Sympathy for Monsters
A pilot for an ongoing experiment in serial fiction
I’ve been messing with a post apocalyptic storyline for a while. In the story world, the dominant social organizational structure is the cult. Thousands of which are scattered across the wastes where Conrad Gordon makes his living as a Seeker, taking bounty commissions from the prophets who run them.
I wanted to write a serial but I couldn’t decide whether to try my hand at twitter fiction again or to stick with what I know and write it in prose. I decided to do both.
The result is a pilot chapter in 3k words of close third person prose and a 111 tweet thread in first person. The interplay between the two has been one of the more interesting products of the experiment for me.
In any case, the idea is that I’ll continue the story in monthly chapters of prose, tweets, or both; depending on the reader response.
Sympathy For Monsters
The thing about Conrad Gordon was that he remembered. Maybe not as much as he implied, but more than most. Hell, most people didn’t even know there was a Weirding, let alone that there had been a whole world before it happened. They didn’t know that all those rusted metal skeletons had once supported towers of glass and money. They’d never heard the static of a television stuck between channels or the basso gumdrop of a just sent text message. They’d never tasted tropical fruit from a grocery store. Most people these days would lose their fucking mind if you put a mango in front of them.
One time on the trail between Warmitten Falls and Landtuck, Conrad had told a young man about the existence of mangos. At once, the kid became convinced that Conrad possessed holy wisdom and soon would lead the people of the wastes into freedom. It took three full days to lose the bastard in the desert.
Could hardly blame the kid, this world was all he knew. Most people desperately needed something to believe in after the Weirding, even if the only sacred knowledge on offer was a bit of greengrocer trivia. Those who weren’t as desperate for authority saw opportunity. By and large, they became prophets.
Thousands of cults bloomed around these new prophets, each founded on a moment as trivial as an offhanded comment about tropical fruit.
Conrad could have become one of them. The lifestyle was nice. Adoration (sex) and more adoration (more, weirder sex). In general, the perks were great. The downside was that prophets had to repay that adoration with hope. Let the mask slip too much and one might turn into the sort of loving divinity who gave his own life for the sake of his followers’ salvation. If the cult was cohesive enough before hand, a new prophet would arise to fill the vacuum, claiming to be the resurrection. Time would march onward with nothing left of the hapless original prophet but an interesting myth and a more cautious cult leader.
In time, Conrad learned to make a living off that dynamic. He had become the guy who kept those cults from burning themselves up. When a prophet ran out of ideas, Conrad showed up to save their hide. Sometimes that meant taking out an apostate who’d gotten too big for his britches. More often, one of the cultists would have absconded with a piece of junk that the prophet had declared holy, shaking the faithful. The cult would pass the hat and Conrad would return their precious macguffin.
Conrad leaned over and scratched Frank behind the ears, taking his eyes off the road. They hit some rubble, sending the car swerving across the vestigial yellow line that still streaked the center of this highway. Frank raised a lazy eyebrow. Backseat driver.
The old dog stretched his legs out, stuttering them off the passenger seat. A glowing medallion peaked from under Frank’s testicles.
Conrad intended to trade that glowing hunk of metal for enough hacksilver to finance six full days of chemical-enhanced depravity in the Sex Caves Disco Cult and Resort just across the ridge in Peoplesbad.
He’d taken the commission because the Christmasons paid better than most of the other cults in the region. They were less squirrelly too. More than a few times, Conrad and Frank had found themselves spitting gravel out of a compound, narrowly escaping with their lives because the local prophet had decided that payment for a retrieved artifact would be unholy and instead the right move was some good old fashioned human sacrifice.
The Christmasons on the other hand were an extremely rule-oriented cult, as far as that sort of thing went. It wasn’t that they never sacrificed any humans, but they had a lot of procedures that had to be followed before such things were allowed. It made them excellent clients for a Seeker like Conrad.
Frank sat himself up in the passenger seat, ears gone stiff. The medallion tumbled to the floor.
“What’s that boy?”
A few degenerates, it looked like. By an old gas station a hundred meters up the road. Scavengers maybe, but they could be cultists on the hunt for a relic. Had to keep an eye out for new commissions.
