DEVIL'S WEEK

Get ready for an extra-special treat, Freezine aficionados. Because this very Halloween, the Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is proud to present a brand new, never-before-published horror tale from veteran author John Shirley. So if you're ready to be taken to an extremely dark place right now, then be sure to read on for our final tale for the October season, THE SOFTEST PILLOW, by John Shirley.


Cemetery Art above by Shaun Lawton


Thursday, March 31, 2011

LEVEL 5

by Vincent Daemon






The stinking masses gathered around the manic individual who was shouting—not at them—but to them. He shouted strange words and ideas, things that seemed foreign and archaic but had indeed been an actual part of human existence, at one point, not that long ago. His mind was not the same mind as one of the cathode-force-fed “povers” (politically-correct slang for the jobless, homeless, starving and far beyond poverty-level citizens that seemed to overcrowd the cities more each passing day). These povers were not just starved of food and the chance at a decent life—they had been long starved of access to real knowledge. Accounts of history had been altered, major news and most media coverage had been a lie. The tube and tabloids ran nothing but the slimiest pop-culture drivel in constant, over-saturated doses. Books? They had long ago been phased out, and eventually outlawed as well—along with actual learning. Possession of a book meant possession of a mind. And that could not be tolerated.

The government wanted the povers' minds to resemble a thoroughly distracted and near-atrophied gray matter mush, and their blank eyes to bear a cataract-like sheen of surgically removed free will. They wanted zombies without the voodoo-hoodoo—their particular puffer-fish venom being of an ill-defined, electronic origin.

But this was not so of the shouting man, in his own tattered and filthy rags, in his own malnourished state and over-crowded panic, wearing his skin against his bones like tight and poorly tattooed leather. There was nary a trace of that old cathode-controlled zombification in his eyes. Quite conversely, they were full of life so that a maniacal, driven wisdom and pain-born intelligence glowed through his deep blue irises, and burned out from his opiate-shrunken pupils like rays of orange wormhole-light from the soul.

His words of peace, sense and love pulled the povers out of their stupor, momentarily dragging their attentions away from the hundred-foot tele-monstrosities that hung on every building side. The hundred-inch monitors that filled every storefront window beamed senseless ads about useless merchandise and pop-culture paraphernalia that the pover minds craved but could never afford. A perfect set-up to naturally incite violent and overcrowded riots, and an excuse for the black-suited, gas-masked police units to explode into their own frenzy of unchecked psycho-violence. This man's raving, its heart and intelligence and sheer power, combined with this most flagrant of public outbursts, of such a genuine intensity that even the “hiders”—those who could somehow afford (by whatever vile means necessary: from all manner of strange, designer toilet-tank narcotic sales and horrific sex-rings to the “baby mills”: right from the womb to the roasting pan)—were appearing at the windows of their squalid and critter-infested dwellings, opening them if they weren’t already busted out, themselves pulled away even from their flickering master-screens to the shouter in the street.

All attentions, it seemed, had been brought toward this individual and his raggedy clothes falling off his gaunt frame of bone-revealing skin. His voice was hoarse with emotion and love. His mind obviously keen with intellect, insight and willpower. His blue eyes were crying for humanity, and his charisma seared as if through the atmosphere of Hell’s final war.

The spectacle had indeed drawn all attentions, even those of the already fight-feinting, roving and well-armed foot patrols. These guards were used to loonies and random outbursts from this mess of human filth—as they perceived the situation. In fact, the Screamers On The Street had exploded into being diagnosed as a new kind of psychological phenomenon, being deemed a natural effect of the current age, much like Attention Deficit Disorder had been thought of in the late twentieth century. This condition had been politely termed the God Complex Syndrom (GCS) by the most up-to-date medical standards (themselves even more of a nightmare of doubletalk and psychological catch-twenty-twos than ever before), and it was thought to be caused by the combination of severe poverty, malnutrition, and overcrowding.

