A Horror Story
(I’d normally prefer to let a story stand on its own, but this one could use a disclaimer. The story posted here is an artistic work of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything within it as fact. This story uses a conspiracy theory as a central conceit for the purpose of building dread and tension, and critiquing elements of modernity. It is not, however, an endorsement of any particular worldview, and all characters are fictitious. Additionally, this story contains disturbing events, language, and themes.)
I left society because I felt no obligation to it. American civilization was a saddening mess, a commodified and militarized clusterfuck...a hierarchy of sociopathy. No matter where you stood on that ladder, life was presented as a continual war.
I knew this as a teenager, though at the time I had no words to convey it. My circumstances spoke clearly enough. My mom was a coal miner’s daughter who made it all the way to a state university. Unfortunately, she fell in love with a literature professor, who wanted nothing to do with the child he gave her. She didn’t have much of a choice but to leave school and seek what little stability she could find with her parents. So I grew up in a dying Appalachian town, abandoned by the country just like that asshole abandoned my mother. Sometimes we felt the faint buzz of hunger. Sometimes we couldn’t feel anything else.
My grandparents both passed when I was little. My mother was a beacon of strength and warmth, a sun that burned with resilience. Even as a child, I recognized that she could face anything the world could throw at her, that she would will her way to a good life for me. But then the cancer struck. I had to watch her body betray her, cannibalize her. I was fourteen when she finally died. The experience was scaphoric—it hollowed me out. Reduced to a shell, piloted by a basic survival instinct. I didn’t have many options. I started picking mushrooms out of cow dung, cleaning and selling the ones that made people feel funny. I figured out how to grow them, and word got around to nearby counties that I was the kid to talk to when you wanted some of those special fungi. Soon, I was richer than my mother ever had been, which was still almost nothing. I still felt the pain of the world around me, of my neighbors who sold family heirlooms to pay for their sibling’s funerals. In that time though, I grew up. I was robbed many times, earned and lost many friends, absorbed many cruel lessons in human nature.
You can imagine how much my outlook darkened during my ten-year prison sentence, which I earned by selling psilocybin mushrooms to an undercover cop. I spit in his face when they arrested me. I knew the damn things helped people deal with depression, and when this guy confided in me about his “sadness,” I cut him a deal.
The world devours empathy.
The United States of America did nothing for me, and then threw me in a concrete hole for ten years when I tried to help myself. Prison is a hell constructed by apathy and control. “Cruel and unusual” doesn’t come close to the boredom, the monotony, the despair, and the knowledge that you do not own your life. That you belong to the state, which belongs to the wealthy, and because you did something unprofitable for them, you must live in a cube and eat gruel. You are cheap meat that feeds private industries, digested by a system of bloated laws.
In the absence of anything to do, I discovered literature. The one saving grace of the facility was its book-request system. I read, and I read. I wrote letters to the authors of the best books, and sometimes they responded, sometimes telling me other books to read. So I read more. I developed particular interests in philosophy and politics, searching for the gears that turn civilization, trying to understand why the world is this way.
Somewhere among all those books, I realized I’d probably be in law school at an Ivy League, instead of a tiny cell in a state penitentiary, if my father hadn’t deserted my mother. The gifted mind I’d inherited from him was less practically advantageous than his financial support might have been. I realized that all the hopelessness of my youth was the last gasp of a people that had been exploited and drained dry, and then left to die. I realized everything about this country is a goddamned lie. “Opportunity” is bait dangled over our heads.
I still didn’t know why, though. I couldn’t see the point in such a sick system. I didn’t understand why anyone would destroy another human life for the smallest of rewards.
So when they let me out, I left. Not immediately, of course. Spent the better part of a decade scraping together money, planning, jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Eventually, I wound up here, on a small patch of land in the Canadian wilderness.
I swore to myself I would never look back. I would forge my own life up here, escape from the machine, live like a hermit. I’d sculpt my mind to my liking. I’d own things, not just rent them from a bank.
I wanted to stop caring about the world. I wanted to stop caring about my country. I wanted to stop caring about my species. I wanted to stop asking why.
All that disdain, all those scars. I know I’ll be called jaded; I call myself free.
But I suppose, at the core, I must still care. Somewhere deep within me, my soul is still alive. I must believe this world can be saved. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.
People deserve to know.
