Kris sat in the waiting area, less nervous and more operating at a level of ambient dread. The office was just a segment of a shared working space, a few floors up an oh-how-brutalist block of flats reclaimed into a combination coffee shop-workspace-rent hiker. Fingernails dug into his thighs to stop him from shaking. Aware of his every imperfection. A crinkled Uniqlo work shirt straight from the packet. A smudge on the corner of his glasses blurred his overgrown fringe. The smell of energy drink aspartame and paracetamol on his breath. Needed this job. Or rather, he needed the money and social capital to get people off his back. The position seemed as soul-sucking as any start-up, but what had he expected? A career trajectory forever horizontal, a life constantly threatening to start but never quite managing it, and no, you can’t be thinking like this before an interview this is a real bad head space, just breathe in. Data analysis. He could do that. No, wait, that was the other one; this was the Buzzfeed-but-not-rag, the one that would definitely still be afloat in a month, come on, why isn’t the breathing helping-
A human TED talk stared into him. “Did you hear what happened?”
“Huh?” [Your heart rate fell below 40 BPM for 10 minutes, starting from 8:45] buzzed his watch, something he’d get madder about if he didn’t feel the threat of an inescapable conversation closing in. An agonisingly clean-cut aspirational professional, every pore oozing Atomic Habits and How to Win Friends and Influence People and leathery cologne.
Kris wondered if he might be a judgmental person.
“A meteor landed in Whitworth Park.”
“What?” He’d zombie-walked here, vape shops and Tesco Expresses blurring into the background tapestry of the city, the endless chatter and horn-honking buried under the podcast hosts in his ears, wincing with every audio peak and hammering of epic gamer mechanical keyboards, feet following an invisible track through this backstreet but not that one, almost flinching when he realised he’d reached his destination. But it seemed unlikely he’d miss a meteor. Right? “You’re serious?”
“I’m serious. A small one, sure, but aren’t scientists supposed to know when one’s coming? I dunno if I want to be walking outside knowing some bit of space rock could land on me any moment. I got things I want to do, y’know?” He’d opened the tab on his Diet Coke mid-conversation. A loud sip and theatrical “Ahhh.” Was this part of the interview? Some test to see how you’d handle annoying coworkers?
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Hurt?” That kind of single-syllable laugh that’s more expelled air than anything close to joy. “Someone got splattered- poor bastard’s half-man, half-bicycle frame. Imagine how unlucky you’d have to be to get hit by that. S’like getting hit by a space javelin. Can you imagine?”
“No.” He turned away, but slowly, not rude, definitely not, a meticulous manoeuvre to leave the conversation without hurting his feelings. A hand jutted out in his peripheral vision.
“I’m Dan, by the way.” Motherfucker. “Oh, man. I hope I get this job. I mean, good luck to you, obviously. But I, really, really hope I get this job.”
“Fingers crossed.” If he gripped his thighs any harder he’d lose circulation. According to his shitty watch, he already had.
“You look fit, dude. What’s your routine? You go to the gym?”
“Whoa. Really?” Not the kind of thing he’d lie about. It had shaped him physically if nothing else. If he didn’t hate looking at himself in the mirror, he might even be able to agree with Daniel’s assessment. The fucking shoulders, though…
“I mean. Not now. Before.” To be an adult is to mourn the silly unproductive things you can no longer dedicate time to unless you can make those silly unproductive things into a job, in which case they’re no longer silly and unproductive. What were those hours of bleeding feet for, if not the vain hope of being spared becoming the people who would mock you for it?
“Kristopher?” Oh, thank God. Saved from existentialism by an angel in a suit and tie.
“Ah- it’s just Kris, actually.” Right. The interview. And what a way to start, correcting your interviewer.
“Kris. How… efficient! Sylvia Blackburn, head of HR. Please, have a seat!” A practised smile underneath the bangs of an auburn bob cut. There was no cordoned-off area for the interview, just a desk set aside from the islands of feverish kombucha-on-tap powered typists. He could still see Dan in his peripheral vision. Definitely a nightmare.
“Hello there, Kris.” A soft voice from across the desk. Long dark hair, green eyes, and a smile almost unnervingly placid, a crescent moon on its side, and oh no, he was hot. Ethereal skin wrapped in a fitted suit, his piano fingers lightly brushing his slender neck. “I’m new here, just here to observe. Pay me no mind.” Did that make him the good or bad cop? Sylvia slid into view, the two of them far too close across the Ikea desk, forming an M with their respective finger tents.
