CW: pet loss, gore, death, drugs, alcohol, sex (mildly explicit), violence between children, abstract trauma
And none of them would know that I was secretly myself.
-Lemon Demon, "A Mask of My Own Face"
Information Control officialized the cats’ replacement.
Other domestic animals had been replaced but they were less ubiquitous. That first night hospital wards glutted on wounded until trolleys spilled into the halls, staff ragged and harried and called from their off-hours, makeshift clinics opened in parking lot tents. Fires erupted through the neighbourhood, stray limbs populated morning (new-rabbit-gnawed). Cat-eyes perforated doors and windows and they escaped into the night, piercing barriers that had at one time been enough. Trees collapsed as sleeping birds vaporized: there, then gone. Then a tremendous crash that took out someone’s garage. The night ended in thunder as Animal Control scrambled its jets and struck known private zoos and exotic animal keepers. It wasn’t just house cats, it was the whole cat family. Incendiary tongues bellowed and tainted dawn a smutty orange. People, moaning and devastated, stumbled down frayed streets clucking and calling for lost cats, stepping over the arms and heads that littered concrete and asphalt, bloody disks around wounds turned to pudding. Through their shift Essin saw hands quiver, change jittered in the palm where it pooled, hard men hissed when spilled drinks hit their fingers.
Then went behind the grocery store.
Essin touched the point on their suit where the night before a half-changed new cat bored a hole. It was gone. Repaired as though no cut was made. The inner mesentery had an invisible scar detectable to touch. Their bones felt hollow, birdlike, tied to their lungs and filled with the sooty sky. As soon as the mask was on they caught the first words from the Cephalon, it was a guy at dispatch, tired and gritting his teeth.
"Cephalon to all units. Today we will be attempting a special eradication operation. Please follow lights to designated exit and standby for further inputs."
They shouldered a blunderbuss and hefty grenades and the armoury was passing out transparent polycarbonate shields. (Safety blankets— how could they stop the weapon on a new cat’s face?) APCs and the quick light tanks that had just the day before been assigned to fighting the grootslangs in the countryside stuffed the mycelium’s vehicle tunnels. Specialists stood in the field, undergoing flamethrower orientation.
The controllers formed a line. Block by block they’d cross the neighbourhood and spook the new cats and eliminate them as they scurried from their nests. Appropriated city buses ferried controllers to the neighbourhood’s very edge, their backs to the tilled dirt and the information quarantine just beyond the nearest hill. Essin breathed ragged, head swelling with sights from the previous night and imagined sights from the night ahead.
The voice next to them crackled over their speaker, garbled to authoritarian baritone by the mask.
"Hey, you don’t have any notches." They pointed at their own mask, whose steel had been marked to the point where etchings crisscrossed with others in a palimpsest that surpassed number and testified to a single multitude-containing violence. The number 425, chipped and scraped, was sprayed on their chest.
"I’m new," said 383.
"Second. I was out last night when the cats changed."
"Ouch. Rough start for a newbie."
"I’ll look out for you," the stranger said. "Been doing this for months now."
"Thanks," they said.
"We’re supposed to be atoms, just I guess for security purposes, but you don’t have to be, right?"
"Right," said Essin. "I’ll look out for you too?"
"Appreciate it," they said. (Kindness and the voice’s ugliness distorting one another away from their native meanings.) "Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at this, new things can always get to you."
Warmth, somehow, pressed through the terrible electric filter. Dread, by degrees, subsided and left space for focus.
As the line arranged and the signal came through their headsets to begin marching forward, 383 expected fuckery to begin, dismemberments and gougings and brutal AC retribution. But carnage crouched and scurried away, with each step anticipated and with each step failing to arrive. They beat the bushes and checked in houses and cracked through back fences to look in yards, but the new cats had evaporated. The controllers changed to thermals and while they saw many people and those people’s guts no signature like a new cat’s appeared. Even those whose new cats hadn’t harmed them reported their once-pets had escaped in silence, boring holes through the walls. 383 inspected one hole, touched the scoop as clean as though it had been cut with a saw and sanded down. But the new cats left no spool and the bloody people-parts still in the street were too hectic to constitute a trail.
Not a single new cat lingered in the neighbourhood. They’d marched half the night and reached the end of the neighbourhood’s major housing blocks. A few controllers stayed for regular duties while most returned to their buses and the fortplex. And as Essin stood on the bus, fatigued, gripping a white plastic hoop that swung from the bars near the ceiling, they idly listened to the chatter on the AC radio.
"New Rabbits on Winding Way. Variety eights. Permission to engage?"
"How many are you?"
"Standby for assistance."
"Dog Turd eight eight here. New chipmunk pack found on Greenway. High concentration. Requesting permission to retreat until heavy support can arrive."
"Dog Turd eight eight— is that near the gas station?"
"Sorry. Affirmative. Is it affirmative? I was told yes is alright."
"I think we should try to push for affirmative."
"Do I have permission to retreat or not?"
"Denied. No heavy reinforcements available."
"This is Dog Turd eight eight we are— shit. Fuck."
Shots banged over the radio.
"This is Dog Turd eight eight we are being pinn—"
"Autotomizing redundant information relay."
And more shots. Severed by silence.
"This is Cephalon. Controllers to the gas station at the intersection of Greenway and Golflinks."
"This is Owl Pellet six oh five. We have a new ferret."
