I received a letter today—but not through the mail. The envelope was left for me personally. This is not exactly what it said, but rather my interpretation.
We've met briefly twice. I feel compelled to write this to explain myself. Feel free to edit it or whatever, I'm not a writer like you.
I'm only an E-3 Private First Class, so I had no idea why I was spared the axe. I was basically a foot grunt in the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. The EMA handles prevention, preparation, and response for everything from weather crises to terrorist attacks. My particular department within the EMA is a bit less publicized, but, as you know, it's supposed to handle anything outside the bounds of normal. The problem is, I'm the only one still working here.
I didn't even have a desk. I spent most of my time driving from place to place and setting up equipment; we always did this in groups of four due to the unknown dangers. When the firings began, all I saw was our office building becoming emptier day by day. We started having to drive out to small towns across Ohio in groups of three, and then pairs. My partner that last day found transfer orders left for him on the secretary's front desk. He took the orders, grumbled, and headed out, while I was left to wander our darkened building in confusion.
The computers were all still there, but locked. Our equipment and gear remained. Fortunately I had a key to their storage rooms, but there was not a single officer, secretary, or grunt to be found. I figured it was only a matter of time until the new administration sent down transfer orders for me, too, and I just had to wait.
I actually stood the entire next day. Right there in the front area, I stood by the secretary's desk and waited. At any moment, an officer might come by with my orders, and it would not have been good for him to see me slacking off. At times, phones would ring in the back, but those offices were dark. Once the clock hit five, I waited another few minutes, but nobody came.
The next morning my legs still ached, so I said screw it and took a seat there in the lobby. For hours I sat staring at the clock and ignoring the phone calls echoing from the darkness. At some point, I picked up a magazine.
The next day was Friday. The orders had to come then, right? Nope. I stretched out along the chairs and went to sleep. If an officer wanted to bust my ass for that, I was beyond giving a shit anymore. By then, ten phones were ringing constantly in the dark.
Saturday, I drank. Sunday, I drank. Come Monday, I sifted through the mail that had been delivered through the wall slot looking for my transfer orders. Nothing. By then, all fifteen phones in the back offices were ringing constantly. Hungover as I was, I got pissed. I was a loyal soldier that always tried to follow the rules, but how much was a man expected to take?
I stomped back to the farthest office and picked up the phone. "JESUS, WHAT?"
The only response on the other end was a little girl crying.
That moment changed everything. I'd just assumed it was more government bullshit; I'd had no idea I'd been listening to cries for help for days and not answering. The rest of the EMA always transferred all abnormal calls to us, which meant they'd been transferring people to an answering machine all week. To that little girl, I remember saying with more compassion than I ever thought I had in me: "What's wrong?"
And she said, "Mommy and daddy aren't right."
The phone did have tracking information. Deshler, Ohio. I'd never heard of it. After a few half-answered questions and some Google Mapping, I told her, "I'll be there in two hours."
That was the first time I went out alone. It was against all our training, but I had no other option. I couldn't depend on civilians from other departments, and asking anyone outside the EMA would get me thrown in prison or worse for violating secrecy. I geared up as quickly as I could, throwing on every piece of gear I guessed I might possibly need and throwing even more in the humvee. It was lucky I brought the flamethrower, because I had to burn down a living church made of organs and bone. Then I had to burn a pile of flesh the parents of Deshler were making with their own cut-off limbs. Then, I had to burn some of the parents, too.
But that finally broke the control of the demonic flesh-church, and that little girl got her parents back minus one arm.
When that was done and I got back to the office a little after lunch time, I said the ultimate screw it and turned on all the lights in the building. After I found the central map of Ohio in what had been the operations area, I pulled all the phones out on long cords and sat them on a table next to the coffee maker. I was not authorized to answer the phones, but who was going to bust me?
Vinton, Ohio. A creek had turned into literal blood. I pushed a green pin into the map. Non-threatening as long as you use water filters.
Sabina, Ohio. The forest was dying around a strange new cave. I pushed a blue pin into the map. Localized phenomena, not too dangerous all things considered. Just don't go in the cave.
Brooksville, Kentucky. Sorry, you'll have to call the Kentucky office. They're not answering? It was a tough decision to make, but I couldn't help him.
Montrose-Ghent, Ohio. Corpses being found burned to death, but the people being identified by teeth are still alive and well? I considered it for a long time, and then put a red pin into the map. Possibly very dangerous and would require followup. If the citizens in the area called again convinced that the individuals with matching corpses were now acting strangely, I would know for certain they were being replaced.
And so it went as I tried to map the dangers. Along with the eighteen monitored anomalies that I'd inherited, there were forty-six ongoing incidents in Ohio. Yours was the forty-seventh. When you met me for the second time at that bar and I was piss drunk, it was because of the forty-eighth.