Conrad pulled into the rubbled parking lot. He patted his shoulder rig, hoping he wouldn’t have to waste bullets. The copper backed fighting knife on his belt would be more than adequate if things got out of hand, but you never knew. When shit flies, there’s no substitute for firepower.
“What’re you fellas lookin’ for?” Conrad yelled as he got out of the car, hands raised palm-forward, placating. “Something important?”
Three men. One big mongo, bald and stupid looking. Another, a wiry mouse of a man carrying a long sharp stick. The third one could have been a woman. Looked like one at first, but as Conrad got closer it became clear it was a kid with a pageboy haircut. Fourteen, fifteen. They all wore heavy sweaters, sagging with sweat in the desert heat. The sun may have cooked their brain already, but the uniform confirmed they were members of a cult.
“Unaffiliated?” The mouse man pointed his sharp stick in Conrad’s direction.
“A Seeker. Got a bounty I’m bringing back to a client now.” Conrad eyeballed the big guy. He didn’t seem to happy at the disturbance. “If you’re looking for something, I might be able to help.” If you have anything worth trading, of course.
The three of them stared blankly for a while before the big one spoke.
“We of the Therapeutics,” he began in a deep, almost hypnotic drawl. “We have no need of Seekers, we’re already found.”
Great. Ascetics. Conrad looked down to see Frank at his side. Frank was good in a mixup but Conrad preferred him to stay out of harm’s way. “I oughta strap you to the seat you little bastard.” Frank pawed at the gravel noncommittally, a shrug.
Conrad looked back up to see the three men staring gape-jawed. Being around Frank all the time, it was easy to forget how rare dogs were these days. Most that were left over either got eaten or went feral. Frank had been a purebred of some sort. Boxy head, luxurious blue black coat. Nothing like the scroungers that milled around the edges of dung heaps for scraps, mange bitten and wild eyed. Years ago Conrad had pulled Frank out of the wet ashes of a ruined cult compound. A gig had gone sideways. Frank’s eyes hadn’t even opened yet; he still looked like a wet potato. Now his muzzle was just as grey as the stubble on Conrad’s chin.
“What is that?” The pageboy pointed at Frank, glancing between his companions for some kind of explanation. “We should bring it to Banyon.”
Adrenaline tickled Conrad’s guts. He unsheathed the copper-backed fighting knife, letting it spin idly into the hook of his thumb.
“I think you may have misjudged the situation, fellas.” So much for the sales call. Prospecting strangers had a way of going really well or really poorly. Conrad had a feeling which column this was about to fall into. “If you prefer your skin remain attached to your body, I suggest you all go back to whatever it was you were doing and we’ll be on our way.”
The big man looked as if he was about to say something stupid, but before he could speak, his head burst like a water balloon, spraying his companions with bone and blood. The air split with the sound of rapid gunfire. Conrad scooped Frank up as he ran through the dangling open door to the old convenience store. He let the dog down and took cover behind a toppled aisle.
Guns. The one in Conrad’s old shoulder rig was a relic. Six rounds left. The last time he’d fired it was when he and Frank got cornered by a gang of chainsaw dancers in the ruins of Warmitten Falls. Three irrevocable gunshots later, they’d escaped into the hills.
Another spray of gunfire. A high muffled whine overwhelmed his ears. He’d forgotten how fucking loud those things were. He wanted to know what they could possibly be after to waste this much ammo on a pack of vagrants.
Conrad and Frank met eyes.
Conrad peeked through the window out at the parking lot. It was one guy. The gun was terrifying. A mutated pistol with clip extending past the grip like an erection. The two remaining sweatered morons huddled behind a fallen gas pump. The guy had just gotten his grubby paws on the driver’s side door handle. Yanking away. None too smart. The driver’s side window was down, he could’ve flipped the lock. Conrad slid outside, coming up behind the guy. About five meters away he yelled, “Surprise!”
The guy turned, ready for business. Conrad fired three rounds. The man crumpled, a look of shock on him like he wanted to flag down a ref for a do-over.
“Life ain’t fair, is it?” Conrad leaned over the dying man. “Thanks for the nice piece. Ah what the fuck.”