"OP six oh five, this is Cow Patty nine six. Are you sure?"
"CP nine six yes for the love of god I’m sure."
"OP six oh five you better be sure. Like, it’s not a variety seventeen new mole?"
"CP nine six no it’s not a variety anything it’s a new ferret."
"OP six oh five it’s not a flesh chameleon?"
"CP nine six. It’s not a fucking flesh chameleon. We’re down three controllers and this fucking weasel is oh my god it’s found me—"
"This is Cow Patty nine six to the Book Worms: can we get that redacted?"
"This is Book Worm four four. Redaction confirmed. Noting three hundred thirty six seconds of radio silence."
"Cow Patty nine six, are you still there?"
"Something killed the weasel."
"Owl Pellet six oh five what are you seeing?"
"How big are new cats supposed to be?"
"About the same size as the old ones."
"Then what am I looking—"
"OP six oh five? Are you there? OP six oh five?"
Words chittering in 383’s head, tethers knotted together and suddenly taut enough to slice—
"This is Cephalon. Visual footage reviewed. New lion confirmed. Dispatching all available controllers to new coordinates. Dispatching corpse disposal units. Dispatching fire containment units. Dispatching medical squadron."
Through the bus, movements shook in the controllers’ suits. Heads turned. Twitches like those that pour through a crowd after an MC makes an uncomfortable gag. Outside, bus lights turned points on the tunnel walls to threads.
Chill winds had pushed the neighbourhood to winter’s cliff when Animal Control arrived at the huge box pet store in the shopping district. It was a place where food was stocked, kibble, cheap stinking rubber things, bells tied to feathers. Canned cat food and fake mice were were suddenly and steeply discounted, sold on metal racks out front. But it also sold the near-exotic things, fishes and reptiles for young hobbyists, grass lizards and geckos, corn snakes and plecostamuses and round aquatic snails with shells bright as apple skins. Controllers leapt from their trucks, masks chattering. With a spark, pilot lights flickered blue below incinerator nozzles. White jugs sloshed with bleach to eradicate aquarium life. They caught a staffer trying to flee through the back exit, clutching a box full of dwarf hamsters. The controllers wrestled it from her grip, stomped the box, and torched it.
That was the only violence those Controllers had the chance to perpetrate. The caravan had been trailed and before they even finished evicting the staff, the AC coordinator turned to sponge where she stood: a rind tattered with pores, collapsing like a rotted pumpkin. Frantic controllers ducked behind their vehicles, they scanned through the mall’s many parked cars and the prickly roses decorated with captured wind-blown grocery bags and the windows of the dollar stores and pizzerias and Dairy Queens— but didn’t see her. They’d goofed in an elementary way, kept their eyes at ground level where most big things were. The new lion had scaled an optometrist’s. And perched on the nose of a glowing orange sign in the shape of thick-framed glasses the new lion fired again and an AC van erupted, backblasts from collapsing vacuums spitting shrapnel flecks no larger than snowflakes through guts and plaster.
The controllers rushed for their rifles in the remaining trucks but the new cats flooded down— springing from over the roof, bouncing on awnings and bolting swift across the parking lot. The new lion leapt majestic behind them and landed on a car that jumped under her weight, mane long enough to hide her whole body and writhing as though from its own golden intellect. A snap broke the air and controllers ducked and scrambled for cover— some to cars and others into the pet center. Windows spidered with cracks. Engines erupted and fires lit across the mall. Controllers fell, ribs bared or limbs missing, chests in anatomists’ cross-sections, heads split down the middle. Like a wave the new cats hit the box store’s plaster wall, the front windows broke as the automatic doors slid open (the controllers hadn’t had time to lock them) and they bounded in on their stilt-limbs, ears swiveling and bristles flowing from their backs: mewling sounds more like satanic infants than cats replacing familiar feline rowls.
And for a moment some among the more imaginative staff (and at-all imaginative controllers) had the collective thought that the new lion arrived to rescue the pets from Animal Control.
Aquariums shattered, guppies plucked from cracked panes by new-cat-claws and gobbled. Foreign vermin fell under assault, cages broken, rats and pikas and guinea pigs snagged and devoured raw. The staff was perforated, kibble bags gutted and spilled, cans ruptured by new cat-eyes. Snakes and lizards scurried through spilled wood shavings and rat pellets, high shelves claimed by new cats as the new lion mauled the remaining controllers with her huge gold paws. They burrowed through the walls with their gazes, sacked the Hallmark and the Winners next to the pet shop, expanding their territory.
And for a moment mall management hoped the invasion was limited. They’d write those outlets off as a loss, move along, erect walls, keep charging their rents.
But the new lion was ambitious. By the next day her cats overwhelmed the KFC and A&W and Denny’s and Fat Burger. A cell phone repair shop found itself beset: the new cats loved chewing batteries, it turned out. They turned their lenses to the grocery store. It was barricaded, with sandbags and concrete blocks and machine-gun nests. The parking lot was cleared and turned to a killing field— customers only able to enter from the back through AC checkpoints— covered in proximity mines and gas hoses that could throw up walls of fire with a quick tap on a button. Clouds roved silvery, layered so that only a few translucent blue trapezoids were shown above and the wind carried both scent (burnt mice and spilled grease and metal) and plagued the barricade with half-hole-blasted greeting cards and fluttering discount clothes. The controllers were plentiful, well-armed, the mycelium’s elite, and within four minutes of the new felines turning their attention on the Loblaws they were dancing in their own killing field, beating fires from their limbs and falling over, mines detonating and gas lines turned to fiery ropes, sandbags leaking and survivors retreating as the grocery store was frantically evacuated.