It was commonplace for the sufferers of this condition to suddenly pop off on a crowd, jump atop a car roof or tabloid news box, and go on loud, sometimes violent rants, usually pertaining to twisted and misinformed ideas of good and evil, gods and devils, rape, torture, suffering, etc...but never of love.

This man, this sensible shouter, spoke of love and knowledge. He spoke of true beauty in the absence of sin, and he intoned that sin never existed until greed and unnecessary hatred brought it about. His tearing eyes—those crystal blue catacombs of suffering and solitude—began to run from clear to watery red. Yet he had committed no act of violence, no act of self-harm.

The armored police guards did not cotton to this, any of it. Not the silence of the crowd, nor this man's bellowing above the booming babble of the multiple, multi-channeled monitors’ vacant echoing. The man and the monitors seemed to be in competition with each other for the attentions of all within earshot—and the man was winning.

The constant distractions for the detriment of the povers and hiders—and nearly everyone else—seemed, at least temporarily, to be in serious jeopardy. It only took a seven second disruption, apparently, and then...dead air. The spell would be broken and the pumpkins would come a-rolling.

A virtual horde of the quasi-gestapo police shoved their way through the crowd, causing as much damage to the onlookers and intent listeners as possible. The finely polished butt-ends of the police force's rifles cracked pelvises and jaws alike, bringing a sick sort of glee to the storm troopers as teeth flew, pregnant mothers miscarried, and government-issued weapons were awash in innocent blood.

Upon seeing this, the shouting man pleaded with the guards to stop this violence, that they were victims too, that everyone, the police included, had been hurt enough. Tears of blood now streamed from his eyes and he pulled frantically at his hair, his cries for peace mere gibberish amid the destruction all around him.

A black, shiny and armored police meat-wagon drove forcefully through the crowd, toward the man. Amplifiers on top of the van roared out “THIS MAN IS POSSESSED, CLEAR AWAY AT ONCE” while a seizure-inducing array of red, white and blue lights rotated idiotically. The announcement was repeated over and over, accompanied by a subsonic sound that caused a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn of behavior in the crowd, and served to clasp their barely opened minds back shut as suddenly as a bear trap.

All the man could see now were the gnarled faces and hateful intentions of the filthy hands of the once again subliminally-swayed povers coming at him. Spiteful and spit-laced words and accusations of “devil” and “demon” and “Satanist” swirled chaotically in his ears as the crowd’s venom intermingled with the renewed, cyclopean chatter from the public TV monitors. They tore at his rags, the rotten fabric pulling away easily, leaving him fully exposed and helpless as they grabbed and groped and taunted with their grimy hands at his face, torso, genitals. This was a furious outbreak of “Satanic panic”, just another symptom of the death of knowledge. It was frightening and painful—thousands of fingers attached to hundreds of hands—with just as many mouths accusing him of being the Devil.

An attack of self-doubt overcame him, as did the crowd and the police, all at once. He questioned his sanity—questioned if he was really “possessed.” He wasn’t hearing or seeing anything that wasn’t there. These words that he spoke were the thoughts that had always been inside of him, and had always seemed like intuitive, common-sense knowledge, coming from within...but...from without as well?

A sound echoed loudly in his skull, a white-hot pain coming with it—coming from the back of his cranium. His vision flittered into sparkly, dotted colors of the entire prismatic spectrum, and he no longer felt the incessant clawing of the turncoat hands at his naked and scrawny body. Consciousness, then, slipped away from him.



The man awoke in a small room that vaguely smelled of stale urine, old vomit, and death. The chamber was mostly dark but for one small fluorescent light that flickered dimly overhead. The walls were of the darkest gray, and ever so slightly padded, replete with old stains of various long-dried bodily fluids.

Faint cries of anguish were echoing from somewhere outside of the seemingly doorless and windowless room. It dawned on him then that he was no longer naked. He was trussed up in some filthy and oddly fitting one-piece suit that was itself as gray as the padded walls surrounding him.

The man’s right wrist throbbed with a burning pain. Squinting hard through his crimson, coagulated eye snot, he could see that he had been freshly tattooed with black, stencilled numbers: 2021.