See, I'd been doing this alone for seven months by that time. For every minor success like burning down that living church, there were nine other total containment failures. I was one man. I managed to reroute all the office calls to my humvee and I spent every waking hour driving all across Ohio and back, but it was never enough. I began to realize that I could no longer intervene. All I could do alone was monitor. I was beginning to lose hope.
And the final nail in that feeling came when I actually managed to get the governor's office on the phone after months of trying. I got his direct aide, and I began to tell him about how my department was screwed and Ohio was bubbling over with dangers.
He said to me, "But your department still exists."
I said, "I'm the only one still working here. I can't—"
He cut me off and repeated, "But your department still exists, correct?"
"Uh, yeah, but—"
"Then the only thing you are authorized to tell anyone who asks is that your department still exists. You have no problem with the truth, right?"
I was sitting in my humvee watching a rising pillar of smoke in the distance as some small town burned. I'd driven through it and I'd seen the fire department sitting idle while the townsfolk worked together with buckets and well-water to put out the fires. It was incident #44, with a blue pin, and there was nothing I could do to help. "No sir, no problem with the truth."
"Good. The governor's considering a run for President in a few years, so let us know if any major incidents happen. We'll capitalize on that."
I frowned. "Capitalize on it, sir?"
"Contain it, I mean. Swiftly."
I wonder if he heard my uncomfortable swallow. "Alright."
And then I was left to continue my drive from site to site. As I took forest road after forest road, it hit me: they'd cleaned out the personnel from my department on purpose. They'd fired all but one—me—so that they could truthfully say the department still existed. The part they would leave out if anyone asked was that the department was only one Private First Class who could not prevent abnormal disasters on any meaningful scale.
Can I even possibly describe what that felt like? I'd been sold out. Given a duty impossible to handle so that I would fail. I wish I could write better. I wish I had the words. I was cold, and my heart felt like stone. That's why I turned her away when she ran up to my humvee and slammed her bare flat palms on the window.
I'd come to check out a possible anomaly, and I'd stopped on the road outside the small town in question at three in the afternoon. In broad daylight, she ran up to me in terror and begged for a ride out of town. She had long unkempt blonde hair and a silver crucifix on a silver chain around her neck.
Through the glass, I asked, "What's the problem?"
"People are divided," she shouted. "They hate each other!"
I was bitter, so bitter. "What's new?"
"You don't understand. They're all listening to the radio and getting crazy!"
It was no anomaly, just Midwest politics as normal. I thought to say something to her, but instead I just took off. She stood there defeated in my rear-view mirror, growing ever smaller as I watched.
On the way back to the office, I stopped on the outskirts of Columbus and drank. I sat at that bar and got friggin' wasted. That's when you ran into me, and that's why I said you were on your own, why I said we're all on our own.
There was nothing to do but keep driving. The next day, and the day after that. It was Wednesday when I sat outside a town square and watched hordes marching with torches in their hands and shouting angrily in unison as they protested or counter-protested issues unknown. I'd begun to listen to talk radio instead of music at some point, and concerned voices were discussing the rise in distrust, hate, and violence.
A female voice on the radio said, "They're all crazy. Literally lunatics. Where did this come from?"
I left that town square with its angry mobs and drove back to the office to sit in silence and stare at the map of Ohio with its green, blue, and red pins. It occurred to me that the number of anomalies in the state had more than doubled in the last seven months. There'd been no pattern so far—
The image of that terrified blonde woman and her silver crucifix would not leave my mind.
Where had I seen her? I'd deemed it normal and put no pin, but if I did—
I grabbed another map and overlaid a transparency of the river system.
Then I grabbed a transparency of Ohio's caves.
Of course the pins didn't make a coherent shape! I'd been looking at roads and coordinates, not rivers and caves—and yet I should have thought of it months before. Creeks turning to blood, cave entrances appearing and rotting life around it, it was all connected.
And that small town with that terrified blonde woman was right at the center. From that spot, all of Ohio could be reached through underground means.
There was only one black pin, a classification of threat all its own, and I pushed that black pin into the dot that represented her town.
I sat back and stared at the map, taking in the truth. Now what?
I had to go out there. Despite hopelessness, despite how afraid I was of what I might find, I had to drive out there. Was it time to call in reinforcements? I didn't know exactly what I was up against yet, so I tried to call friends and colleagues from other states.
West Virginia—still expending all resources struggling to contain the coal demon.
And those assholes in Michigan certainly wouldn't ever help an Ohioan.
Alone it was.
But it didn't feel like I was alone. On the hour drive out there, I had the radio to reassure me. Her voice was as concerned and scared as I was, and guest after guest confirmed what I was feeling: an insanity and blight was creeping across the land, leaving the trappings of civilization in place, but undermining us from below in ways that left us vulnerable to sudden collapse.
On that drive down dim forest roads, a peculiar chiming kind of urgent despair fueled me. I had every weapon and device I could think of in the back of the humvee, but I still felt unprepared. There was nobody to call for help and no backup, and the men in power would only make it worse by trying to use a disaster for their own ends. If I didn't find a way to stop the black-pinned anomaly, what might they do? Give themselves more power? Suspend elections? Declare martial law?
