A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
I looked at the unmarked brown paper parcel sitting on my doorstep and felt my mouth go dry. A Foxtrot was dead. I was a Foxtrot.
Sean and I had signed up to be Masks six months ago, when Serena died in the St. Mary’s bombing. Effing Pures. only thing worse to them than aliens landing on earth is aliens having babies on earth. Effing Pures, always wanting to turn back the hands of time to a past that never existed. Popular sentiment, so what.
Serena, she thought the aliens were fantastic. Thought they’d come to guide us to a higher purpose. But they don’t tell us what they want from us. They don’t seem to understand the question. That never bothered Serena. Beautiful Serena. My daughter. Sean’s wife. She never doubted. She just wanted to help them. Losing her to a Purity attack, well it made my life a punch line to the world’s nastiest joke. I didn’t want to be myself anymore. Not Thomas Castello. Anything but that. I didn’t want to remember. The pieces that they found. And Sean, Sean just wanted to be a fist, to hurt the ones who had hurt him. So, Masks it was. Sean, being young and spry, got drafted in the week after we filed. A Beta, he confided. The muscle. The right hand man. I’m going to be a Beta. He got the parcel that Tuesday.
I never saw him again.
And now, now it was my turn. And I was a Foxtrot- the old sage, the anchor, the salt. And as soon as I put on what was in the parcel I would never be anything else again. Thomas Castello, gone forever.
I could hardly wait.
I dead-bolted the door and threw the package down on my coffee table. I sat down on the couch, then found myself sliding to my knees as I leaned forward. My joints barked, and my hands shook a little as I unwrapped my new uniform.
It was like something out of a B-movie. Black shit-kicker boots. Black socks. Tight black pants. Black bulletproof chest plate. Black shirt with long black sleeves for hiding tricks. Black gloves. Black cloak. And of course, the mask, a demon’s fixed snarl, A child’s nightmare mated with a kabuki play. The alientech miracle of plasti. When I put it on, it would meld to my flesh, ride me like a leach until I died. And join me, too, let’s not forget that. The plasti would open my mind to the rest of my unit, psychically linking us into a creature with many bodies but one mind. A Mask was Superhuman.
I set the clothes aside to reveal a slim case at the bottom of the parcel that was, I surmised, full of weaponry. I touched the case, but didn’t open it. Cold and closed. Let it stay that way for a while.
I peeled off my old clothes. Penny loafers. Dress socks. Khaki pants. White button down. Also a uniform, also a mask. And here I was. Wrinkled, skinny-flabby, sprinkled with moles. Goodbye Thomas, I thought, as I pulled on the last set of clothes I would ever need to wear, goodbye old man.
I pulled the Mask over my head. The plasti writhed on my face, and I scrabbled at my cheeks like an ape, trying to pull it off as it melded itself into my dermis. It burned. God, it burned.
Then the pain flickered out like a lost radio signal as the plasti joined my mind into the rest of the Mask. The sound in my head was like the swell of an opera and I felt a rush of humility and awe as I realized I would never be alone again. Five other minds, that was what I thought I had joined. And it was. And yet I felt them all, male, female, young, old, not just MY unit, but all units, past and future, and I, I was Foxtrot, I was all the Foxtrots before and all the Foxtrots yet to come.
Foxtrot is live, I thought into the swirling rush and hum of mind inside me. Foxtrot is live.
The thought swirled through the Mask, returning countless confirmations. Foxtrot is live.
My boots scuffed the floors that had belonged to Thomas Castello. I walked the rooms he’d called home. Impressions remained despite the plasti, the joining. Corners once laced with warmth echoed cold. Here there had been laughter. And there, tears. On the mantle, the photo he’d pressed his lips time and again. Young and blonde, the woman’s eyes radiated life. On the kitchen counter, a half-eaten roast beef on rye. Castello had been eating when the parcel arrived. The sharp tinge of mustard lingered on my tongue.
Vapor, all of it. Dust.
The chorus in my head churred, and in a surge of synaptic acid, my mission rang clear.
Penetrate City Centre. Crossload Shadow. Ignite.
I let the door slam behind me, the deadbolt left undone. I didn’t look back.
Diesel exhaust and gutter bilge assaulted my senses. Up and down the avenue a sea of Drones. I slipped easily among them, the black bag at my shoulder. I moved through them like water. Effortless. Their eyes blinded with sleep and brains numbed by noise. Beneath the city we descended and I weaved through them to the waiting train.
Three stops to City Centre. I swayed with the tracks, shuffled through the dance, while the Mask moved me forward. Nearing Heritage Station, a woman three seats down took note of me. Eyes an unnatural blue. The light on her jawbone flashed. Extinguish, came the instruction from inside. The train stuttered to a stop. Stealing closer, I retrieved a vial from my cache of tricks. Then, with the gentlest touch along her temple, I snuffed out her spark.
Salt heals. And salt destroys.
Did her message transmit? My question sent the Mask into a whirl of queries and confusion. The vial stored once more, I exited the train and ascended to the surface, the question still unanswered, the extent of the damage unknown.