I doubt you’ve heard about the plane crash. It seems a newsworthy thing, but I expect there are layers of secrecy at play that would stifle even the slightest publicity. The primary function of news is to distract you from what's important, not inform you of it.
Seven days ago, a massive plane went down over the Canadian wilderness, over my house. I was sleeping soundly, fully, the way you can’t in prison. Suddenly, there was this horrific motorized screaming, an earsplitting roar that shook the house, ripped through my unconsciousness and shocked me into pure alertness. It was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. I thought it was the goddamned apocalypse. The ground rumbled, and when I looked out the window, a cloud of fire rose in the distance. Glowing pieces of metal and fuel rained down on the woods, a mechanical meteor shower.
My first thought, I’ll admit, was concern for the forest. So much fire and oil. Surely the wild would light up with flames and devour itself. But, it is wintertime. The forest would not be consumed. That’s one reason I like living up here: for all its difficulties, there is an order to the natural world, a resistance to the destruction of itself, that is largely absent in humans. People perceive the wilderness as vicious and untamed, and civilization as somehow safe. In reality, nothing in nature is as cannibalistic as a large modern city.
Only after I breathed a sigh of relief for the trees did the possibility of human survivors occur to me. I watched the sky for flares, for rescue helicopters, for anything besides smoke and embers. But by dawn, the sky stretched silent and empty, and the distant fire was already dying.
I decided then I’d hike to the crash site and check for survivors, though I didn’t expect I’d find even one of them in the wreckage. Perversely, I hoped I wouldn’t. I wasn’t ready for human contact. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of speaking to someone, let alone saving their life. I hadn’t spoken, face-to-face, with anybody except a general store owner in over two years.
I told you—I left society.
The plane lay farther away than I expected. By the time I reached it, the ground had cooled. Scattered pockets of flaming rubble still sizzled, but a cold breeze cut through the crash site. A storm was coming.
Planes fly over my cabin every so often. I hear their roars, see their metal bodies glinting way up in the sky. I’d forgotten how massive they are. This one in particular seemed enormous, with a cavernous destroyed fuselage and crumpled wings the size of buildings. I stumbled through the wreckage with the helpless awe of a morning beach jogger encountering a wheezing, dying whale stretched across the sand.
Chunks of burning metal. Destroyed synthetic lattices. Leather-lined chairs.
There were corpses in the wreckage—some charred and twisted, others smeared into red paste.
I was numb, gliding through the mess without feeling, until I came upon something that churned my stomach...a human hand, torn from some unseen arm.
Walking through bodies bent and burned into shapes beyond recognition, and a human hand disturbed me so much? Perhaps it was the plaintive, almost artistic way it curled alone on the snow, disconnected from the burning carnage. Or perhaps it was the size.
The hand was tiny.
For the first time since I’d entered the ghostly wreckage, I was jolted into shock and grief, and truly felt what I was witnessing. Bile rose in my throat, and my vision blurred. Now I could smell the smoke. Now I could smell the burning flesh.
I wanted to lean against something, sit down...and that’s when I saw...them.
Cages, crumpled in a pile, pouring out of a burning metal tube.
In the cages were children.
You can stop reading. I wouldn’t blame you. I’d like to stop writing, to delete this document and drown myself in vodka. But I feel a responsibility to tell you what I know. You might as well feel a responsibility to hear it, despite your disbelief. I assure you, in this case, belief is worse.
From what I could tell, there were dozens—maybe a hundred cages. I ran over to the heap and began yelling.
“Hey! Is there anyone there? I can help you!”
As I searched for signs of life, I couldn’t stop looking at the small faces in the cages. The children weren’t old, probably younger than ten. Some wore ragged clothes, some were nude. None were alive.
As I yelled, my voice turned hoarse, and I could feel tears freezing on my cheeks. I couldn’t stop thinking one word: why?
Why why why why- It was a nonstop chorus. Couldn’t make sense of it.
Then I heard a voice. I thought I was imagining it, but no, there it was, carrying over the crackle of fires and the cold winds.
“I’m here,” it said, from some distant corner of the crash site. It wasn’t a child’s voice.
I called, and listened, called again, and eventually made my way to a small hill of wreckage. Amidst it was some kind of large metal box, with a door hanging open. Smoke poured out of the door, and through the fumes I could see some kind of padding.