The new cats feasted on fish with glass scales and grayish pork chops and salty hams and cheese.
It wasn’t Essin’s shopping district, not the one where they worked or snuck into the AC basement, but it wasn’t far and they heard the explosions, watched the bloody soot-clots stoop like leprous gardeners over the parking lots. The district was hers. She laid siege to an adjacent seniors’ home and her cats patrolled the suburban blocks nearby. Within a few days it was clear people weren’t kill-on-sight for the new cats— though those who came too close or showed aggression were quickly fixed by those eldritch pupils and dismantled.
AC ordered controllers to give the new lion a wide berth. Her district fell into a brooding calm, pierced only when her orphan brood broke into a house to loot the pantry. She presided over them from rooftops, her bold haunches and elongated legs enough to leap between any building, or scale it.
As the sun fell Essin looked over to the square taken over, saw her gold-yellow mane, a coiling thing that paralleled the wild plasma and magnetic ropes that mantled the sun on its throne in the sky.
With the skull clamp’s click a voice crackled over their speaker.
"Controller Dung Beetle three eight three, this is Cephalon tertiary. You have a special assignment. Please proceed following the green lights and board the car waiting on platform BH-27. Immediate compliance is required."
A light quaked and they didn’t know if this was normal, if they were being hauled in for some infraction or if they were to be subject to a knowledge audit after all. Their heart throbbed against their suit’s interior and the membranous inner tissue throbbed back. It was a long walk, their boots clomped down four corkscrew stairwells. A rattling elevator ride lasted long minutes as they soared down an interminable shaft.
For the first time in Essin’s life they sorely wished they were armed.
They’d known that Animal Control had access to the city’s light rail network— in fact had private dens with hidden access points that linked to the main rail route and sent spurs into outer counties. But the luxury car that waited for them, tied to its own engine, was a museum piece. It fit as well in the barren industrial concrete cavern that held the platform as a faberge egg displayed on a cow patty. It was gilded, gold maple leaves decorated its side and brass old beavers played the gargoyle’s part from the corners of its upper observation deck. The engine hummed, an armored pillbox, ornate in a way that could only be described as frontier rococo, rested on the cabin.
Steps touched the platform from the passenger cabin. After 383 the stairs retreated and the train door shut behind them. A bell clanged twice outside, a reedy whistle hooted, and they steadied their balance as the train lurched to motion.
They thought at first they’d stepped into a museum. Not one they’d visited in the flesh, but the institution whose wings and basements lived in cultural imagination, the amalgamation featured in movies, described in books, in photos from European countries where the institutions were as ancient as the disciplines whose pillage they displayed.
Baboon, coati, ocelot, capybara, tarantula, macaque, goanna, coelacanth: they watched the car and the rushing black concrete through its windows from inert glass eyes. A dry aviary stilled and nailed to perches puffed up their throats, spread their pinions, and filled the room with silence, some knotting necks together and armatured into leaps and cries. An albino possum, frozen, sat atop a cabinet of oriental conches and cicadas whose plastic-pure coloration made them look like velvet-wrapped toys— needle-teeth bared to the panicked wings of a faded peregrine falcon beside an elephant tusk carved with a meticulous nativity scene and a two-headed goat that had died hours after it was born (standing now steadily in death though it had hardly been able to heave itself up on tender hooves in life).
Behind the desk a world map on one wall was tattooed to severed elephant ears. Places visited had been highlighted with gold marker dots and these spread in constellations across the withered skins.
Another shelf was packed with snakes immersed in yellowish alcohol. They were new enough to their pickling that their colours were bright and their sharp heads and patterns and diamond scales cautioned venomous fangs. But their eyes were white as hardboiled eggs, and their pale collective gaze met 383 and a pair of marmosets posed among exotic corals and huge lizards who’d once slithered between roots, or across branches, or beneath the fallen leaves of island jungles.
383 was caught, stepping in, recognizing a tuatara on a ledge by a window. And immediately their eyes were dragged right by the flowing wall outside the train: a human fetus, held upright in a jar of alcohol by a string around its neck. With eyes softly closed and lips slightly parted, showing its tiny pink gums, the fetus seemed not entirely a dead thing, though noosed by twine and afloat in a glass womb between a pangolin and a bottle of embryonic lambs. Leaning and squinting close through their multiview goggles Essin caught that the unborn child’s face was bunched like a mandrake root, the hand having more fingers than Essin could easily subatize. Though the thought hardly registered in Essin’s mind except as unease, it seemed possible for the child to stir in their sleep, clench their over-knuckled fists, kick their feet in response to dreams in their unborn brain.
And it was only as the train roared from the tunnel, the outer pitch changing and becoming unmuffled, red sunset slanting and ravaged by tree-silhouettes, that they saw him. More or less. Something in the ocular goggles seemed averse to displaying him save for split-coloured eyes, so like the calico cat’s, that had wounded their chest.
He was at the desk smoking a joint whose think smoke-tendrils came alive in the sunlight. A whisky meniscus wobbled in a cut-glass cup. A half-assembled bird skeleton held upright by an armature stood before him, the remaining bones laid out neatly on a tray as he worked to rebuild it with tweezers and wire.
