Welcome to the first episode of DAKKA PRESS presents. REDFIELD asks what we look like in the mirror of our own ambitions. Will we have feet? Will our mirror be tall enough to tell? We find most mirrors are a little too short.
A man wakes up. Around him sit machines humming with power, their tubes tendrils, sewing him back into the world. The liquids they carry rebuild him. He rebuilds himself. It is an unnatural symbiosis. Thought comes back in fits and starts, growing tentatively in iterations. He wakes just long enough to register the process, but once again unconsciousness claims him.
A new cycle starts. Someone enters. He is recognized, John Clay, an old memory given flesh. John Clay is then the reason he is here, slowly sleeping back to life. He should be a husk lying in the field slowly returning to dust, but Clay had other plans for him. This place has been abandoned. The nameless man can tell from the silence of the city around him. He does not belong here, nor these machines but each for different reasons. The miracle of these devices in humanity’s abandonment sustains him who abandoned humanity. This is Clay’s doing. He has always been fond of a paradox. The nameless man asks what year it is. The date is seven years to the day since the last time he walked with men on mortal limbs. Less since he stalked them without.
Sleeping, he was simple to hide away. No one left to search abandoned towns for survivors. But now he is restless. He cannot wait to move again; he has been here too long. Clay suggests a cottage, on the north end of the lake. It will give him the space he needs to to stretch his legs.
He is at the cottage four weeks before he starts to walk again, six hundred and seventy-two hours until he once again has the power to move about on his own without more than a cane and an occasional rest. He is gaunt, the result of years of inactivity. If he was still what he once was he would not be able to move, would not be sure his strength would recover in full. But he is not, and he does not have time to wait.
Soon he ventures outside. He has been asleep too long and the world has gone quiet. He feels the cold, but it is just an observation now despite the beach khakis and loose polo he is wearing, despite the snow covered ground and the howling wind as it whips the lake and sends it running heedless to the shore. He sits to decompress and observe the water, the bright winter gray of the sky and the lonely curved horizon of the water. If the world were flat enough to see the other shore he knows he would be just as alone. Angry, he strides towards the water. He travels stone stairs to a dock the water laps hungrily, as if to claim it for its own. He enters the water to challenge the waves. Time passes and they subside with a lull in the wind. Eventually he retreats to the cottage to take rest.
The next day, the wind has increased and the sky darkened. The snow blows in crystalline flames that race over his surroundings and catch what exists of the light. If it gets much darker they will fade to a blur in the wind and a stinging presence. Outside the weather stokes the waves to half again his height. He jumps down from the seawall and struggles out into the water. But today it defeats him. Meters out, he is thrown by the surf back into the shallows. The weather worsens to a blizzard and he can no longer see the building from the shore. He concedes to nature and retires.
The following morning an engine cuts the silence, its harsh growl foreign, exotic in his ears. It is less piercing than the constant wind, but the wildlife know to flee its arrival. A flock of rooks scatter as the nameless man puts on his shirt. A shape fades out of the snow, and he sees it is a yellow bus, weathered and rusty. He had seen them sleeping in phalanxes by the road. They had stayed there ever since public education had ceased to be a practical effort. He was glad to see one moving. It had been a damning sign when the fleet was mothballed.
The driver is old and whiskered, his gray hair wild under a faded sports cap. He opens up the doubled doors for his passenger to step on and says, “Yer lucky I’m still running in this weather. Get on. We have a lot of trail to cover yet.” The old man driving the bus has a broken smile full of gaps.
The passenger doesn’t ask if the man has seen soldiers. Soldiers are animals. If the driver had seen them he wouldn’t be here to tell about it. So instead he wonders where Clay is sending him. The nameless man watches the snow fall. He falls asleep in the heat of blown air and the quiet of the old driver’s company.
The nameless man dreams of the time before. He was going to be a hero, and he lived among fields of wheat that were not yet entirely empty. There was a silo on the fields he called his own, just short of where the land turned wild, untended. It was a small building, just eight meters tall, and in the past someone had turned it into a fort, with a second story hidden away until you entered under the feed access. It had been a secret place, his and Becca Thompson’s, and when they could get away from tending the farm machines, they would climb up and stare at the cracks of sky that leaked through the ventilation under the roof. He was going to be a hero. He was going to join the army and end the war so that people would stop leaving and come back, and the houses and towns could be full of life again. That’s what he told himself and Becca Thompson. They did a lot in that silo, and when he left Becca Thompson said she loved him, and she would wait for him. Wait for him to come back a hero. He, Clay and Becca had been some of the last, maintaining the dying farm automatia that tilled the land around their home, remnants of a slow conglomeration as the fields emptied. Once a month they had met with the others in charge of the farming machines, but the news was always the same. Every month there were fewer technicians, and more broken machinery. Responsibilities were redistributed as technicians were requisitioned, and as the workload increased, only the choicest fields could be maintained. But as the workforce decreased, so did the demand for food.