“Here,” coughed a raspy voice. I looked down, at the base of the pile. Leaning against some twisted metal was an elderly man. What struck me first was how well-off he seemed—a glossy suit, a gold watch. And then I noticed the burns on his face and the blood on his torso.
“Help me,” he said, staring at me with piercing gray eyes. “Help me.” Blood trailed from his mouth.
I stared at him, but I didn’t see him. I saw the faces of the children in the cages. I was going to ask him why, and throw him in the flames if this wasn’t all some grand, terrible, realistic prank. I was going to kill him. Why are you still alive and those children aren’t? Why?
He noticed my demeanor and tried to sit up, winced, slumped back down. “I can help you,” he said. “I can make it all make sense.”
I stared. I could feel the heat from a nearby pocket of smoldering plane guts. Nobody would know. Rescuers would assume he hadn’t survived the crash. How would they explain the children in the cages, though? Would they? They wouldn’t, most likely.
The man watched my face, searching for a facial clue to my thoughts.
“I can tell you why,” he whispered.
In prison, when you see something you aren’t supposed to, you act normally. You ignore it and walk away, stonefaced, and when someone thinks you know something, you don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. You can discuss it later, with your cellmate at night, and add the event to the evolving mythology of your prison.
I channeled that.
“I have a cabin nearby. Can you walk?” I asked him.
“No.” His eyes didn’t leave me. His face was expressionless.
I surveyed my options. I could go back to my house and get my sled. But the cold bit me even through my heavy coat. It would surely devour him, in his thin formal clothing, long before I returned. And a blizzard was on the horizon.
“Wait here,” I told him, and paced through the wreckage, looking for anything usable. It took a few minutes, but I found some materials. A rogue suitcase contained coarse black fabric—robes of some sort. I returned to the man and wordlessly dumped them across his body. He did not thank me as I returned to the heart of the crash.
I searched for any kind of large, smooth plate, but found nothing. Eventually, I realized what I needed, and where I could find it. The walk back to the cages couldn’t have taken long, but it felt like hours.
I tried to avoid looking at any faces as I walked up to a bent crate and, with some effort, pulled out the plastic tray in the bottom. Made for dogs, I guess. For waste collection. Nausea.
I returned to the man, who regarded me with cold bright eyes under the pile of black cloth. I set the plastic tray on the ground in front of him.
“You’ll sit on this. I’ll pull you over the snow back to my cabin,” I said. “Like a sled.”
He took a moment to appraise my plan, to look at the tray, and then, finally, his expression changed.
He smiled, a wide grin in the flickering orange light.
The journey was largely wordless, and I had to keep waking him up whenever he dropped the fabric I used to pull him. Eventually, we arrived at my cabin and I carried him to a cot, where he rolled limply.
He breathed in ragged gasps as I inspected his wounds. The burns were severe, but patchy and not life-threatening. Only when I pulled off the fabric and moved his coat did I notice the metal rod emerging from his torso, staining his white undershirt with thick maroon. The warm iron tang of blood filled the air.
Removing the rod was not a pretty process. It didn’t come out on the first tug, and he instantly awoke with a sound I’ll hear in my nightmares. I wrenched it out with a wet squelch, as he scrambled and howled.
“I’m saving your life,” I grunted, as his wrinkled, bloody hands gripped me. I looked him in the eyes as I said that, and immediately I wished I hadn’t. His face was white and contorted, like an ancient demon. However, he calmed down as I cleaned and stitched the wound as best as I could, and by the time I finished, he had fallen asleep again.
He didn’t wake when I ziptied his wrists to the edges of the cot. The man was old, frail, and wounded, but I wasn’t going to trust him after what I’d seen at the crash site.
I cleaned the blood from my hands, took a large swig of my best vodka, and fell into bed. From the hike to the crash site to the impromptu surgery, the ordeal had lasted for the entire span of a Northern winter day. The sunlight was long gone. I was exhausted.
I would interrogate the man tomorrow.
I remember dreaming about those kids. In my dream, they were all alive, and the wreckage echoed with their wails. They all screamed, “Why?”
I know it’s hard to believe a hermit found a crashed jet full of dead kids in cages.
But the most insane piece of this story is a conversation. I’ve tried to replicate it as best as I can. Where I have paraphrased, it is because the words did not stick in my mind like shards of ice. However, most of them did.