They glanced outside: white denuded trees stood upright and in dark marshes like javelins thrown in a primeval war, dead branches looking thin as bristles tilting down to the swamps.
He called them Dung Beetle three-eight-three, and motioned for them to step forward, gesturing with threaded smoke to a plush chair that sat on pads rather than castors. Essin felt too heavy in their armour. The seat creaked and some mechanism clattered under their ass. A skull pin with three green comet tails on his lapel indicated he was a ranking controller. He said the skeleton was once a great auk’s. An argillite Inuit sculpture sat on the desk and looked up at the skeletal auk: a polar bear so smoothly carved it was nearly one with its stone. The mask’s feed came into focus on the bear and the pores in the dead great auk’s skull and Essin said, "I think there’s something wrong with my mask. Is it ok if I take it off?"
"That’s not a mask," he said. "That’s your face."
Goosebumps tightened over their skin, arteries on the suit wall tensed.
"Sorry," he said, "I’m high as fuck. I didn’t think. We should speak as equals." Through their face’s ears Essin heard the soft grind of wood sliding on wood. A drawer creaked open. They craned a little to look and saw in the long drawer a case containing a huge bird’s burnt and mummified head and foot, and a strange bit of blackened leather scratched and etched with the densest tally they’d seen on any mask. He set down his joint in a cane toad that had been turned into an ashtray and tenderly lifted the skin-scrap up. No clamps, just bootlaces for strings. He tied it behind his head. Though it was the same gray-black as something lifted from a Celtic bog its hairs were yellow-white.
It was a face, like his. Lip and nose, and as they stared scars emerged from among the scratchings. But though he donned his face and it cleared the glitch it didn’t change the wired distance, the carmine veins bolting through his eyes.
"Perhaps you aren’t aware," he said. "You’re the first person we have on record witnessing a replacement. What your eyes recorded is super valuable. On your first deployment, no less, when the rest of your unit was exterminated. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen the footage."
"The new cat tried to kill me when it was changing," 383 said.
"Yes," said the man. "You were lucky. Information Control’s director is pissed off at me right now for recruiting information criminals, so I can’t get good intel, but what I was able to steal tells me that you were taking illegal classes, is that correct?"
Dung beetle 383 gulped.
"You don’t need to worry," he said. "It’s not my department. I’m indifferent and this room isn’t bugged. Well, except—" He waved his fingers at a mosaic made from bullet ants, and smiled. His teeth were perfect, if yellowed by the gums.
After some more hesitation 383 half-whimpered, "Yes."
"Good, good. So, where I’m coming from is that when the cats changed a lot of people fucking died or got maimed, but there were also a bunch of weird cases where the owners survived or weren’t attacked at all. It’s possible that this was a coincidence, but I’m wondering if the cat understood what you were and what we at AC represent, and there was something in that moment where you interfaced somehow, and that interface sparked the replacement."
"Wait," 383 said. "You know why the animals are being replaced?"
"No," said the man, "but we have many theories that are in some cases true and in other cases easily disproved. There’s a lot of weird nuances too. Like, animals in remote areas aren’t being replaced at the same rates as animals near human habitation centers, but all transitions are species-wide and instantaneous. We’ll be doing a country-wide purge of all zoo animals soon. We also don’t know if it’s willful, or this is something being done to the animals. These are some insights I was hoping to get from you. So, do you think you triggered the change?"
"It doesn’t seem very likely," 383 said. "I don’t understand how anything I’ve done could have made that happen."
He picked up the joint again, seemed to briefly study the extinct bird’s bones as if Essin wasn’t in the room. They were still driving through marshes— erupted cattail tufts blew over the little train car in the dusk like a mutant snow. Three explosions mushroomed up from the distance.
"Nothing to be concerned about," he said idly, "The train’s well-armed. It’ll get us to the front without any issues." But they hardly caught his words, as he’d lifted his eyes again to theirs. Pulled on his joint and the coal pulsed where the paper burnt to ash. Inside 383 birds rose en mass as if spooked by a gunshot. It always felt like authority smoked at them but they reflected that authority was subject to significant stress. "I think that what we’re seeing," he waved again, and his wave only seemed to catch the sun where the marshland’s spikes shattered it, "Might be related to a parallel phenomenon." He chewed on a thumbnail, idly fingered an auk rib. While he thought he seemed to listen as though his collected fragments of extinguished creatures were his council. He froze, ambushed by lucidity. "My apologies, I’ve been lost in thought. Do you remember what you were thinking when you saw the cat?"
"No," Essin said, then dwelled for a moment. "I was thinking that she was old. I wondered if she had a home or not. It was my first deployment so I was mostly nervous."
"Mostly nervous," he echoed. "And why didn’t you kill it?"
Essin felt as though as they searched for words they were fumbling towards a bathroom in a dark and unfamiliar house, "I was just reacting, I think. I didn’t know what to do when I saw it change."
"Do you like cats?"
"Yes," Essin said, and for the first time realizing it was true. "I wish I had one."
"Well, missed that boat."
They nodded sadly, and realized the gesture would look strange in the suit, though the man didn’t react as if it was strange. Outside the marshes ended and turned to scrubby conifers then undulating farmland. Light tanks with short barrels climbed a hill, and six helicopters roved in formation crosswise to the train.
