish anything to make it sound more metal.
Between copying and pasting segments describing how completely badass he was, John searched phonetic dictionaries of a dozen different languages, trying to find some words or phrases, anything really, that sounded like Pickles’ drunken christening, trying to give any meaning to his new honorific. When he found it, he finally lost himself in laughter.
It was a crazy language, hardly any native speakers and completely isolated for every other language family around it; some said that meant the Basque people were descended from Neanderthals, not true Homo sapiens. That seemed like bullshit, but the pronunciation guide fit the basics of whatever the hell had come from the drummer’s mouth, and when he started to try to gloss the syllables, it was immediately recognizable as a cosmic joke.
“Haizehatu”, he printed on the sheet between fits of quaking belly laughs, an ungrammatical amalgamation of the words for “wind” and “grinder”, the later with an emphasis on punishment. It was too fucking much, and he howled at the irony ‘til tears streamed out his eyes.
Even Rose had to admit, it was hilarious, absolute proof that you could find something valuable in any bullshit thing at all.
Chapter 5: COMING SOON: "Pickles' Model"
Here's a prologue/preview for the second story in this crossover universe; I won't be working on it for a while, but I figured if I tossed this out there, y'all would hold me to it. :)
“You. Want me. To do it faster.”
“Yeah, Pickles, it’s too slow. You need to do it faster.”
Charles stood beside the velveteen couch in the back of the mixing room, stock still except his eyes flicking back and forth from Nathan at the board and Pickles in the studio seated behind the drums.
He’d been called down from his office by Knubbler, who thought this recording session might come to blows. Nathan’s exacting standards weren’t new, but he almost never butted heads with the drummer, and the drunken percussionist had a dangerous gleam in his eye.
“Yeah, Pickleshh, you’re holding ushh back!” Murderface added with a smirk. Just fuel for the fire, no purpose other than creating chaos. He’s such a consummate dick, Charles thought.
“Uh, William, I don’t think that’s constructive. Guys—”
“Whaddya want me to do, Nathan? Get robot arms attached to my body?”
Pickles’ nose was pressed against the glass, and he flailed his arms wildly. Too drunk or too sober, this could turn into a serious situation.
“Charles,” Pickles continued, shouting at ear-splitting volume even the glass couldn’t dampen, “Get on the phone and call the robot-doctors and make me an appointment. Have to make sure Nathan’s satisfied with the speed of my drumming!”
“We agreed that this would be the heaviest, blackest, most metal record we ever did and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you just go a little faster.” The singer was oscillating between a perfectly-reasonable tone that one uses with bratty children and a threatening growl he employed to get his way. “300 beats a minute should be fine.”
“SHOULD BE FINE?! Oh, I am coming out there and kicking your ass, ya douchebag!”
When he did get through the door, the manager had already intercepted him, a firm hand pressed against his collar bone.
“Now, Pickles, let’s calm down. We all want the same thing here, a very brutal, lucrative album. Nathan’s, ah, methods are...”
“Facking awful! I won’t work with him like this. 300 beats?! Get in there yourself and try it! I’m a drummer, not a octopus-guy with facking demonic tentacles pounding away!”
There’s a throat-clearing cough, and Charles turned to find its source. A tall, gangly Gear in the corner has his hand half-raised in front of him, the other on the head of a huge hammer on his hip. Offdensen checked the badge quickly: #1025. Right, Toki’s pet that they picked up at the preposterously costly Washington State show six months ago. The manager’s eye twitched every time he thought of the reparations they had to pay for that fucking concert.
Impatiently, he flapped a hand at the Gear, “Speak.”
“Sire, I think I know someone who could help.”
“Help what? Produce the album?”
“Yeah, I guess. But mostly help him grow demonic tentacles.”
"That's what I'm talking about! We're doing that, Offdensen, I don't care."
Charles cocked an eyebrow and waved the Klokateer to him. “Let’s talk in my office.”