“Did you hear about the meteor?” Sylvia said, her smile thinner but far less unsettling than the unnamed’s. Make small talk. Neither of them wanted to be here. Just playing the game.
“Mm. Yeah. Awful. Just goes to show.”
“Ah, well, you know.” A sharp pain in Kris’s right wrist. “It could happen any- ah, any time.” They stared at him. Come on. Hold yourself together. “So, we should make the most of our opportunities!”
“Quite right. A dynamic attitude will serve you well at SyndiKate.” No, this was the data analysis position. What the fuck was wrong with him? How hadn’t he remembered that discount Verhoeven name? The pain was getting worse too, it had started out like a splinter, but now it was pushing inwards and outwards, a psychic spike pinning hand to thigh, sense memories of practising fouettés and tumbling onto the gymnasium floor over and over and the screaming voice of the dance teacher and-
Sylvia tapped her pen. Had she asked something? “Sorry, could you repeat the question? I’m a little nervous, ha-ha”. She tilted her head and smiled, eyes shut in a way that betrayed how close it was to a grimace. A warmth radiated from the spike. Blood. He was bleeding, the stain crawling across the black stripes of his shirt. Did he scrape it in that zombie walk? Surely that he would have noticed, if not the meteor. But no. There was a lump. A bruise? Something sharp. Pushing up against his shirt cuff.
A shard of glass burrowed out of the wound.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“I- I’m sorry”. Warm blood dripped between his clasped fingers. “I need to go to the bathroom. Where-” The shard pushed out further, piercing his hand. “WHERE IS THE BATHROOM?” Sylvia flinched as he doubled over in pain.
“Down the hall, next to the water cooler. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you.” That same placid smile. Dan waved nervously as he sprinted by. Fucker.
He’s totally going to get the job.
Kris ran into a stall and tore off his shirt. A great thorn of crystal was growing out of his wrist. He tried to touch it, not sure whether to push it in or pull it out, but he felt the heat, smelt the burning flesh. No. He categorically refused to accept that this was happening. The details didn’t add up. There was no hole in the sleeve, no dirt or mark, a pure wound inflicted without outside force or instrument.
It was coming from within. Something inside him was trying to get out.
- A red seam
- down his arm
- blood bubbled
- across it
- (Cut along the
- dotted lines)
His hand split in two, forced apart between the middle and ring finger, connected only by strands of flesh. The wrist crystal now sat in between the yawning chasm of his arm. His fingers could still move. Not much comfort. The shards were multiplying, piercing out of his arms and chest and waist.
“Bad dream, bad dream, this is a bad dream-” his tongue met a shard in his mouth. “AuhFuck.” A collar of glass pierced his chin and forced his head up. He closed his eyes, tried to shut it out with the only sense he could actually control, but it wasn’t enough; he could still feel it pushing out of him, the agonising pressure against his skin-
The sound of something unzipping, followed by a wet thud. A sudden respite from the pain, or at least a duller sensation. No. Keep your eyes closed. If you do that, you’ll wake up. Or open them. Face reality. Stop being a coward.
The decision was made for him. A thorn pushed from out under his eyelid, vision fractalling into strobing colours and cracked glasses.
He tilted his head to look down, chin piercing on the collar around his neck.
The skin between his clavicle and hips was gone. Torn and shed all over the floor, an écorché model, the line between human and doll blurred by exposed muscle and blood. His left eye bulged out of the socket. Glasses bent and broken across his face. Drool glistened in the flickering bathroom lights.
At a certain point, additional pain fails to register. The heaving mass of glass and scar tissue that could be called “Kris” had traversed beyond that threshold, beyond the point of screams and the hope that anyone would save you.
This is usually the part where you die.
The shards were beginning to wind around each other, forming shapes. The one from his eye had migrated up to his head, forming a crown of translucent thorns. Were they alive? Others moved to cover his exposed entrails, fresh armour on top of the wreckage of flesh. His other arm had split to mirror his right, cutting through the watchstrap, the display buzzing for emergency services that would never come.
In the heat of pain there was a moment of clarity. Internals externalized, whether they were organs or deeper-held desires.
A pleated skirt of crystal and blood.
Jagged stilettos pierced out the balls of his feet.
A leotard of glass.
If it weren’t for the gore, he’d be the very picture of a ballerina.
A knock at the door.
“Hello.” A familiar voice. The pool of blood lapped at the dress shoes under the stall. “Are you alright?”
“I’m- I’m fine, please wait a moment”. Hadn’t he locked the door? He tried to hold it shut with his mangled feet, heels skidding in the puddle.
