He couldn’t remember much, not even his own name, but what he could recall from the previous evenings jaunt with the ever elusive they, the them that had occupied his thoughts for as long as he could remember, came in silent camera flashes that appeared somewhere behind his eyes; the men in the masks and all the pretty butterflies floating in silent dances that tickled his face and arms.
He looked down at the lethal dead weight of the oil slickened Colt forty-five glued into the palm of his hand, cemented there with some kind of adhesive so strong the pistol felt welded to his skin.
He was standing in the cold outside of a bargain bin chicken shop restaurant, the kind that appealed to pissheads and school kids alike, on a busy street as far as he could make out, buses and black cabs dragging past him in smudges of shapeless colour, unsure of who he was and what he was doing, until something from deep inside the cheesy tissue of his brain began to stir, deep in the space between memory and conscious thought that he hadn’t realised existed, and this stirring thing became a voice that told him in half scream and half whisper to go inside and shoot.
He stepped into the busy restaurant, his body moving on its own and without his consent, the miasma of greasy fried chicken and salted chips thickening the air. He aimed, his floppy puppet arm seemingly pulled upward by cables that he couldn’t see stretching into something far beyond the ceiling, this extra dimensional tug lifting the heavy thing fused to his mitt and with the first deafening crack of gunfire he remembered everything all in a single bolt of terrible enlightenment that passed through him just as the bullet he had let loose passed through the chinless manager’s zit plagued face.
The manager, ruler stiff behind the counter, dead eyed and numbed with the banal horror of tedious existence, had never looked more attentive, his dull cloud coloured eyes suddenly reanimated pinball machine-bright with blissful relief.
In that brief yet perfectly crystalline moment when the bullet shattered his skull, He was finally alive.
As he slid down the counter leaving a trail of headcheese and splattered dreams smeared on the glass, smoke pouring out of the little vent in his cheek, the shooter, whose name had been Stephen Gideon, host of The Weekly and widely ignored Truth Serum podcast and author of the book, The Schism; why the government wants you dead, finally saw the chain of events that had shackled him to the point where he stood.
“The problem is people need to understand they are watching you all the time, every second of every miserable day and it’s not with your phone or your laptop, no sir. It’s with birds. Most of the birds and most of the houseflies you see are actually genetically rendered copies, nano charged bio recorders created for the single purpose of documenting every single thing that you do.”
There was a pause. Dead air. A grave offence for any broadcast, never mind one as already compromised as this one.
“Especially rodents. They have designed certain types of cyber rats that release pheromone compounds that will speed up the onset of cancer.”
“Yes, the fucking bees Roger! Not only are they flying two-way microphones that can be used to mimic schizophrenia symptoms in dissidents, the honey that they allegedly produce is an enzyme that breaks down the essential fats in the brain, rendering vital decision-making skills useless and instilling an obey imprint into the mind. Making dullards of you all. Honey is the real Kool Aid, Roger. Ever wondered why in all the kiddy cartoons some lucky bear slurps on some golden nectar and ends up burping rainbows because he’s so enlightened? That’s called pre-programming. And that’s not counting what that shit does to unborn babies… You don’t want to know.”
Roger didn’t want to know. They were on hour two and he had just about had enough. Besides he was so stoned he could barely even see, never mind process yet more theories that proposed Jesus was a homosexual zombie magician genetically created by a holographic Satan to control the earth through a book he didn’t even write.
He just couldn’t do it.
There had been rants and then there was this L. Ron Hubbard Phil K. Dick lovechild flying on acid and pumped full of Viagra, chomping at the bit to fuck capitalism to death with a Custer’s last stand of paranoid rhetoric and unsourced reddit rumours, a super beast eating itself as approximately fifty sad cases desperately in need of a lobotomy watched live.
Roger was certain they would be pulled by the powers that be, and the silent majority of him was glad. It had started out as a bit of fun, more satire than serious, but conspiracy rabbit holes were like oceans or incel forums, the deeper you went the darker it got, until you were looking at things so awful and ridiculous you were glad they had fried your retinas so you didn’t have to look at them anymore.