It was the reluctance to let go of the land, plots their family and neighbors struggled on for generations, that kept them stretched so thin. The government requisitionary had never set so much as a production quota. Instead they sent requests for troops. Every few months they would ask for a number of people and the town would send volunteers, by choice or by lottery. They had five techs who were exempt for previous war contributions. John Clay was among them. Probably because of something he knew; previous draftees had been vets. In the end even war contributors went. Probably. Unless something else happened to them. Becca’s lover was gone by then anyways.
Clay always seemed satisfied enough, sometimes even happy as he carried out classes at the local university. But he never belonged. He was semi-retired at the age of thirty-seven. A newcomer from the city, dabbling in what he would and he carried himself differently, paying no mind to the petty politics that were bread and butter to the other academics. In turn the rest of the faculty treated him with a wary caution. But the boy never once saw Clay do something to deserve it.
The man woke up, bloodied, unmoving, the taste of it bright in his mouth and sticky in his clothes. The bus, it lay behind him, creaking and groaning in feeble outrage. He gets up slow, but faster than he should have, shard glass digging into his flesh. It tinkles and cracks as it falls away. He sights the pale cloudless air, and scents it. He now knows to be his objective and he can smell it, even at this distance. Smoke rises on the horizon. He will reach it before nightfall.
The smoke comes from an old farm house. A man sits with a rifle on the front porch. He marks the traveler, but puts it down. The things worth killing will not die to bullets.
The traveler is expected, or taken for granted. He does not know. The householder’s wife shows him a room. She offers a meal, hard bread and shriveled fruit. The traveler shakes his head. He cleans himself, takes to his room, and sleeps.
The boy was left alone because he was weak. He was born that way: pale, shortsighted, thin, and rarely healthy. All of his companions had left, gone to war. But he stayed, alone, fixing the things they left behind with his clever fingers. Becca didn’t mind. Clay didn’t either. Clay said the war would be a waste of him. Clay encouraged him to learn, to stay. He knew leaders are rarer than pawns.
But the requisitionary kept calling. And the fields grew empty. And Clay grew preoccupied. Old friends stopped by. Furtive men in fine cars. They were nervous men, never happy, and their smiles were nervous, weighted with a grim resolution. The boy grew discouraged. What few peers he had were busy, staggered under the weight of too many hats.
He had pestered Becca until she no longer spoke to him.
“Just go already,” she would say. So he spent his time with the machines. Sending food to a requisitionary that never asked for it.
When the nameless man wakes it is morning. Grey light and dead trees. The house is quiet. Cold. The fire has gone out. He goes downstairs and glances at the wood-stove. Kindling stands nearby, but the fire is soot and embers. He stares out the kitchen window. Lifeless stalks of grass poke out of the field snow, in among sapling volunteers. The house is empty of life, but he knows where he needs to go. In the sink sit bones, their stains washed away to pink droplets. Femurs and jawbones. Human. In their jumbled forms he sees the next destination.
He is headed home. All people and places are indelibly marked by their origin, and beneath snow, the dead earth holds the scent of soil. He knows deeply the soil of his home, the scent to guide him home. He leaves the lifeless house and scents the chill, dry air. The way is clear to him.
He follows the path. When he gets tired, he falls asleep in abandoned cars and used clothes stores. And when the scent starts to fade, he seeks out the people, to guide him on his way. They greet him with a wary fatalism, wry capitulation. Each time he leaves refreshed, well rested, and ready to continue on his way.
People are hard to find these days, and the detours take him leagues out of his way. but when the path that fills his head grows weak, their presence flares to beckon him. And when he sleeps, he dreams of better days.
Clay wasn’t too busy for the boy in those days. He was preoccupied- which meant the boy sat in on the edge of meetings or fit his appointments around Clay’s constant scribblings on slate boards that seemed to follow the man from room to room.
Clay wasn’t satisfied. But he was alive. He filled his boards with equations and notes and argued with his visitors. The boy did not care for Clay’s theories. But John Clay knew the face of war. The boy sat outside the door and listened as the men from the city talked in subdued tones about tactics and technology. The new weapons they skirted around were wonders to the boy, brutal machines that shattered the enemy populations along with their morale, all in hopes to bring quick end to the conflict. But around the boy, the men acted strangely. Some would stare with hostility, others appraising. And when they knew he was listening they would slide around the details of matters as if they feared a spy.