A portion of padded wall slid open unexpectedly. “2021, come with us,” barked one of the five men who suddenly stood before him. Four of them were well-muscled and wore hybrid garb that looked like a cross between armored police uniforms and some kind of medical facility attire. They all stood before him in shocking white, standing out clearly against the blackened gray grime of the tunneling corridor behind them.

Two of the brutes grabbed him hastily, and while lifting him up proceeded to power walk at a good clip, the man’s feet dragging clumsily behind. “Walk!” commanded one of them. It took a few missteps and some scrambling, but 2021 eventually caught up with the pace—as much as it pained his cramping legs.

The fifth member of this odd entourage was a short fellow who walked before them, carrying a chart. He wore a stern expression and had the posture of importance. His voice was clinical and serious, automaton-like, and virtually inhuman in tone. “You are patient 2021, and it seems apparent, on the surface at least, that you are suffering from the ‘God Complex Syndrome’ that seems so popular among your types these days.”

The short man came to a halt, the rest following suit immediately. The man with the chart, the Good Doctor presumably, turned and looked dead into 2021's eyes. The deathlike silence of this place was occasionally broken by a distant wailing of some kind. They were the sounds only sheer terror could create.

Standing eye to eye, with the dimmest of lighting in that hazy gray tunnel, the Doctor’s words took on a tone of sinister bedevilment, and cut through to the core of 2021's deepest fears. “ Yet this is not the case with you, 2021.” The Doctor pulled on the numbered man’s crusty eyelids with his cold, latex-covered hand. “Those silly povers with that meaningless GCS do not bleed from the eyes. But you did.”

2021 felt his stomach churn with disgusted fury. It was so empty, he could scarcely dry heave, and it produced a painful feeling like his stomach-lining was trying to pull away from itself and slither up his esophagus and out his mouth. Every part of his being wanted its own escape.

“We have been waiting for you, 2021. What I mean to say is someone with your symptoms in particular. You did not just lash out like the other dimwits. No, you are a knowledge seeker, and your progression, as it were, well, we have never seen anything like it. Not in our lifetime, or anywhere even remotely close. Perhaps under the weight of your own quest for this knowledge—much like Frederick Nietzsche or Wilhelm Reich—you, 2021, are a modern age, living specimen of this peculiarity of the mind. You said some interesting things indeed, while under sedation. Also, we flushed all of those rotten opiates out of your system. We don’t need you foggy now, do we?”

The Doctor’s chiseled old face broke into a forced, unnatural smile that was utterly vile in its almost reptilian, passive-aggressive confrontation. Just as quickly it fixed back into its usual, ancient grimace of superiority. The group of men turned, collectively power-walking down through the padded maze of endless dark corridor haze and the screams of the insane.

“We have a treatment. It is experimental, of course, and it is unique to your, uh, situation. We are taking you to Level 5.”

They entered an elevator that was a jarring neon-orange inside, and the Doctor secretively punched in a code. The elevator moved downward quickly. Upon stopping, 2021 noticed how cold the stagnant air had just become. The doors then scraped open.

The lot of them entered a strange, septagonal room. The walls were an impenetrable black, and not padded like all the walls 2021 had seen previously. Every sound and breath seemed to echo into infinity, and it was very cold.

Looking up, one could see the walls of the room rise into a septagonal silo, with a mirrored ceiling that tilted upwards at a forty-five degree angle toward the roof.

“2021, this is your new room.” The Doctor’s words reverberated back and forth in the seven-walled chamber and through the electro-maelstrom of adrenaline and other chemicals, both natural and injected into him, of 2021's mind.

“The orderlies will set you on your post, 2021, and I will now be leaving you. Good luck.” The Doctor entered the elevator, and just before punching in the code, looked up at 2021 with that sardonic, forced smile once again. “Too bad knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It can invoke things, you know, ideas...individual thoughts...real demons that can make everyone’s short time on this planet more difficult than need be. You are too smart for your own good, 2021. Too bad; you should have let yourself be one of those wretched povers and joined the, uh, hive...so to speak.” The Doctor's face cut flawlessly back to its stern grimace. “You have been possessed, 2021, and now you must be exorcized.”