My only goal, fueling my mind from the moment my eyes snapped open the next morning, was finding out. Answering one question. One word, really.
I turned on my mind before opening my eyes, preparing myself behind the safety of my eyelids. I was no longer safe in the woods. Frightened out of natural ecstasy, I needed the sharp-iron survivalism of my stolen youth.
The man was awake in the cot when I rolled out of bed. He regarded me with an impassive gaze as I awkwardly prepared food for the both of us. When I brought him a plate, he took it with free hands. He’d escaped from the zipties, but he did not seem particularly dangerous or even mobile. Even so, I kept my shotgun close at hand.
We watched each other by the light of my fireplace as we ate strips of meat and nuts and canned vegetables. I heard the wind outside the cabin, the opening murmurs of a blizzard.
He was the first to finish his meal, and the first to speak. “Do you have any more?”
“Yes,” I said, but made no move to get it for him.
He waited, watched me. “Are you going to retrieve it?”
“No.” He had to make me say it, even though it was obvious. This motherfucker.
Eventually his mouth twitched upwards into a mild smile.
“I suppose you want to understand what you saw last night,” he said.
“I’d like more food first.”
“I gave you enough. Lunch in a few hours. Why don’t you start with who you are?”
“You haven’t spoken to another person in a long time, have you?” he asked, with enough of an edge to his voice to prove he knew the answer.
That was my introduction to Lester Wexler, founder of the financial management firm Obsidian Instruments, owner of the Kublai Casino resort in Hong Kong, and forty-first wealthiest person on the planet. Born in Ohio to a pair of penniless immigrants, his entire life had been a series of leveraged plays for wealth.
I will spare you the push and pull of our conversation as we grew to know and despise each other, as I gradually remembered what it was like to converse—though Wexler made normal dialogue seem like the mutter of a distant prayer. He demanded control over the flow of the discussion. I found it difficult to speak against him, especially when he would answer my questions with his own pointed inquiries. He spoke to win, not to convey information.
Media will tell you that the rich and powerful are just like you, only with more possessions. Part of one big human family, eh? Wexler shattered that notion. Frail as he was, his voice and mannerisms projected a cold intensity. His presence was both intrusively perceptive and utterly indifferent. Under the cold light of his insight, I felt like a man splayed out on an alien’s vivisection table.
Early on, he insisted that he would tell me everything, but not all at once—it had to be back and forth. I’d answer him. He’d answer me. I told him it wasn’t his position to bargain. He told me he might die soon and I’d never get my answers, and therefore, I could either engage on his terms or hope I could forget what I’d seen.
So, for hours, we threw questions at each other with suspicious force, each of us trying to break the other down. Sometimes, locked in the dead tension of that talk, it was all I could do to keep my sense of self intact. To stay strong enough to keep asking why.
“Oh, to be driven up here. What did you do, Nathan? What crime warrants exile to this frozen wasteland?”
“I chose to come up here.”
“Uh huh,” he said, smacking his withered lips. “So, what did you do?”
I sighed. “Twenty years ago I sold drugs to an undercover cop.”
“And your sentence...ten years? A mandatory minimum for distribution in many states."
“And upon your release, you fled here to toil and die?”
“No, I moved here, of my own free will, so that my life would mean more than that. So that I would not be a cog in some uncaring machine.”
“Mhm. What kind of drugs did you sell, all those years ago?” His pale green eyes shone in the firelight. “Psychedelics?”
“Yes.” I tried not to display how much his uncanny intuition bothered me. In response, he cackled, a hollow hacking that soon filled with blood and spittle.
“Did you partake in these drugs?”
“Once or twice. Not really.”
“Afraid to climb the peaks of perception? You don't seem narrow-minded, Nathan.”
“Stop talking like you know me,” I hissed. The man was nauseating.
“I know what I see.”
“Enough. You don’t know me.”
“All humans fall into categories. Attempting to exclude yourself, I’m afraid, tends to fail. Nonconformists are a surprisingly predictable group.” A malicious smirk. Yellowed eyes.
“And what category do you fall into?” I asked him.
He paused. “The harvest-bringer,” he said, briefly pensive, before the nasty smile returned. I wanted to flip the script. Wexler’s psychological siege would have beaten down most people, I think. But words do not control me like they control most people. I’d lived a hard life. I’d read many of the most complex and harrowing books ever written. And I’d seen the kids. He wouldn’t escape this until I knew why.