“I don’t think that’s quite true, is it?” The door hinged open. The interviewer cut a cold, tall frame, his every feature elongated and off-kilter, all shadowy approximations. “Oh. How interesting.”
“What the fuck is happening?” Kris held down the hem of the glass skirt with his split hands. What? Protecting your modesty?
“You have been dead for-” He checked his watch. “Two hours now. You were impaled on a shard of living glass. The only reason you’re still here is that it reassembled you.”
“Did you hear about the meteor, Kris?” Oh. Oh no. The half-man half-bike frame. “Your memories might be a little fuzzy. Human brains find it difficult to catalogue their own death.”
“Is it? Did you not think it strange that you had no heartbeat?” He cocked his head. “Go ahead. Check.”
Kris put his separated fingers against his neck, trying not to impale himself with the shard. Nothing. No pulse.
“This isn’t- I’m not a-”
“Not a what?”
“This is a dress.”
“Of a sort, yes.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t. I understand the transformation is… violent, but there’s not really any other way.”
“It makes me look… makes me look like a girl”.
“Aren’t you one?” He crouched down to look Kris in the eyes. Felt his breath. His gloved hand pushed the bulging eyeball back into its socket. “Glass reflects, Kris. Maybe not perfectly. But it cannot show you something that isn’t there already.” He wiped the eye slime on the stall partition. “Besides. I would be more worried about your skin being on the floor”.
“I shouldn’t be alive.” Kris lifted up the end of his intestine with the wrist shard. “This shouldn’t be possible. So it’s hard to be afraid of it.”
“But I am alive.”
“No, you aren’t. I told you that already. You’ll make things much more difficult if you don’t listen, Kris. Oh dear, I really hope we didn’t lobotomise you…”
“Why are you so calm?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? I’m your handler.” That same crescent moon. “I’m here to make sure you understand your position.” He pulled out a gem from his pocket and placed it on the collar around Kris’s neck, a clear blue heart. His finger traced the edges, over and over. The blood on the floor crawled up Kris, crisscrossing streams coursing their way into the gem. Somehow the pints of him all managed to fit inside that tiny crystal. He’d long since given up on understanding the physics going on here. “Be careful with that. Defend it with your life.”
“What is it?”
“Your life. The life that was.” The life that’s over.
“Give it back to me. My life.”
“Not possible. And I don’t know if that’s really what you want, is it?”
“It hurts. It hurts so much.”
“I know. Well. I don’t. But it’s polite to pretend, right? Early Shardlings couldn’t feel anything at all. They would fight until they rotted, until their flesh sloughed off their glass bones, immortal prisms haunting the Warworlds…”
“I want to die.”
“Don’t worry. You can die. Having you around forever does no one any good. Your spines are defensive in nature. They will recede into you. You will look like any other human… mostly, anyway. But make no mistake. You are one no longer.” He cradled Kris’s cheek with his hand. “You are better.”
Kris vomited onto the handler’s lap, Ultra Rosa and a steak and onion pie somewhere amidst the blood and stringy spew. He could still feel the stomach acid on the back of his teeth. Pain had not dulled every sensation, then.
“It’s quite alright. That you’re embarrassed is a sign you’re adjusting. And that’s the last time you’ll have to do it, anyway.” An empty vessel. The handler wiped the puke from his suit and Kris with a wad of rough public toilet paper.
“We need to go.” He held out a hand to Kris. “It’s about to start.”
The walls and floor rumbled. The sound of rending metal and shattering glass. Kris stumbled through piles of skin and ran out back into the office. Anyone would think this was the first time he’d worn heels
“Kristopher! Thank- fuck- what the fuck are you wearing, man?”
“Shut the fuck up, Daniel.”
“What?” The whole office was in a state of quiet panic, armies of eyes searching around the room, for answers, information, anything, longing for escape from that interminable moment.
Before everything exploded.
before a pair of gigantic arms
slammed through the window
and splattered her across the room.
The yells and thundering of feet were barely audible under the horrific screeching as the arms removed themselves from the office, scraping a huge pair of handcuffs across the floor.
“Holy shit.” Dan was on his knees, dry-heaving under the Sylvia paste dripping from the ceiling. “Kris- did you… did you do this?”.
He didn’t answer. He stumbled across the office and stared out the hole in the building. The street was in ruins, trams knocked over and overhead lines torn and sparking, the controlled chaos of rush hour traffic descended into a blaring screaming hell. Something had punched a hole in the sky. A shadow loomed across the fleeing masses.