City Centre hit me in a barrage of light and vibration. The chorus swelled inside to counter, to buffer, to press me further toward my intent. My feet trampled the concrete and decay. The statues that once towered over Victory Square lay crumbled, neglected. I stepped over the hand that had held the scales. Stupid Drones. So easy to sway. The Pures knew a distraction sustained would render them weak. The cleanest kill.
Verify destination. I’d reached the fountain at the center of the Square. Aliens mingled through the Drones, extending their supposed good will. The longer I stood there, the more their numbers grew. My trick had been too slow. A military guard paced to my right, weapon perched at his side. He took no notice, his eyes not registering my presence as he scanned the moving masses. Threadbare is the veil that secures those who sleep.
Destination verified, came the Mask’s reply. Commence sequencing. I closed my eyes and felt the rush of chemicals set my synapses to fire. Information surged through my cells, translating code to impression. A lithe silhouette. Edges traced in darkness and hedged in by light. I scanned the Square, my mind open and eyes searching.
And then I saw her, standing atop an iron bench. Staring at me.
Shadow detected. Commence crossload.
The Shadow dressed in similar garb, black on black with the hood of her cloak framing her mask. For the briefest of seconds, I thought it identical to my own. No, not identical. Black and mirrored, it reflects mine. The grotesque features further distorting in the curve of her mask.
Another chemical release fires through my synapses. A momentary pause and…
I’m back. No, that’s not entirely true. What was me is shoved collectively to one small corner of what once was my mind. I can see something interacting between the two Masks, like vapors of heat flowing from the Shadow to me and back again.
A chorus of voices sounded in my mind. Integration error. Integration error. Integration error.
No shit, I thought back. A small pang of disappointment fills me. I wanted oblivion. To no longer feel. Instead I’m a passenger in my own body.
Proceed with crossload. Reintegration to follow.
Fine. I might as well enjoy the show.
I couldn’t move my head, but in my peripheral vision I could make out Drones and aliens going on their way. They pay little attention to what is happening. What is happening? I try to find the markings of any Pures. Sure, many of them keep their markings covered, but plenty of fanatics display their circle and cross or circle and arrow on the backs of their hands or sides of their neck.
Not one. Just Drones. Wait. Drones?
At once the word is familiar and alien. Is that how they think of us?
My body, acting without my consent, lowers the bag to the ground. From it the Mask extracts the case. It looks again at the Shadow.
I try to turn my head. Just an inch so I can see. No luck. I can only guess from the air of authority in his timbre, that it was the military guard addressing us.
“Step away from the case!”
The damn Mask still wouldn’t let me turn my head. A beam of light more intense than a flash light reflects off the Shadow’s Mask. In that moment I could see the girl’s face underneath. Her features are delicate and unwrinkled. A curl of blond hair stuck to one cheek. Not unlike my Serena.
No. It isn’t her. I put her in the ground. Covered her in dirt and tears. This is someone else’s daughter. Some one else’s love and life. Did they know where she was? Did she know where she was?
The entire time the guard is yelling. I don’t bother to listen. I couldn’t move myself to respond if I wanted to.
A burst of bullet fire knocked the Shadow from her iron bench.
No! My cry fell on six deaf ears, but I had stepped one foot toward her.
Another burst of fire sends me sprawling out of reach of the case. I could feel the bullets hit and bounce off my chest plate. No pain. I probably should feel it. Breathing was harder, but no pain.
The Shadow’s Mask pops up a few feet behind the bench. The same shimmering vapor comes from her Mask, but this time directed at the case.
Mission complete. Return home for reintegration. It’s almost a collective sigh.
The case pulses a red light. It intensifies as a cacophony of screams tries to escape. The Shadow’s Mask is cracked. A small trickle of blood running down her cheek. Some one else’s Serena is going to die.
“No,” I yell with my own voice this time.
I scramble forward on my knees. Every movement a slogging disconnect.
Return home. Return home. Integration error. Reintegration commencing.
Muzzle flash blurs my vision. My feet no longer respond. I continue on my knees until they too stop working. The paralysis reaches my shoulders. My fingers touch the case, but can’t pull myself on it. I do my best to shove it underneath me. I think I did it. I think because I can’t feel anything anymore.
My consciousness starts to disassemble once again. Before it’s completely gone, I see myself borne into the air.
I have no idea how long I laid there before the light came back. It dances in the swirling dust motes as a large mass of concrete is lifted from me.
“Here!” cried a voice. “Over here!”
A pair of hands excavate me from my tomb, and quickly it goes dark again. When light comes once more, I find myself indoors with the sounds of central cooling humming from above. A young man lifts me up to look me in the eyes. His eyes are hard and determined. He breathes deep and turns me around. I see myself in a mirror across the room. My face is fixed in a demonic snarl as the young man places me over his own. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself. That would be gone soon. His struggles die and integration complete. This time fully complete.
Foxtrot is live.