“What are you doing up here?” I challenged him. No response. “Your plane was headed North. What's North of here that's worthy of your time? Where were you taking…the kids?”
He peered at me. No answer.
I waited. The seconds stretched into minutes. I refused to move. I suspected a man who made a career of investing would be relatively patient. But I’ve spent decades in situations where external stimulation is a rare luxury. I can sit motionless for hours.
Finally, Wexler spoke. “If I tell you all of it, you’ll facilitate my return to civilization.”
He said it like an absolute fact, though I’d said nothing of the sort. But I just nodded.
“Your lies blare like a horn, even when you say nothing,” he chuckled.
It took me a minute to compose my thoughts, but this time, they were the absolute truth, and we both knew it.
“I can’t tell you what I’ll do. Because I don’t understand why. I can’t say I’ll help you if you tell me the truth, because if the truth is disgusting I’ll be too angry to help you. But I hope there’s an explanation for what I saw. I am not a fool. I am not insane. I am not a puritan. I will listen to what you say and I will hope there is some justification in...whatever it is you’re involved in, and I will help you if there is. But no one is coming to find you in this weather, and you need me to stay alive, and telling me the truth is the only chance you have.”
For a long moment, there was nothing but the howl of the wind outside my cabin. His eyes seemed to pulse in sync with the pitch of the storm. And then something in him shifted.
“Fine.” It felt like his first honest word of the night.
I breathed a sigh and felt the taut anxiety of the conversation loosen, just a little. I was still bothered beyond belief, still haunted by the faces of the children. But at least I was going to know why.
Wexler spoke again.
“But I cannot just explain it all at once. There are layers. Complex systems in play. We will need to talk through things. You’ll need to answer and ask questions.”
“I’m a patient listener.”
“You are a hermit, Nathan. You left society. I have spent my life climbing its ranks. In order to explain my world, I will need to know how you see it.”
“So you can manipulate me, presumably.”
“Since you’re aware of that possibility, presumably you also know it's your responsibility to mitigate it. But I am willing to give you honesty if you do the same.”
“Fine.” I meant it. I’d tell the old fuck precisely what I thought of ‘his’ world. “Where should we start?”
“What do you think of the United States?”
“I think it’s a plutocracy of demons.”
His brows lifted, in either mock surprise or delight. “Why?”
“Because it does evil things to vulnerable people.”
“Correct,” he said.
I hadn’t expected that answer.
“Do you think it’s possible to live in a world without it?”
“Are we going to chat philosophy or are you going to tell my why there were-”
“They are the same thing!” he snapped. “You want a ‘why’ from me? Well, I want one from you! A conversation is an exchange of worldviews. Tell me what you see.”
Fucker. “I see a world that is dominated by stifling control, militaristic cruelty, and merciless exploitation for the sake of material selfishness. It’s disgusting. A nightmare.”
He smirked, and I realized, with a stab of indignation, that I’d given way, exposed my hand, ranted like an angry college kid. He’d handed me one contradiction and I’d used it as a soapbox. But then he answered.
“I agree with you, my friend.”
“I’m not your friend.”
“Well, we agree. That makes us friends.”
“We can agree to disagree.”
He chuckled. “You are a clever thing.”
“If you agree with me, why are you so rich and so old? Give up your money. For others. You don’t have a future to invest in anymore.”
“I agree with your assessment, not your ideal.”
“Well, what’s your goddamned ideal?” I asked, tired of the constant question prompts, the knowing smugness.
“It is not dissimilar to yours, only, mhm, more abstract.” He plucked each word out of himself with an air of careful satisfaction, like he was eating something delicate but delicious.
I simply waited. He spoke after a moment.
“The good of the species.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You discipline a child. He feels nothing pleasant at that moment, but his family, his tribe, his species, all benefit from the intervention.”
I hid my anger. “Great analogy, Lester. But our species does not benefit from global control, secret police, or predator drones.”
“Doesn’t it? Safety, Nathan. Security, for the masses, delivered on a silver platter.”
“With an iron fist,” I said through gritted teeth. He smiled and gave the slightest nod at my metaphor. Thank you for playing the game, the gesture seemed to say. I ignored it and waited.
“Your opinion of mankind is absurdly optimistic,” he remarked after a silence.
That shocked me. I’ve been called many things, but never an optimist.