Conrad wasn’t a great shot. There was one bullet hole in the guy’s chest, blood and wind whistled out of the open wound. Another bullet hole through the passenger window of the car. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed up after a few years of scavenging old junkyards. That sucked of course, but not even a little bit compared to the condition of the dead man’s gun. The receiver was a twisted mess of splattered lead and bent steel. Ruined. Frank came up beside Conrad and leaned his head in for a scratch.
“Weren’t for bad luck, huh?” Frank whined in commiseration.
A sharp jab between Conrad’s shoulder blades told him his streak wasn’t over yet.
“Drop the gun.” It was the rodent man. Conrad let his own gun fall to the ground, surreptitiously flipping the safety on as he did. “And that big knife of yours, take it out slowly. Hold it by the blade. Rink, take that from him, would you?” His voice wasn’t deep like the mongo’s but carried the same somnambulant quality. Eerily placid. The pageboy took the copper backed fighting knife. Conrad had the feeling that his day was about to get a lot worse. Frank grumbled and pawed at the dirt.
“You and me both, buddy.”
They piled into the car. The rodent sat behind Conrad with the broomstick pointed at his neck. The pageboy sat shotgun, nervously pointing Conrad’s own pistol at him, and Frank reluctantly took his place in the rear passenger side.
Conrad knew he should be doing something to put a stop to his own kidnapping, but he couldn’t get his mind off that gun and the guy who had owned it. How many of them were there? Where had he come from? It didn’t make sense.
He couldn’t believe he’d ruined that fucking gun.
And so the drive back to the Therapeutic compound went on in silence until they pulled onto a bumpy gravel trail.
They hit a bump, sending the point of the broomstick across the back of Conrad’s neck. Not a direct hit, but enough to tear a ragged gash out of his hide. Could have been much worse.
“Ah, fuck! You little sack of shit, I ought to go back there and paddle your ass red.” Conrad gripped the steering wheel, talking himself out of doing exactly what he wanted to do right then.
If Conrad had known the jab was coming, he’d have been able to snatch the gun in the confusion. In all likelihood the pageboy would be stuck fumbling with the safety long enough for Conrad to show him the error of his ways.
The pageboy wagged the pistol in Conrad’s direction unconvincingly. Frank growled, low and dangerous.
“Easy now, both of you.” Conrad gave Frank a quick glance, which calmed him down.
Both the mouse man and the pageboy seemed to be newly aware of Frank’s presence which Conrad could have done without, but at least it would make them think twice before getting stab happy. Blood drained down Conrad’s back from the slash in his neck.
Stupid. Shouldn’t have come this far. If it weren’t for dumb luck he’d be skewered on the end of a broomstick right now. He had to do something.
“How’d your face end up like that?” Conrad wagged his eyebrows at the rearview mirror.
“What?” The mouse man mumbled, still eyeing Frank’s teeth.
“You look like a rat pumped your mom and you came out. Or was your mother the rodent?” None too clever but enough to get under his skin. Maybe make him try it again.
Conrad silently cursed himself. He should have done this before they even got off the road. He’d been distracted. Couldn’t get that guy with the gun out of his head. Had to get his head in the game, wouldn’t do to get all the way to their compound and whatever backup they had waiting in the wings. He had to get rid of them, and fast.
Then he could deliver that damned glowing disk and get on with six days of carnal oblivion. He’d earned it by now, that much was for sure.
“Hey, fuck you.”
“Like that rat did with your momma? I ain’t that kinda gal.”
The mouse boy let out an honest to God squeak. Too easy.
Conrad was about to open his mouth again when the pageboy’s face flashed terror, then snapped back to placidity.
Conrad glanced in the rearview to see flames pouring off the mouse boy’s body, flowing off him. The heat singed Conrad’s hair. He hit the brakes. The pageboy’s head slammed against the dashboard. Conrad pushed the door open as Frank leapt into the front seat and out after him.
By the time they were out the car was puking flames, dumping braids of black and white smoke into the desert air. Conrad’s whole fucking life burning to a crisp in front of him. A working car was not just rare but a badge of accomplishment. No man could keep a car without being resourceful. Just showing up in that old hotrod was enough to close the deal before he’d said two words. Now his meal ticket was turning to ashes in front of him. The choke of burnt rubber filled the air.