Frankly, he didn’t enjoy being ‘woke’. He wished he was tucked up safe and sound in his bed of ignorance, being slowly drip-fed brainwash broth until he died from a chronic red pill deficiency.
Stephen felt different. He knew he could and should be doing more. With a nose full of quality Peruvian disco powder he knew in his bones he was different to everyone else. He was a prophet, a herald of the apocalypse rattling the city gates that you ignored at your peril.
He had been trying to warn the sheeple, trying to show them what to him was so glaringly obvious. But they just didn’t want to know. And he knew Roger was weak. He could smell his severely calcified pineal gland. He knew he couldn’t be trusted entirely, and looking at him now, in a haze of skunk smoke, he couldn’t rule out the idea that he was some kind of shill splinter cell.
More drastic measures would be taken.
He had been secretly working on a children’s book, Pandemic Pete and the Amazing Armageddon Machine, which he planned to mass self-publish and distribute to schools and churches and people’s houses across the country.
Inside the book the elites most sinister plans were laid out for all to see, cheerily illustrated and written in a language even the most gleefully stupid sun reading cement head or chemically castrated soy boy could understand.
He viewed himself less of a podcaster now and more of a freedom fighter, and he was preparing himself for eternal martyrdom.
Steve began to read a few choice passages from the children’s book.
“Because the lizard men want to farm your misery like cattle, the magic Nazi rooster said to Pandemic Pete.
For every Big Mac you eat, a child, a little boy just like you, will die.
How? asked Pete, his big blue eyes full with an ocean of curious wonder.
Because, said the rooster, the money will go to us, and little children like you will be blown into mincemeat….”
“THAT IS IT!”
Roger tore off his head set and rose up from the depths of his swivel chair, the chair retreating against the wall in a squeak of wheels.
“What are you doing? We’ve not even got to the bit about Soylent green yet.”
“I have had enough of this, absolute nonsense! I mean you actually believe in all of this don’t you, secret societies controlling the world and invisible triangles that follow you around in the sky listening to your thoughts. You believe it don’t you? Well I got a news flash. Just in. IT’S BOLLOCKS!”
Steve blinked, momentarily stunned.
He had never assumed Roger had the stones to challenge him, and now he was attacking him, live on air.
“I thought this was all meant to be a joke. Satire. What happened to tongue-in-cheek Steve? You’ve gone too far.”
He held up the kid’s book and sighed, staring at a poorly drawn chicken with a swastika on its head.
He threw the book into the waste paper basket.
“You need all of this shit because reality is scarier, Steve. The truth is worse. No one is watching. Nothing matters and we are going nowhere. We are not eternal beams of brilliant light trapped in flesh prisons by an unseen elite. We are galactic farts mate. That’s it.”
“I know you’ve not been the same since Linda left you. But it’s over. It’s time to get a grip.”
Steve choked, unable to speak, his brain frozen with the coke and the shock of having a rug he had spent a lifetime weaving being pulled out from under him.
A single tear slithered out of his face onto his cheek as Roger left him alone in the studio.
Dead air again.
“Sorry about that folks,” Steve said into the headset.
“See you next week for another dose of truth serum.”
He pulled off the headset and sobbed.
As he walked to the car, fingering the final crumbs of coke into his nose, Steve felt emblazoned by this latest betrayal. He would fight on, because he had to, because no one else could handle the truth. A sane man in a world gone crazy appeared insane, because he carried with him that most dangerous of weapons; truth.
“Fuck them all,” he said to the cold night air as he approached his motor.
I don’t need Roger, the no count coward, he thought, fumbling with his car keys, just as a tremendous thud against his temple sent lightning into his eyes and boiled him down to the absolute zero of total unconsciousness.
When he awoke, he couldn’t move anything but his eyelids.
Something was in his mouth and his body felt constricted by a mass of pythons.
He was hurtling down some kind of corridor, some sort of tunnel or passage.
Wheels squeaked and he caught a flicker of chrome from the corner of his vision and realised with a panic he was strapped to a gurney.
He had admittedly been doing huge amounts of beak.
Maybe he had had a heart attack. Then he felt that pain trying to claw its way out of his head.