“You,” he began, admiring his long yellow fingernails, “believe that mankind is like you. In-control. Knowing. Capable of learning. Capable of living independently.”
“They are every bit as deserving of-”
“They are livestock!” he hissed with sudden bitterness.
“Why?” I asked urgently, not wanting his emotion to subside without learning more.
“It is a simple realization: autonomy terrifies them. It is paralytic, overwhelming, absurd to them. They cannot truly choose for themselves. They must be given the lives we build for them. They must be given the realities we construct. And nature, in all its mercy, has given their minds the ability to superimpose a veneer of personal freedom over their existence.”
I heard the words, but they tumbled through my mind without sticking. What? Wexler continued, staring at me, willing me to believe him.
“They believe the things they do are their choice. They believe that the things that happen to them are simply the way the world is. They believe they are free, and they believe they are conscious, and they live ignorantly in their pens, drinking and laughing and fucking and crying, and then they die without ever truly feeling or thinking anything. They are livestock, Nathan. What purpose does their emptiness serve, but to support the fullness of their stewards?”
I fought the urge to stutter at the audacity of his perspective, the dehumanization. Yet some callous and deadened part of me knew what he was talking about. That grim misanthropy. It was a feeling I’d faced when, in my cell, the yells and thuds of a brawl would distract me from a novel, or when I considered who voted for the policies that consumed my youth, or when I considered my father. But it was not a feeling I liked. And this—this was irrelevant. This was not what I sought. I set my mental stance and redirected, keeping my voice firm.
“But children. Fucking children?”
His eyes flickered over me, assessing and enjoying my pain. “You have a misconception about the role of youth. Indulging them is not the moral ideal you believe it to be.”
“No. Not ‘indulge.’ No, you’re supposed to help them. That’s the whole point of life. The next generation. The future. Otherwise, what’s it all for?”
He pondered me. “Have you ever heard the proverb, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never enjoy’?”
“The truth is the opposite. In a great society, the young serve their elders. Only youthful strength can carry the stones for temples, wield spears against the enemy. Only youthful beauty can sate the thirst of weariness. Young bodies are precious raw material, not to be wasted on foolish whims.”
I sputtered with rage. How could I argue with this alien morality?
“Who decides which whims are foolish? Old men who send boys to die in trenches? You don’t own anyone’s destiny.”
“Ah yes, freedom. How they claim to love it! How they thoughtlessly pursue it! Variations of this demand have resounded throughout history, and whenever they are granted, societies fall. It is naive, foolish, inherently animalistic. The young must be directed, for the good of the species.” Wexler spoke with absolute conviction.
“Directed, maybe. But not killed. They don’t stay stupid. They fucking grow up!”
“Would you refuse to harvest fruit simply because it contains the seed of a tree? All consumption is lost potential. That’s why it nourishes.” The words hung in the air.
A chill prickled my spine, ran down my body. “What were you doing with those kids?”
He smiled. “Despite what you may think, I find innocence a beautiful marvel.”
“What were you doing with those kids?” I asked again. Snowflakes whirled outside my window. The storm had arrived just before the night.
“Innocence is meaning. Only that which is full of life has value when drained. It is why only the purest lambs are slaughtered. Why it is preferable to defile virgins. There are deeper themes operative in this world, Nathan. All the greed and lust and violence you hate, all the things you call corrupt, are not senseless. There is purpose, meaning, buried within.”
“I doubt that.” I put my hand on the shotgun.
“I didn’t touch them, not like that,” he said quickly.
“What were you going to do to those kids?” I asked slowly. There would be no dodging this question. “Make me do it. Final chance. Truth, now.”
“Torture,” he said flatly.
“Why?” I asked. I was shaking.
“Extreme pain prompts the body to produce adrenochrome,” he whispered. His eyes were far away, full of longing and an emotion I couldn’t quite place. For a moment, he resembled a daydreaming child.
I took a shuddering breath. His glare flicked back to me, and the brief childlike impression was again subsumed by that decrepit intensity. “Adrenochrome. It’s a drug.”
“A drug,” I repeated, in disbelief. “A drug. What?”
“A psychedelic drug. It can be synthesized, technically, but the body produces it naturally, and a child’s blood contains a cocktail of enzymes that affect the drug’s functioning.”
“What are you fucking talking about? What does it do?”