"Do you think the cat," the man seemed to be putting this carefully, as though he was driving at or hinting towards some taboo, "Had a theory about what you were thinking?"
"I don’t know," Essin said. "I mean, I would be surprised if animals didn’t have ideas about what people thought. Especially cats since their lives are, like, so shaped by ours."
"Were," he said, brightly. "But yes. Like something was unlocked by us but comes from them."
"Yeah," 383 said. "Maybe."
Artillery cracked over the train. He drifted into thought again, and after many breaths and many heartbeats where Dung Beetle 383 felt as though the tension and the dead creatures were tagging new ligaments to their throat he at last said, "Thank you, Dung Beetle three eight three. I have a special assignment for you, relating to your unique witness status. You’ll be assigned to a special unit fighting the new cats, and particularly that new lion laying siege to your district. A sole survivor and a first witness is a rare alignment in a person and I want to study the extent of the, I don’t know, phenomenon? But before that I wanted to show you something, see what you think."
At last the words 383 had missed a while back, mapping the red crackling at the whites of his eyes fixated on them, pierced the swirling doubts and fears that riddled this encounter. The elephant ear-map, the dotted borders on the glass in red erasable marker: the front.
A voice crackled over a hidden stereo, "Colonel, we’ll be arriving in about three minutes." He stretched.
"Do you think we count?" he said.
"As animals." He stood. He opened another drawer and removed a blunt and blood-sullied hatchet, a pistol, and carabiner he clipped to his belt. "It feels worth investigating." He undid the buttons on his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves showing tattoos on his arms. 383 noticed for the first time: a finger was missing from his right hand. Over the tracks the wheels’ rhythm slowed and even through its noise they heard jets gutting the sky overhead.
"Anyway, I’m interested to know what you’ll make of them."
"Make of what?"
"Oh, sorry," his shirt had untucked when he stood and he was busy for a moment stuffing it under his belt. He butted out his joint and held out his four-digit hand like an usher to the stairs leading to the observation car. "We’re going to see the grootslangs."
Hot winds rose, coiled like a stovetop element. Rubble gathered at their feet as they were pushed by a force that Essin could only resist by leaning against it. In it swirled frog songs and childhood’s forgotten mercies. And the masks. And. What they saw. When they were playing. Then. Through the holes in their face. Whatever it was that thrashed within them lacked a dream’s unsteadiness, where each attempt to recollect its clarity is fundamentally betrayal, and only half-amnesia lets it be salvaged and rebuilt by scrapper psyches. It was the mental force of epiphany, something realized, but what they’d seen wasn’t assembled into thought. It hung on nothing, gibbering factuality until eardrums split and endless bells rang over every other sound.
Lacie was already on her side of the bed and letting out little pea-shaped snores. They took her shoulder and turned her on her back and put their lips on hers. Her breath was sour. She hadn’t brushed her teeth, they could tell, but they pushed with their lips and tongue until waking she reciprocated. Her hands moved half-limp up their back and down to their buttock as she woke and in total wordlessness pressed back craning as if to top them but they resisted, gripping her hair, until she groaned and yielded, smile phasing to a grimace wrapt in flickering. The energy fell, Essin breathed hotly into her neck, long heaves that made their head feel light, their skull tingling and drastically numb. They hiked up her shirt so it bunched on her neck inhaling her sweat and set their teeth to her nipples and kissed her gut, their own hands frantic on her back muscles while she reached into their boxers and they reached into hers.
Essin couldn’t place what happened in time. When that protracted fucking was done the light already nudged blue into the basement window well.
"Hey, what’s up? Talk to me."
"…I’ve never seen the ocean before."
"We should go visit when we have more money."
"All I drew in art classes was oceans, I cut pictures of the sea out magazines, advertisements even, and put them up in my room. Even in kindergarten. All my paintings were of ocean creatures and things like that."
"We’ll go down east. It’s spectacular."
"I don’t know why it was the ocean. There were so many other things I’d never seen… I mean, I’ve never left this city…"
"We’ll leave. We’ll save up for it. We can go anywhere you want. We can go see the sea of Japan."
"They have new dolphins, don’t they?"
"We’ll find somewhere."
"Oh right. I think it was that, I think it was the ocean that caught their attention."
"The committee’s. I don’t know why it would be that, but I think that’s what it was. None of us ever learned their criteria."
"Which committee though? Hey. What’s wrong?"
"The mask game committee. They gave me a picture of the arctic ocean, clipped from an old National Geographic, glued to the lid of the shoebox on the porch. The box was decorated with plastic jewels and craft store feathers dyed pink and orange and yellow and green, so fake-looking you could forget under the colour all those feathers were actual feathers from actual birds… I got an ocean. It was other things for other people. I saw a box once with a dinosaur skull pasted to the lid, another with two bearded men with tusks dangling from their ears holding machine guns… when I saw the box I felt something… Something I wouldn’t feel… well, something I wouldn’t know for a while afterwards but I always wouldn’t notice I’d lost until… until we went to that party together… I ran up to my room. I hid it in the closet. I hurried while the house was empty to peek inside…"
"What was in it?"