The Doctor punched the code in quickly, and as the rickety doors began sliding shut, the clinical bastard made one last comment: “Ignorance is bliss, kid. Now, you’re fucked.” With that, the doors closed.

2021 was turned forcefully toward the center of the room, and it suddenly occurred to him just what exactly “set you on your post” meant. In the dead center of the room towered a fifteen-foot tall crucifix, crusted in layers of old, dried blood and constructed of the most rough and splintery wood imaginable.

The stinking, tight-fitting jumpsuit was cut violently from his body. Two of the orderlies held him by either side then, and the other two approached out of the darkness, carrying a strange wire-wreath contraption that had long, sharp needles of stainless steel protruding from all directions. This device was then placed atop 2021's head, with the various needles forcefully jammed into sensitive spots all over his skull, the majority of the steel thorns puncturing deep into his ears, through his temples, and into the base of his skull. He could feel the icy metal slide seamlessly into his brain.

Two of these needles were inserted ocularly—through the eyelid, but just above the eyeball itself. He tried to howl out in his agony, but nothing more than a thick gurgling sound could emanate from his throat. This is when he realized that his larynx had been cut—most likely while under sedation.

There was nothing he could do but let this charade of madness play itself out. One of the orderlies chuckled at 2021's predicament.

A step-ladder leaned against the crucifix, and two of the orderlies dragged his body up along the jagged and splintery wood. He could feel every last sliver of this corroded trunk penetrate his sinewy flesh.

His arms were forced out until fully extended, then held down while they were bound tightly to the wood—the same treatment was applied to his feet. 2021 could only bleed in torrents down this torture tree, along the chaotically etched gouges in the wood sticking into his back, and every time he involuntarily squinted from the pain, the needles above his eyeballs would stab further down.

This sensory nightmare had kept 2021 mostly distracted from the fact that he was now tightly bound at the wrists and ankles to this primitive, monstrous crucifix. Now he supposed they were going to nail his hands and feet to this goddamned thing.

His flesh ripped, and the bones in both his hands and feet splintered with every pound of the mallet, each and every sound reverberating amidst his agonized attempts to cry, yell, scream...to do anything to escape, in some way, this silo of agony. The enormous nails being used weren’t even sharpened to anything resembling a point, so they just tore through muscle-tissue and shattered bone, all at once, in his hands and feet.

His appendages had somehow been nailed in all at the same time.

Soon enough, it was done. Without a peep, the orderlies vanished into the elevator.

2021 hung alone in the septagonal room, nailed to the archaic torture device, caught up apparently in a literal witch hunt for knowledge. Tortured and left to die for the new pantheon of demons and devils bred to terrify the ignorant and feed the rich in this rotten modern age he'd been born into.

The wire-crown monitoring device burned every part of his skull and his brain.

2021's only crime had been that of intelligence, that of the search for knowledge, and the acts of empathy and love. He was guilty of having a keen mind and sharp wit and large heart. His crime was refusing to become an automaton to the subliminal pull of the cyclopean monstrosities that chattered endless nonsense twenty-four hours a day, zoning off and frying the minds and wills of all those caught within the radius of their poisoned flickering.

2021's mind had never taken to that particular habit. But he sure could have used a little commercial break about then. Or a straight shot of morphine.

As he hung there in a mockery of things he didn’t even believe in, he wondered again if perhaps he was possessed. As the minutes blurred into hours, the days seemed to dissipate as he bled in isolation amidst the darkness of the seven walls. He could feel the blackness. Time and space no longer applied in his world.

He could do nothing but reflect, and his strange life seemed at first like a time-wasted blackout, and all that had ever existed was this moment. There was nothing beyond the blood and exposure and confusing agony of just this one moment in time. Was this his purpose?