“Adrenochrome acts on certain subconscious drives—repressed, latent, or altogether absent in most people—and develops intention and will within them. It turns hidden desires into operative consciousnesses, relatively distinct from the rest of the mind. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex develop persistent abnormal patterns of activity after a single dose. Adrenochrome awakens something in the psyche. Something that thinks, in ways that seem strange and terrifying to the uninitiated.”
The insanity of his statement was matched only by the sincerity in his voice. Wexler wasn’t lying. But he had to be, I thought. He had to be. This couldn’t be why.
“You would torture innocent children, to get high,” I said numbly.
“Not just high. No, Nathan, this is not some hedonistic romp! This is not just some ghoulish pageant! Entities you can scarcely comprehend lie dormant within your neurology. There are synaptic patterns that engender within you actual living beings—agencies far more potent and persistent than any jumbled collection of memories and imagined traits you think constitutes a ‘self.’ Divinity is electrochemical, Nathan. It is a state of mind.”
He spoke in an earnest rhythm, all facades broken down. I wondered if he’d ever said any of this aloud. If this was as cathartic for him as it was horrifying for me. I kept my hand on the hilt of my gun, my mind whirling. I wanted to kill him. But I had to know.
“Describe the state of mind,” I commanded him, barely able to restrain myself.
He took a deep breath. Fixed his eyes on me. “Adrenochrome opens the gates of Tartarus. It fills you with the spirits of ancient things, the same cruel and terrible masters that drove mankind out of the forests and into the wheat fields, that harnessed the masses to build impossible monuments. What possessed the Sumerian kings to declare themselves deities? Why did the Mayans feed children to the blood gods? Adrenochrome is the city-builder, the driver of the harvest, the specter of wealth! It makes us architects!”
He was utterly mad. He continued ranting, animated by some deep psychotic force.
“Adrenochrome is the grand guiding scepter of mankind. It carves our rulers into vessels for its vision, fills their minds with order and strength. We grind to utopia, a system of godhood, man as a machine that conquers the stars! What other god shall we worship in our remote temples, on the highest peaks of wealth? Every path is paved with the flesh of the collective. Lift, children, lift your cities to heaven! On your backs we shall overtake Olympus! Order, war, control, consumption! The instruments of a greater hand!”
A horror beyond words swelled within me. The pain of an entire species. Starving serfs. Diseased cities. Hanged artists swaying in the wind. Young men gutted, girls raped, children eaten—all for the hunger of mad old men. A demon sat before me, smug in his bloodlust and delusions of immortal pride. What was the point of all this, in the end? Why couldn’t he see the futility of his control? Why was he so nourished by the suffering of others? Why would anyone want to cage the innocents, murder the kind, burn the forests—for a fucking chemical? Why?
“Why?” My voice cracked, and I remembered myself. Who I really was. How small I was. A child without a father. An orphan in prison. A man alone in a cabin. The storm howled outside. All my determination, my agency—it was nothing in the face of this evil. The entire globe was a terrible factory, a hallucination built by and for men like Wexler. I heard the screaming of billions of cogs, crushed and suffocated, helpless, doomed, tortured. I did not want to show weakness, but my eyes filled with tears, and in the tears swam the children I’d seen in the wreckage. Wexler deflated from his mania, sank back into the cot, and looked at me.
“I just told you why,” he said.
I turned away. I could not do this. The shotgun leaned against my chair. I’d always expected it would one day provide a way out of the world for me. Maybe that time was here. What was I doing up here? Pissing away my years. Pretending I was some bold escapee from an unfair world, when quite truthfully, I’d given up on myself. I’d done nothing. Accomplished nothing. Helped no one. Perhaps it was time to do one good thing, and-
Wexler interrupted my thoughts with a surprising admission.
“You possess a rare mind, Nathan. I would not expect a societal reject to have such acumen. You have built a life for yourself despite your circumstances. Displayed drive. Vision. Passion. You have won wars in your life.”
I had no words to give back. I was defeated. I could not take another mind game, and I would not fall for his attempts to save his own life. Or, frankly, mine. I was tired. And I did not want to live in a world with this knowledge. I finally knew why, and I felt emptier than ever.
“You now wrestle with thoughts I have spent years crafting. You have absorbed painful truths. I understand what you’re feeling right now. I once felt the same way. Pain and revulsion.”