“What is that?”
“A monster, of course. I didn’t think I’d have to explain that to you.” Colossal arms bound together and weighed down by great iron cuffs. Criss-crossing black bindings obscured its skin. A human shape with a bear trap mouth, a metal prison for its head, an eye peering out from a crack, and long hair flowing out the back. A monster. A giant monster, taller than anything in the skyline.
SLAVE OF THE ASCENDED GORE
IRON MAIDEN ALKATALOXIA
“It looks like a prisoner.” It couldn’t move right, staggering and scraping against buildings, a titanic marionette with twisted strings.
“Then you’d better put it out of its misery, don’t you think?” The handler pushed away a whimpering Daniel with a gore-stained shoe, brushing the dust and crumbling MDF from his hair. “Your transformation is in response to its arrival. Kill it, and you will return to a baseline of normalcy.”
“I don’t… why should I trust you?”
The handler grabbed his shoulders.
“KILL IT. OBLITERATE IT. OR MORE WILL BE OVER THAN YOUR OLD LIFE,” he yelled, before he pushed Kris out of the hole.
Bracing February air met his every scar as he accelerated towards the ground. His arms opened out further, the glass thorns in their centre forming colossal, needle-like blades. Almost instinctively, he dug one into the side of the building, anything to slow himself down. The superheat of the swords scarred the steel and concrete. He hung there, the monster more interested in levelling skyscrapers than a goretwink in a glass dress.
No time to think about what this meant. Who this person, Kris, was supposed to be. How easy it had been to be torn apart, remoulded into something new. Some kind of weakness in his brain, a tangle of desires and hatreds.
The pendant glowed. Wings of blood, liquid but held together by some psychic force, grew from his back.
[MALWARE MOTH TESTAMENT!]
he screamed, or rather something moved his lips, animated his tongue into spewing words that had no meaning to him. He felt his nerves reconfiguring, or perhaps fresh branches invading his body from the base of the wings. He flapped one experimentally. Covered and uncovered his face. The wings had imitation eyes, though he doubted the behemoth would be afraid.
He let go of the wall.
An invasive interruption.
He floated in place, rather than needing to flap his wings.
Or taking advantage of your coding.
The beast was scratching against a clock tower.
You want something done to you.
An old red brick building of no doubt some historical importance that eluded Kris.
You want to stop rolling that boulder for just one day.
Whatever it had been, it was now defined by this otherworldly force.
To feel like you aren’t having to exert will just to hold yourself together.
Let the world wash over you. Retreat your spines.
He hovered above the choked crowds.
But this isn’t that, is it?
It hadn’t noticed him.
You have been changed by something outside the ordinary, the crushing…
Neither had the people below.
Your spines are even longer now. But you are not defensive.
He lunged at the monster with his glass blades, impaling its side.
And you’re afraid.
Felt like a mosquito dug into skin, the split flesh of his hands torn even further apart.
Not because of what it has made you.
Now it had noticed him.
or because you’ve lost your place in a world you hate.
A roar of pain as he pulled out one blade and stuck it back in-
You’re afraid of how much you enjoy it.
-higher, hiking up a living mountain.
That you feel alive.
Its colossal eye stared down at him.
Afraid to feel anything at all.
Echoes of a world beyond here, behind the iris.
But now flooded with sensation.
It leaned back
and with the force of its body
it threw him into a building,
shattering through a window.
A huge shard of glass stuck in his overarm. A distinct impaling that felt more foreign than the glass that was now part of him. He pulled himself to his feet. He was in the corridor of a student apartment, fearful tenants peering out of their coffin rooms, staring at him. So many eyes. A pocket of silence in the chaos.
“I won’t let it hurt you.”
MALWARE MOTH GENDERPUNK
No push this time. She’d have to jump.
But her legs would not move.
Pathetic. Frozen by fear. What effort did you ever put in against the world? You let every neurosis seep into your skin. You fucking faggot. They rebuilt you too well. They kept all the stupid horseshit in your brain, your skin, organ memory of failure. An Avatar of Suffering.
A Sad Girl.
She jumped. Temps de l’ange, her arms spread outward and legs flowing behind, but she would never land. Sublimated the suicidal into a wilful disregard for her wellbeing. An engine powered by gorgeous oblivion, the dress glittering in the murky February sun, dead doll flesh rendered sublime in diversive prisms. The wings unfurled, and she flew between tilting blocks of flats, through mazes of torn concrete and rebar, and rooms of scattered photoframes and scorched landlord sofas. No. There would only be one more death today. That she would make sure of. She looked the beast in the eye, green and bisected like a snake’s, hidden under colossal strands of trailing hair.