It hit him then, that in his unremarkable life, filled with little more than heartbreak and the comforting womb of a chronic, opiate-addled haze—so aimless—he had always been “protected”—had always felt different—like he was indeed there to serve some kind of purpose.

Yet even now, it eluded him. Perhaps it had already been served...or ignorance would have truly been bliss, and something quite easy to attain.

He wondered where this protection was now, and raised his bloody, fevered skull up, and caught a glimpse of himself in those mocking mirrors above.

2021 closed his eyes, lowered his head, and with that felt a sort of acceptance...or something...begin to cradle him softly, as he wept that stinging blood again. Then a blissful feeling overtook him, his naked and blood-sticky body felt warm, safe...and he opened his eyes to find himself being cradled gently by the most beautiful female creature he had ever bore witness to. She wrapped his body in her loving arms, this Mother Of Mercy, and licked his gaping wounds until they no longer hurt. She rubbed his plasma-slicked and dying shell with nurturing gentility, and placed his head to her bosom as he wept the scarlet tears of a million ages. The pain had now become exquisite, and the hate, here, in this place, had just turned into the most beautiful soul love.



The stone faced Doctor watched the wire crown head monitor, awestruck. His colleagues all wore the same panicked sort of expression. The monitor claimed there to be someone, something in the room with him. Frantically they zoomed in with the hidden cameras, and ran to the mirrored windows to look down upon the poor suffering number below them.

2021 was all alone, nailed to two pieces of wood like it was the middle ages, wearing a wire-crown of hypodermic needles on his head. The head which smiled now to every camera, his gore-soaked face grinning through layers upon layers of coagulated blood so thick as to render him unrecognizable, his appearance as monstrous as their actions.

There had been a mistake, that much was certain.

The colleagues, each with his own curious look of distilled terror etched onto his ugly mug (though all still managing to look alike) eyed the Good Doctor himself, waiting for his “respected” two cents worth of horse-pucky.

The Good Doctor spoke. “Gentlemen, this is something we have never factored into the equation. We've worked too long and too hard to let ‘natural occurrence’, um, occur.”

They looked about at each other like wayward pigeons.

“We must never, ever speak a word of this.” The Good Doctor’s calm sterility seemed to be giving way to the oh-shits. “NO—we can not let this happen. I do believe 2021 to be unique...in all the ways we had feared. After this, uh, ordeal, the orderlies will be executed, as will any one of you who dare breathe a word of this. As always, you will be watched and listened to, under the highest degree of scrutiny, at that. We have worked too hard on our own, uh, ‘Red Heifer’...that the real thing is just unacceptable at this time.”

Once more the doctors peered down through the one-way glass to see 2021's face awash in ecstasy, his blue eyes on fire, the only recognizable feature on his inhuman face other than a sickly, ear-to-ear grin. He had become a most beautiful thing in heavenly hell.

They turned away, the doctors, most ungraciously, the same chill curdling their dead souls, and none said a word about it.

“We need to go, gentlemen, we all have families to attend to. After all, it is Sunday and we do need to go to Church, to go and worship. We need to receive our communion. Show’s over.” The Good Doctor bent to an intercom and spoke into it, “Burn him up, now. Destroy the ash, everything. Make sure it is gone, all of it. Then the four of you go to Winslow—he will direct you from there. That is all.”

“Winslow” was code for execution—known only at the highest levels of security. All the rest thought he was a real person—the “Job Well Done” guy.

The doctors filed silently out of the room, the wire-crown monitor unplugged, disconnected, but still running, now catching fire. They ignored it and shut the lights out as they left the observatory.

The Good Doctor himself was the last one out. He shut the door behind him. He then mumbled to his colleagues solemnly, somewhat shaken, and almost sickened, “No one can ever know that he was really here.”





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Archive of Stories
and Authors

Edward Morris's
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Gene Stewart's
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David Agranoff's
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Science Fiction welcomes him and
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David is a busy man, usually at work
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Paul Stuart's
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