I doubted that. But I didn’t respond. I stared at the floor, feeling the shotgun in my palm.
“I have given you perfect honesty. But none of my words can ever really answer the questions you have. I can’t tell you why. But I can show you.”
I looked up then, and in his eyes I saw a genuine wish, an open invitation.
“Get me to a phone, an internet connection. I will arrange transportation to a hospital. You will have permission to remain by my side, to not let me out of your sight, until I am well enough, and then we will board a jet. We will fly to Elysium, a facility that exists thirty miles to the North. I will teach you how to play the game, how to talk with sheiks and heirs and the owners of the world. And we will partake. And you will know why.”
“I would burn that facility to the ground and destroy every one of you,” I snarled.
“No. Because if you truly cared for the welfare of your species—as I do too, regardless of how you may see me—you would endure this pain, and take this opportunity for what it is. This is your chance to make something happen. Learn from me. I have no heirs. I have no use for my riches except vision. Do you want to fight for a better world, or do you want to live in a cabin until you die?”
A long, shaky gasp emerged from me, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. “It’s too late. For me, at least. I’m not—I’m not that kind of person.”
“Yes you are. You fought for your place in this world. A fourteen-year-old drug dealer? An autodidact out of federal prison? Think about it. You have a choice right now. If you truly believe your sense of justice is worth pursuing, then allow me to give you the means to pursue it. You and I are much alike, Nathan. I fought for my life as well. I didn’t get this opportunity until my sixth decade on this Earth.”
“What if my sense of justice changes?” Adrenochrome restructured the mind. He’d been explicit about that. It transformed people into sociopathic cannibals, architects that saw their fellow man as raw material.
“It already has.”
“Yes, Nathan. Yes it has.”
Was he right? I realized I’d been prepared to kill myself because of what I’d heard. I’d abandon the world to others like this...thing. Despite what I now knew. Coward.
“Power is a remarkably simple concept. At its most fundamental, it is nothing more than a choice. The choice to pursue life, or be pursued by death. Are you the type of person who can make that choice? You have escaped the pen, Nathan. Proven yourself to be beyond cattle. Do not abandon your will now.”
I considered what I could do with billions of dollars. I thought about knowing the names of all the people at the facility. I thought about saving kids. And then I thought about who Wexler was. The way he conversed, like it was a war to win. The undead nature of his character, of whatever this drug had warped him into. And finally, I thought, why? Why would he give me this chance? Why would he invite me to his isolated cabal of parasitic monsters? Why would he extend the invitation unless...
Wexler was trying to deceive me. Trick me into saving his worthless life by dangling this opportunity in front of me.
“I disagree about power,” I said. “Power is not just the choice to do something to someone else. Power is being able to tell the truth.”
He blinked. “Nathan-”
“You’d have me killed the moment your men picked us up. You lied to me.” I stood up, hoisted the shotgun.
“NO!” he gurgled, frenzied, waving his wrinkled hands at me. “No, Nathan, no! I am guilty of much, yes, but innocent of that! I meant it. You have my word! On the children, you have my word!”
I shot him in the face.
The mess lies in my cabin, uncleaned. The plane crash will not go unnoticed. Wexler’s body will not go unfound. I am in danger, along with my new knowledge.
I had to drive to the nearest town to find an internet connection. I saw human beings again. Watched them mill around me, even spoke to some of them. I saw living children smiling and playing.
I felt an obligation to them.
The more I consider it, the more I think Wexler was telling the truth about his offer to join his cabal. I hope he was. It adds a fullness to my actions, if I turned down something real. Innocence fulfills sacrifice...I understand now.
I do not know if adrenochrome attracts those who are born to be cruel adults, or if the drug itself inevitably corrupts the soul, eats away the inner self that trusts others with choices. I do not know if the world could ever be any better, or if this nightmare will simply play out across eras, defining our species. Perhaps Cronus will feast forever. Endless war, life reduced to the ritual sacrifice of empathy.
But I cannot accept it. I will not believe that there is anything sacred or beautiful or justified in a system that treats children like veal. And scarred, alone, and resourceless though I am, I have the one power Wexler did not. I can afford to be honest.
Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”
I suggest a corollary: “Therefore, the only weapon against warfare itself is the truth.”
It is easier than you think to point a shotgun at tyranny’s head.
All you have to do is keep asking why.