Truth be told, the boy did not have much to do. The university was a shell, closed in all but name. All he had was his farm work. But it wasn’t much anymore. Most the fields lay fallow and the machines could mostly run themselves. He was tired of waiting on the requisitions that never came. It was all drafts now, no volunteers, and he didn’t know why he was still there. He knew he didn’t, couldn’t be a leader. The boy didn’t know how. Who would he lead? He just knew he was good with his hands. So he sat and he listened, and Clay watched him. Clay watched him, and from time to time he watched him with the hint of a grimace he occasionally bestowed upon a rigorous equation. And one day, while the boy was walking down the hall with a sheaf of Clay’s notes, John Clay solved it.
Then he turned to the boy, his assistant in all but name, and asked him a question.
“How would you like to be a hero?”
Hospitality is rarer now. Even the dreams sometimes fail him. When the last things to flit through his mind before he falls to sleep are not a peaceful glide to somnolence, but some act of violence that shuns remembrance in the light of day, then his dreams are dark and fragmented. Sleeping he remembers smoke, and the truth of war.
In these dreams he is not the man without a name, not quite. But he is not the boy. The war has taken that. He is not a soldier either. The soldiers fear and resent him, and those like him. He breaks the foe ahead of charges, and ranges afield as they travel, protecting the flank. But the men hate him, he can see it in their dull eyes. He does his best to save them anyways, their soft bodies and fragile bones. It is not his job to protect the men. It is his job to fight the enemy. Still he tries. He is not always successful, but he is strong. And when he encounters the enemy they rarely live long enough to do the same.
He does not blame the men. There are things that skitter and crawl in the shadows, things that lurk in the ground and stalk on stilt legs through silent villages. Some of these things were once men themselves. These things rarely care what flag a regiment marches under. They were shaped to kill, to devour life and sup blood, and that is what they do. He does not need his skills to slaughter men, but it is a different matter with these other things. Often the earth is rent and poisoned in the wake of such struggles. But he has yet to lose a fight.
These weapons cannot conquer, cannot occupy the enemy. But they can silence them. And for the men who run the war, it is enough. He is not the boy, but he still knows what the boy was; how he was, and how he is different. And so he shepherds his men.
The worst dreams presage a waking to the signs of a recent struggle, furniture smashed and bloodied.
The man without a name dislikes these scenes; they speak of the war he left behind and shatter the peaceful quiet he has become accustomed to. These places he leaves quickly, searching out the path he follows and making haste to put the leagues behind him.
True innocence is rare, a fatal burden in this feral age. When his troops encountered a girl child, a broken thing, that alone should have been warning. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. She had lured him away from the men only to circle back. He found her surrounded by what had remained of his company, standing amid sad gore soaked mounds in the highest field of an overgrown farm. He knows blood and smoke and high-pitched screams, but his will is iron and in time the land lays quiet before him. But he has noticed an audience.
In a nearby valley he finds the enemy. Human, scared, clearly frantic from the sounds of the fight and the loss of their scouts. Was the girl child their mascot, their guardian? What is left of the boy sees in them a mirror. Behind him, upon the scarred and poisoned hill, lays the broken child. The man without a name and the soldiers stare at each other. The soldiers’ grief at the girl child’s death is real, their fate without her clear. But when the shooting starts he can not bring himself to move.
The nameless avoids glass and bodies of water by habit so old he has forgotten it exists. His smiles have too many teeth. He would not care, but once that would have given him pause. The nameless man intuits the boy he once was would have found the scents rising from his clothes and flesh disconcerting. There is a time this would have bothered him. But he has lost his time in the murky depths of memory. What he has is now. What he has is John Clay’s task and the scent of home.
Feelings belong to a boy. A boy with eyes too weak to know him. A boy too frail to dull his teeth. There is a time this would have bothered him. There is a time he knows it did. It does not matter.
The man is heading home, to the farms and little town he grew up in. He wanders and follows the scent, always heading home. He remembers Becca, the way she looked before they took him away. They had barely spoken for months, and she was still angry, glaring at him, but she said, “Don’t come back now. Don’t come back until you keep your stupid promise.” So he went. He changed. He killed and fought. He died. And now he was headed home to tell them the war is over. And when he gets there he will sleep. And there will be quiet.
Voice acting was provided by Christine Chang
This episode was produced and written by Patrick Mares
Music was provided by Valence,
Song: Valence – Infinite [NCS Release]
Music provided by NoCopyrightSounds.
Video Link: https://youtu.be/QHoqD47gQG8
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Photo credit Jeff Sheldon via Unsplash