"A mask. I… I remember it so clearly, but couldn’t describe it. There were some kids who must have played the game since kindergarten, maybe younger, their link to their mask was so complete and when they went out with their masks on they stalked around with so much self-assurance, they knew they could play without anything touching them. And it wasn’t the false self-assurance of the new ones but that actual absolute assurance that veterans have. Like they could move anywhere, any which way, and nothing in their way would matter to them. Nothing made their goals insurmountable."
"What kind of game was it?"
"Yeah. Like what were the rules?"
"I don’t know. They never told us anything. If I ever think about it, I usually start wondering if the committee just gave us those masks and set us loose. The rules we followed weren’t their rules but the rules that we made up, things we maybe half-understood when we saw the masks, because that was what we thought the game was. Maybe the game we were supposed to play was a different one. Maybe we were supposed to come together and dance. You were never sure who was playing, either. I mean, sometimes you’d pass someone who walked in a way that looked familiar. Something in the way they moved, controlled and careful, giving nothing obvious away: these people were something ferociously reckless in gym class or when they were scrapping on the playground. You could always tell a player. You learned to trust your intuitions when you played the game, because when you played the game it was the only way to know the Useful Truths."
"What the hell are you talking about."
"Things that would help you win the game. The guys, the ones I saw, people I saw at school— like, they weren’t real. That wasn’t really them. That was a useful truth. That the person without their mask on wasn’t real, and something you didn’t need to worry about. The people who did not wear masks weren’t really themselves either. They were things. Marionettes, maybe."
"How did you win?"
"You didn’t, that was the thing, that was the noble, glorious, great bright happy truth of the game: you couldn’t win, not actually. You could try, there were some who had, but the others knew what a true winner would mean and made a point of removing the overly-ambitious from play. Because we didn’t want to win. We didn’t want to stop. When you were playing, you never wanted to stop playing. You knew you still had to lead a life, still had to go to school, still had to go hang out with the other kids, play tag with them, go to their houses, jump in the pools, play their game consoles, vandalize things with them, buy ice cream with them— but all those things were nothing, all those thing were just a fence around the game, a way to keep playing, a way to have a hidden thing— that was another Useful Truth— that hidden things were powerful things, that the more deeply you could hide a thing, the more powerful it would be. The less you said, the more you knew. The less you said, the more you could do. No one watched you. No one noticed. No one ever saw enough. And you could get out of yourself. Whatever happened in your day, whoever noticed you or didn’t notice you, whatever you noticed or didn’t notice in yourself, the mask waited, patient in your closet at home."
"What did this to you?"
"I don’t… I can’t… I’m sorry."
"No, it’s just… I can’t tell what’s talking in you, right now."
"Remove from play."
"How did you remove someone from play?"
"…do you want me to say?"
"We played the game at night."
"Play started when you put the mask on."
"Masks could be made from anything. Like, buckets cut in two and mop heads with fossil shark’s teeth dangling like a beard from copper wire in the brim, plaster and craft store feathers with a long curly black wig on top, or carved from wood into the rough shapes of animals, and paper-mache masks that covered just your eyes and your nose…"
"Some were covered in hooks and others were spraypainted goalie masks and others were Halloween masks that had been stitched to hoods, those rubber ones, shredded with scissors and used as parts to make new masks— the mask makers used anything, wherever they were, decorating these shoe boxes, hot-gluing spools and pipe cleaners or doing elaborate, complicated things with wire and paper maché, stealing inspiration from wherever, Venetian masks, Huichole wool, Greek theater, Haida carvings. They must have been geniuses, those kids, they probably weren’t players, but they had to know what we did with them…"
"And mine. I’d rushed up to my room with the box, paced the room, shaking. And I pulled the lid and saw it…"
"It had a hood of plush white fur, and the face was a halloween skull someone had painted red."
"Mhn. Ah. Oh."
"I put it on and went out that night."
"Ahh. Where were your parents?"
"When I put on the mask I knew, I knew that anything they did would happen not to me, but to that other person, that fake who didn’t have a mask. No, not even a person— just a state of waiting, shaped like a kid, waiting for a mask… and that’s all I’d been, my whole life, a nothing waiting for a face to wear. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone. We never spoke to each other while we played. We never talked about it otherwise. Our parents didn’t matter. I went out into the street with a chair leg I found in the basement."
"Is that alright?"
"I went outside, and then played. I can’t… I can’t set the touch of it to words. You were out. You were moving freely in the streets, through the parks, under fences, through backyards, up the train tracks. I was running. Like I had no feet on the ground, was just rushing like a swing, swooping through the total quiet with nothing but footsteps, crickets in the darkness, bats catching moths by lamplight. That mask, hunting, sniffing, searching for something."
"Searching for something, sensing that something, outside, where it could almost feel the radio static tossed haphazardly at all matter by exploding suns and quasars, so clear was the night…"
"And there he was, standing in front of me, a pikachu mask with the ears clipped. He was standing in white light, by an oil drum repurposed by the city to be a garbage bin. He was holding a hockey stick, twice as high as he was, standing with the stick at his side, his legs spread, breath deep, happy, enraged— I saw the shredded leftovers of masks he’d taken hanging from his belt loop. The nothing behind my mask felt fear but the mask was better, the mask knew what to do and knew what was necessary. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t have to be told."