Huge lamps above him blinked and a grotesque, cartoonish face leered into view.
“He’s awake,” a voice behind the leathery mask coughed.
The huge chimp ears and close-set eyes were a dead giveaway. It was bonnie Prince Charlie.
“You’re Prince Charles!” Stephen shrieked.
Another face loomed over, this one set in a toothy latex grin, the imitation skin realistic down to the hideously furrowed forehead wrinkles. Blonde hair like tufts of straw poked out rudely.
“Iggy fucking pop!”
“I’m supposed to be Madonna you Berk.”
The gurney stopped with a skid and Steve heard keys being fumbled with.
A groan of a hinge.
The gurney swallowed by darkness and then brilliantly atomic skin bleaching light.
“If we undo these straps will you sit up and behave like a good boy?”
Steve turned to address the nasally drone that had come from behind Ronald McDonald’s frozen rictus. The mask was high end, right down to the crimson red fuzz.
He nodded. And he felt hands at the belts. Pressure dissipated.
He sat up.
Charlie and Madonna and Ronnie stood in a semi-circle around him clad in immaculately tailored three pieces, pin striped trouser legs creased to a razors edge.
They had hand shooters. Pistols. Behind them was a vast TV screen set into the wall and what appeared to be a young boy in hospital pyjamas strapped in a chair in front of the flickering images. He had an expensive looking headset on, and what appeared to be some kind of IV stand standing next to him.
The room was vast.
Steve rubbed his head and eased his fingers across a golf ball sized bump.
Blood smeared his fingers.
“Where am I?”
“One hundred metres underneath London. Directly under Parliament Square.”
“What was I right about? What did I say? It was the gay lizards wasn’t it.”
“All of it and none of it Stephen,” a voice from behind him cooed.
He snapped his head around and his neck cramped.
It was the Wicked Witch of the West, but in full dress up, the hat and the green paint. Even the buckled shoes.
“So, this is it then is it? The belly of the beast? The control grid of the Illuminati?”
The smirk opened the witches face.
“No such thing Stephen. We prefer to remain nameless and let you decide for yourselves what boogeymen we will be from one week to the next.”
Stephen swallowed. The golf ball from his temple had somehow lodged in his throat.
“Why are you telling me this? Why am I here.”
“Because you ain’t gonna remember it.”
Stephen turned back to the three amigos.
“What are you doing with the boy?”
They all craned their rubberised heads in a hiss of plastic.
“Him? Consider it training. Let’s take a look. No harm in showing you.”
The witch wheeled the gurney over to the boy.
He was slack jawed and a film of drool coated the lower half of his jaw.
One eyelid fluttered and the other one sucked the eyeball it held back, baring the eggish white veined red.
There was a whiff of dung and burger grease.
Stephen stared at the immense, silent TV. Writhing sweating flesh shimmered on screen, clenching buttocks and gyrating hips. Facially tattooed men with toy guns and eyes inked beetle black. Joke shop fangs dripping dark red syrups. Scantily clad girlies sucking on candy canes.
“What is this shit?”
“MTV, I think today’s dose is called. Thought you would be familiar with it.”
“The quickest way to churn the next generation’s minds to useless putty is with this shit, said Madge, rubbing her hands together.”
“Yeah,” Ronald agreed. “Intersperse it with beheadings and animal attacks and you are onto a winner. Total desensitization.”
“This one’s brain is mush already,” he said, poking the limp child with a gloved finger.
“What’s in the drip?” Stephen looked at the putrid grey snake of fluid flowing into the pale boy through a tube taped into the boy’s nostril. Lumps of the gruel farted out of the nostril next to it.
“Chicken soup for the soul Steve. Blended Big Macs cut with Red Bull and muscle relaxants for a bit of extra zing.”
“I think he’s dead. He’s very blue,” said Madge.
“You know the drill,” said the Wicked Witch.
“Get the phone book.”
Someone produced a dog-eared, blood-smudged copy of the yellow pages and slapped it across the boy’s chest with a meaty thud.
Foam exfoliated out of the boy’s mouth.
“In the head for God sake!”
The book came down again, smacking hard into the soft little doll face. And again. The boy gurgled.