No. 29 Finale: Andante- allegro agitato
Pas de deux. They will dance together. She fluttered about it, like the bird in Peter and the Wolf, though she had no intention of being this monster’s lunch. Speed was the one advantage she had, every slow-motion lunge was an opportunity to get closer to its throat. The beast howled under its metal muzzle.
She lunged through the air
[IN THE NAME OF DEATH]
And with blades of glass she scissor cut its throat.
Tinnitus-inducing scream above waterfall flow of blood. The city will drown. She fell to the ground and the titan followed, though thankfully in the opposite direction, the impact quaking the very foundations of the city, and causing yet more buildings to topple.
The handler was waiting for her, clapping in the middle of the road, drenched in monster viscera.
“How did you get down here?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The screams echoed in Kris’s head. “I don’t think I should have done that.”
“It was no sacrificial lamb. You saw what it was capable of.”
“But I don’t know if-”
His tongue in her mouth, navigating shards of glass and reconstituted girl meat. “Good.” He held Kris against him, piercing himself as he kissed her. Trails of saliva and blood from his tongue. His long, gore-soaked hair curtains around her head. The spines retreated into Kris, leaving bloodless scars on the skin that remained. The handler wrapped black bindings around her exposed musculature. “It’s all over now.” He lifted up her chin with a finger. “Beautiful.”
Kris’s arm slid off. The window shard had cut down to the bone, and the wound had expanded around her arm, an ouroboros, mouth met tail, and now a long glove of flesh met gravity, strands of meat holding and tearing, like unpicking crochet.
“You’re going to have to be more careful.” The handler picked up her arm like he was cradling a small animal. “You are strong, but you are glass. You can cut, but you can also be shattered. We can keep you together, but only just. Your body can no longer heal itself. See? There’s no blood. You’ve run out.” He squeezed empty fingers. “Don’t go breaking yourself just yet.” His hand gently held onto the flesh and slid it back. “You’re lucky I came prepared” He took a needle from his pocket. He plucked one of his long hairs and threaded the skin back together.
“Is that sanitary?”
“Are you really worried about that? Now?” Kris blushed, or would if she had any blood. “It won’t do you any harm.” Black threads of him now in Kris. She felt less like a fighting machine and more like a doll, tossed about by a rude older sibling before the owner could put her back together. Owner. Shivered at the word. Handler already had certain… connotations. Maybe she hadn’t finished the transformation. Still pupating. A mess of flesh and jagged thoughts, anything to get away from the fact that she wanted to fuck her handler, fuck or be fucked by, a burning heat inside her heart, that dormant but familiar cocktail of shame and lust, or perhaps she just wanted someone to hold her head while the world ends-
A thundering yell.
A skeletal head emerged from the slit throat of the monster, moving like a stop-motion figure without muscles or skin to animate it, hands of metal and bone tearing the hole wider and wider, the bounds around its skin coming undone.
Kris closed her eyes. Encore. The glass began to pierce her again, just as painful as before, but she was ready-
A high-pitched whine. A beam of immolating light. The flesh skeleton twitched and smouldered.
A tall girl in a sapphire dress sat on a billboard for headache pills, arms disappeared at the elbow into a pair of ornate cannons. They looked heavy enough to tear arm from socket, but instead, they dangled freely, bumping the stock photo family. “You got started without me?”
“You aren’t supposed to be here, Skyler.” The handler stepped forward, crescent moon fallen, teeth clenched so hard they could bleed.
“That won’t do. No fair that she gets all the fun. All the attention. I won’t have it.”
SLUNK QUEEN, DEATH MACHINE
The handler snapped his neck with his hands. It extended, snake-like, wrapped itself around Kris. His head came to rest on her shoulder. Was he trying to protect her? “Leave, now.”
“Haha. Why would I do that?” She hopped from the building, bloody mantis legs sprouting from her waist to cushion the fall. “Think of all the fun we could have.” Sirens echoed through the night, blue lights bouncing from the blood. “Aha. Buzzkill. Maybe some other time, hm?” The mantis legs grabbed the side of the crumbling tower block. “Be seeing you, malware moth.” A blur of rapid crawling and she was gone, as suddenly as she’d arrived.
In the abandoned streets, flies descended from on high to feast on carrion.
And no matter what, Kris wouldn’t wake up.