Three muffled explosions went off in succession. If the pageboy made it, he didn’t bring the gun with him. At least he still had Frank.
Casual as Sunday, Frank was pawing at the base of an agave.
Conrad was beginning to think the pageboy hadn’t made it out either. Might even be worth it to stick around and root through the ashes for the medallion. On cue, the pageboy came staggering around the other side of the car, coughing to beat the dead. Conrad’s knife in his hands. Small favors. Conrad casually snatched the knife from the pageboy, who hardly seemed to notice.
Before Conrad could pat himself on the back the smoke shifted to reveal a long palisade about a klick beyond the car. Somebody was too busy with those dingbats to notice he’d already come too far.
“One guess who that compound belongs to,” Conrad muttered to Frank who by now had lost interest and was shitting bent-backed next to an agave bush.
“It’s ours.” The pageboy said, flatly. He waved an arm in the direction of the compound. “See? Help is on the way.”
“Things just keep getting better.”
Conrad would have loved to smack the vacant smile off the kid’s face but there wasn’t a lot of time for that. A small group had appeared and were heading in their direction at a good clip.
“Pinch it off, Frank. We gotta get out of here.”
Frank had the decency to look embarrassed but it didn’t speed things up any. Several sharp whistles came from the approaching group. Conrad tapped his foot, grumbling while the dog finished emptying his guts onto the hardpan. Frank dragged his ass across the dirt, then gave a quick shake.
“About time,” Conrad said just as several more scattered whistles sounded out from behind them. Fuck. He hissed at the pageboy, “You guys run a wide sentry ring out here?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” The kid said, his eyes lost somewhere beyond Conrad’s shoulders. “We have scouts everywhere.”
If it wasn’t already clear enough that they were surrounded, several more scouts came walking over the rolling desert ridges. Looked like they were carrying bows, too.
“Did your buddy have a petrol cocktail in his pants or what the hell?”
“Anger is a choice. We must never let ours get out of hand.”
“You’re telling me that your buddy burned up like that because he got mad?”
“There have to be consequences,” the kid droned, “those of us who are bound, have to live up to our morals.”
“And not getting angry is one of those morals, I take it?”
The kid shook his head in assent, eyes fixed on the approaching men. Conrad hadn’t been afraid in a long time. The feeling was as unfamiliar as it was unwelcome. The cults out here, especially the bigger ones, had a way of manipulating reality. It all had to do with the Weirding. The laws of reality had changed suddenly. Men’s now minds shaped the world as much as they were once shaped by it, and a cult could focus those minds to great effect. Some, like Conrad’s beloved Sex Caves Disco Cult used this for the good of humanity. Others used their power do psycho shit like setting pyrotechnic booby traps in their followers psyches.
Speaking of fires, the one in front of them had died down. Crazy how fast car fires go. The blackened ribcage of Conrad’s livelihood sat dead in the sun, what was left of its last meal smoldered in the back seat, lending a distinct note of overdone pork to the scorched rubber and burnt hair.
“No hard feelings, huh?” Conrad said as he impotently fidgeted with his knife. With this many armed sentries approaching, it was unlikely that a hostage situation would get him too far. The boy shrugged noncommittally. His survival instinct should have been raising sirens but the fear of being burned up by his own emotions had him placid as a desert lake.
“You know the guy back at the gas station, with that fucking beautiful gun?” The phrase submachine tickled the back of Conrad’s memories but remained tantalizingly beyond the reach of his tongue. “Where do you think he picked that thing up?”
The kid shrugged.
“He’s gotta have friends, right?” Friends with weapons like that. Friends that could run through the wastes from top to tail and ransack every cult from here to Upper Saddledown without breaking a sweat.
The kid waved again, hopping like a rag on a busy stick.
“They can see you just fine.”
Unfazed, the kid began to hop even more manically, recruiting his other arm into the action so that he looked like a stroked out cheerleader.
Conrad muttered something obscene under his breath and waited to see what new manner of ritual torture he was about to discover the hard way.