"He was on a spree. I was new and he was new-ish too, I could tell, but talented. The scrapes on his knees glistened. My arteries were deafening. He brought the stick from the side and I stepped in, holding the chair leg like a SWAT ram, swung it into his guts and he staggered. We were children, the mask used our bodies, we leapt from each other and skipped back and grappled, holding each other’s weapons off with our hands. I threw my weight on him. He lost his balance. I straddled him and he wriggled and threw his fists at me and I had to bat the stick away, bat away the hands reaching for my mask, so I wriggled up until his neck was beneath my crotch and his arms pinned. He couldn’t squirm out. It would pull off the mask. It was an ignoble win for me. I felt him shuddering at the indignity of it."
"He was vibrating like an electric toothbrush when I pulled his face off."
"My nothing knew him. Some face from school."
"He was the only one I took that night. His hands flew to his face, and he was weeping from the shame of it. I got up off of him. Weeping, he collected his shredded trophies in his fists, threw them in the garbage can. I stepped on his mask, took a fragment. He walked five steps and collapsed. He’d never put on the mask again."
"Ah. Uh. Uh. Uh."
"That was it. Removed from play. Some hunted for others on bicycles, some waited in the trees. Sometimes we formed a gang of people and went hunting for the older ones together and sometimes we split off. I never knew who the others were, unless I took their masks. You could tell a player who had been removed, they spent weeks listless, missed school. Even years later they’d be those kids nobody talked to stumbling around in one protracted depressive episode or when they were forced to participate in school plays, anything with costumes. Sometimes at night, you’d see fake ones out, with fake masks, wailing, stumbling, trying to get us to pay attention to them. When we paid attention, they had it rough."
"Why did you stop?"
"I thought you were done."
"I meant, the game. Did someone remove you from play?"
"I don’t. I’m. Sorry."
"What happened to the kids who had it rough?"
Silence thrived between them.
Lacie fell still, as if she too was wrestling with a memory she’d long thought dynamited to gravel.
They’d never speak about the mask game again.
Flames receded and died. Air cleared. Lacie vanished to her shift and Essin vanished into their long rolling days whose thirds were immersed in labour. They rarely slept. Somehow they didn’t tire. The new lion and her army fanned through the starved suburban wood-patches, where wreathed in whirling leaves golden and red the new cats and their matriarch harvested birds and new birds alike. Silence claimed the canopies. The Canada geese— unreplaced— colonized the fields on their migration south and stormed up squawking to the skies as raking new cat eyes slew them, erasing wings and lungs and necks. Pinions, webbed feet, limp-jawed heads rained on suburbia.
While cannons fired and infantry formations in gleaming masks— soldiers turned controllers— filed into farmer’s fields to fight the neighbourhood’s outer assailants, the new lion gathered her charges. AC deployed its jets but she heard them ripping through the sky and whatever power was coiled in her bizarre new head was enough to lance them. They careened down, vulture remnants shivering in scarred meadows, fanned with white water sprayed by harried firefighters.
And the easy food vanished, hunt narrowed, as life readied itself for winter. Memories probed— cans cracked open, freed the smell of ground spines and leftover innards. Some communication had flourished between new lion and her charges. She turned her deadly cycloptic eye beyond the mall she’d claimed.
Her silence spread. Her spies fanned from her province. A citizen’s committee gathered to take matters into their own hands, they sharpened spears and prepared rifles, they purchased gillie suits and infrared goggles. They made plans with fireworks and improvised flash grenades and flares, schemes that wove across the entire suburb to a planned kill zone where they’d smite the new lion with murderous lead. And perhaps someone, hearing a strange chirrup by the window of the meeting house, might have glanced up and through a gap in the curtains to see the hedges stir.
But nobody looked. The committee’s leaders were exterminated, heads voided while they slept. When this only galvanized the committee’s determination to kill the new lion the militant citizens were exterminated in a single bloody afternoon. Partners and children stowed their hunting supplies in garages and basements, and drove dazed to hasty funerals.
Essin remained unclear about who they’d met on the train and was not sure if they’d seen what he’d shown them. He hadn’t stated his name and that, with his dead animal den, stunted attempts to fix his presence in memory. He’d advised them that he’d secured a few days’ leave for them, "To steel yourself for what’s ahead of you. Erase the doubts." He’d said this from the observation car, looking over a scape of unanimous wounds. (Essin recalled the map of Passchendaele they’d seen in history class— all peacetime terrain expurgated by craters.) Those days had coincided with their regular job so they didn’t get a true break but it was relaxing compared to what they'd known for the last month. The blister on their chest healed but a mark lingered over their heart and they felt as though something was alive in it that stirred whenever they thought about the Colonel and his absurd mission against the new cats.
When they’d returned to the mycelium they’d been reclassified. The little sigil on their breast plate was haloed with polished steel where the old sigil had been buffed away. Dung beetle replaced with a cat-skull-comet wreathed in green shaking tails.
A new name: Dung Beetle 383 was now Cat Shit 383. Like the room had been listening for them. They pawed through the suit after other modifications: the only change was an alteration in the mesentery’s scent, as though the rain-on-snow had melted and falling water’s aroma was cut with peony heads stuck closed and fermenting on the stalk. Some change had occurred in their suits’ fibers, the fascia and textile genetics hidden behind the rubber and steel. As they slipped into it and the rain scent enveloped them it felt as though the fabric yearned to be up and outward, to taste night like a leaf craving sun.