The witch sighed. A sheen of green sweat worried her brow.
“Call disposal. Get this little shit out of here. Grind him down and feed him to the other pigs.”
She turned to Steve who was fighting the urge to spew.
“Right, now is your chance. You can ask us three questions as per the guidelines, before we cart you off to the
“Stop stuttering Steve. What do you wanna know about us?”
“But who are you? You never said.”
“We are They,” the clown interjected.
“All the bloody same,” Charles snorted pompously.
Steve’s mouth was packed with sand but it was shit or bust.
His mind raced with the wealth of possibilities only a lifetime of speculation could bring. He had so much to ask. If only he had his recorder…
“Is the earth flat?”
The soundless chamber filled with raucous laughter.
“Nope. Think of it as an endless circular corridor hurled through oblivion like a discus.”
Steve was angry, but he would stump them, ever the wily, renegade journalist.
“The true nature of humanity? What am I?”
The witch’s face grew solemn.
“You really wanna know?”
“You are a species of genetically engineered hybrids. Neither animal nor plant. You are not a monkey. And you are not one of God’s chosen children. Indeed, if he had any, that would be the cockroach. You have no soul, or free will. All of your own thoughts, feelings and memories are on an old USB chip downstairs. “
“On the plus side,” Ronald began, the smile on his grease painted face never as smug, “you never really die.”
“Yeah you just regenerate and spawn into another body for a new lifetime of poor choices and regret. Nothing matters Steve. It’s a good thing.”
The witch offered a green hand and rubbed Steve’s back as he cried.
He thought he was ready for the truth, always swore that no matter how terrible it was he would never shy away. He would wear it like armour and now it had destroyed him. Shred him into tatters.
“Come on. Let’s take you to meet the butterflies.”
The witch held his hand and led him across the vast colourless gulf of the white room, until they reached a door.
“Go inside Steve. Rest a while.”
He shook his head, reduced by the enormity of the truth to a petulant child, his bottom lip quivering.
“Come on. It will all be alright.”
The witch pushed him inside and slammed the door behind him.
It was dark and cool in this space, and all Steve could hear was his own tears, his own anguished sobs.
Then something fluttered.
He heard a flap of wings. Thousands of them, billowing up in a rising tornado of flapping movement.
He shrieked. Something crawled across his hand.
Then brilliant light cascaded down from above him, some kind of turbo charged kaleidoscope, blues greens and golds glittering down from a seemingly endless funnel that stretched up into eternity.
“My God,” gasped Steve. “My God help me.”
Butterflies in A million strong tumbling horde filled the chamber, all colours and shapes, some as big as boomerangs, some little more than painted pieces of ash.
It was beautiful. It was unbearable.
The light shifted. Purple and vermillion raindrops dripped down the sides of the tube, and a vivid monarch flapped and perched weightlessly onto Steve’s lips.
“Shooter,” it whispered, despite having no mouth, and then it began to force its way in, prising open Stephens lips with iron legs, the tiny paper body gifted with preposterous strength.
Steve snatched at it but its serrated metallic wings slashed his finger.
He cried out and it slithered into his mouth and then he could see the wings stretch out and cut through his mind, the black membrane spreading out, the white spots shouting words he could make out, “Shooter, take the gun and kill them all,” until each spot was a head with a voice.
He recognized the witch and her soothing benevolence.
“Kill them Steve. Take the gun and kill them all.”
The steel rod of the butterfly’s proboscis probed deep down into the dankest pits of his mind and memory.
He fainted from the pain, and when he opened his eyes, he was back in the chicken shop, the gun bleeding smoke up to the ceiling tiles, the bodies twitching all around him. Several were crawling through pools of spilt cola, leaving slug trails of innards behind them.
There was a frazzled chemical reek and the acrid pong of Burnt hair. A girl was weeping and staring at her own fingerless hand.
A throng of people watched from a safe distance across the street recording with smart phones.
There were sirens in the distance.
A helicopter passed overhead and shook the glass.
Stephen smiled and put the branding iron hot barrel to his forehead with a sizzle of flesh and pulled the trigger.