But they found themself shuddering as if they suddenly stood at an incredible height when the green lit doors led them to a dim hall. The hall was doorless and lined with wires, a thick tube occupied almost half its width, something thumped dull and coursing inside it. It felt illicit: what little lamps pooled their light seemed to hoard it like deep-sea sponges on an interminable abyssal mud. Cat Shit 383 pushed forward, looking left and right, the hall vanishing both ways, until the Cephalon muttered in their headset, "Please proceed to the right."
As they walked deeper into the dark throat the feeling that they were treading on forbidden territory mounted: a prickle in the skin, a tension rising near the lungs to tighten in their neck. They jumped when a machine sound roared— the hall had ended, the clang came around an entry corner.
What they saw was blurred and distorted by their infrareds: the room was huge, though, a warehouse whose ends were so distant as to hardly be visible. Below machine arms sparked and cracked as they worked on assembling things, and 383 thought they saw, briefly, a skull mask on a tray in front of a machine arm that was bolting goggles into place. They had just one way to go, down a long catwalk, whirrs and bangs mounting around them until they reached a blank door.
Its handle was lit by a solitary diode, like a planet blinking through a city night’s vibrant veil.
They switched to true colours.
A lake stretched out to distant hills. Autumn fire shivered in the silver-blue, up to a pristine sky where tall clouds paralleled the land below in its wild hymn to infinite height.
It was a screen: a fake lake. Controllers turned to look at 383. They were scattered across the board room, only one or two sitting on tall mesh-backed swivel chairs, a couple standing, or leaning against the lake screen, three sitting together on the table. Full armor, hoods and kilts and armaments.
Anxious lightness flooded 383. These were experts. Their masks were palimpsests, the scrapes hardly a tally any more and more like the black glass lightning leaves where it strikes pavement, some lines cutting in a gash across the face and some so brief they looked abortive, accidental, criss-crossing and zigzags. A few controllers had tightly organized tallies, one used sei kanji.
But in the blue glow from the ersatz landscape 383 saw the controllers here were brutally decorated beyond just counting— trophies garnished their uniforms. A new garter snake’s bifurcating heads dangled leathery from around a controller’s hood, talons and teeth necklaced their wrists and ankles, jawbones and femurs arranged to supplement their armor. Their suits hadn’t been cleaned— strange bloods had sullied the cloth in many motley browns as they clotted, and dirt and grime had gathered in armour joints and darkened cuts and slashes, like they’d been dipped in a lazy miniature hobbyist’s wash. They teemed. 383 half-expected that if their masks flew off, flies would swarm out.
"Hey, it’s you! 383, right? From the other day? We were in that line-up together," one controller raised their hand. 425 sprayed on their chest. Their beetle had been changed to a cat skull as well.
"Oh yeah," 383 said, "That was me. Nice to see you again."
A controller was rummaging through a fabric sack they’d pulled from under a chair with the AC logo on it, "Did they give us swag?" they pulled out a lanyard clipped to a translucent plastic card with their number and some words on it.
Chuckles sounded from a few masks. They looked at the words.
"Operation Violin? The fuck’s that about?"
A word unfaded on the screen, mirrored in the lake, QUORUM.
"For chrissake, fucking finally." Voices dithered in the room. Essin couldn’t tell who was speaking, their speakers had become networked and speech emitted from a different face, sometimes halfway through a sentence.
"Okay, so everyone knows why we’re here right?"
"New lion hunt."
"You can say yes."
"New lion hunt. We cut off the head and mop up the kittens."
The controller (367 on their chest) dumped out the swag bag on the boardroom table and pawed open a notebook with the AC logo printed on the front. "All right," someone next to them said. And another voice in the chorus sounded out 383’s mask though their lips were stilled, "Does anyone have any ideas?"
Discussion meandered. A few controllers paced, and though their speakers sometimes spoke they weren’t interested in the plan as much as its gore-freckled execution. They had no access to air power, and all plans disintegrated when one voice or another gestured to a variable that was outside their control.
And whether it was 425 that spoke, or someone else spoke and it came through their mask, 383 wasn’t sure: but they said, "If only we were better predators."
A coin dropped in a concrete hollow. Echoes pinged within them. They remembered Amelia, girdled in smoke and ants, her final lesson—
"Predation," they said. "The new lion isn’t a lone predator."
"No," said another. "That’s accurate."
"It’s in symbiosis," 383’s heart moved fast, they scrambled to keep pace with their thoughts, to stitch them to words that could convey what they were thinking. "It’s in a symbiotic relationship with the new cats. They’re its eyes around the neighbourhood, right? And additional eyes wherever it goes, and they’re extra weapons, too."
"So we don’t want to cut off the head."
"We want to dismember the body. Good thinking, whoever came up with that."
Chuckles sounded again from the masks.
"Now how the hell do we catch them?"
In 383 two threads had struck each other. They were knotted in some way that Essin couldn’t easily untangle. It was acquiring new strings rapidly and they had a feeling, like the one that inhabited their skin like a ghost before they had come out to their friends. They hefted shears— 383 and Essin— and were occupied with cutting the knots and only half-listening to the plan under discussion— even when the words came from their own mask. Those who’d paced or leaned on the wall uninterested before had become agitated, energized, leaning over the table and notebooks and jabbing at diagrams the trophy takers made.
So as the meeting adjourned many hours later 383 knew that it would commence the next night and that it was tied to what they’d said, but didn’t know what it was or what their place in it would be.