The radio echoed these concerns before I even thought of them myself. Her voice kept me focused.
It was two in the afternoon when I pulled up to that town square. A pedestal stood in the middle of a fountain, but there was no trace of the statue that might have been upon it. Traces of garbage littered the wide flat brick area, hinting that some great commotion had happened here.
With a gas mask on and my assault rifle slung back but ready, I got out of my vehicle and quietly circled the main fountain. There was no telling how a black-pin level threat might present itself, but I had some idea that it had to do with insanity and blight.
The first sign of life was a local resident passing by on the sidewalk; she was white-haired and frail, and she flipped me off when she saw me.
Birds flew overhead and a squirrel ran up a tree. My test kit from the back of the humvee showed nothing abnormal with the air, so I took off my gas mask.
Looking in a window, I saw a general store in normal operation. I entered slowly, gun half-hidden behind me, and lurked along the back shelves while listening to two customers. They sounded normal.
I grabbed a candy bar and went up to the front counter, acting nonchalant. The owner was a gruff man in his fifties, and I began to feel a little nauseous as I got near.
He asked, "You local militia?"
Lying, I just nodded as I got change from my pocket. What was making me feel sick? It was a noise. Some sort of staticy disgusting sound; I looked past him and saw a radio with its power light on. He was listening to some sort of horrific channel that was emanating vile filth. I kept myself from wincing as I studied the bits of what looked like liquid gold that had oozed out of the speakers and onto the walls around the radio.
"You like him?" the shopkeeper asked. "He's got great points."
I nodded, lying again. He could hear words in that horrible noise that made me sick. That was it: that was the threat. I left the store, hurried around the corner, and vomited in the grassy alley.
That woman had said people were listening to the radio and acting crazy—now I knew she'd been completely serious. But what effect was it having on them? Life seemed to be going on as normal here, except old women were flicking me off and shopkeepers were happy to see supposed armed militia men that were neither police nor military.
I sat in my humvee for an hour listening to the radio myself, this time to a local channel that was increasingly turning to talk of resistance. This woman seemed to be talking in metaphor, though.
"The servants of Gold are all going insane," she said. "That's how he likes them. The longer they listen to his message of hate, the more agitated they become. Even good people will turn to violence if indoctrinated long enough. We have to prepare ourselves for what is coming."
The servants of Gold... did she mean people listening to that particular nauseating noise? Around three in the afternoon I left my humvee and visited another two shops to confirm: each building had a radio playing that god-awful noise.
And each radio was oozing liquid gold.
On touch, it was solid and cold. I could not lift the radios from their splotch of hardened gold, nor could I turn the knob to change the channel. Gold had crusted over all possibility of stopping the noise, and had even coated the power cord and fused the plug to the wall socket. I tried to use my combat knife to break through the gold and cut the power to one of the radios when the shopkeep wasn't looking, but I was only barely able to nick the stuff.
And every few minutes I had to go outside and throw up. That screeching and vile noise simply could not be tolerated for very long, and I was worried it was going to cause serious damage to me somehow. How could they listen to it? They were all nodding along to it, often in sync with each other as they did so, and customers often commented in agreement with unheard points.
When I felt sickest, I retreated to my vehicle, and the local channel made me feel better. "Perhaps it's innate evil," she continued saying. "Perhaps only those with evil in their hearts can hear the message of Gold. Those of us who are sickened by it must fight back as best we can. Everything the servants of Gold touch is tainted, and we must take a stand against them!"
Where was this message coming from? There was no identifying information. All I could do was listen, and listen I did. I sat and watched the townsfolk go by. Some eyed my military vehicle with distrust. Those people did not go into the shops that had been playing the message of Gold.
The sky began to darken to a grey-blue gloom when I awoke from a lull thanks to the snap of the voice on the radio. "The time is now! They march!" I rubbed my eyes and looked out across the square.
A wall of marching men was approaching from the distance. Many held torches. I checked my map to ensure this was not a town I'd directly visited before. How many rallies like this were there? And were they nightly? Other denizens of the town were fleeing past my windows.
I turned and looked back.
They weren't running. They were gathering.
The mob approaching from the other side of the town square were carrying buckets of water en masse, and I slid down in my seat and made sure my doors were locked. My vehicle had been built to withstand military assaults, so I was sure I was mostly safe, but it was still unsettling to watch people flow past my windows with angry faces and tensed stances.
The two crowds met at the center, forming opposing fronts at the empty pedestal. For a few minutes, the two sides shouted at each other in a cacophonous roar. Finally, one young man on the torch-bearing side jumped on the pedestal and tried to claim the space.
A bucket was swung and water flew up to douse the young man's torch. Made soggy, he backed down, and a surge of violence almost pushed forward. Older men at the front held their torch-bearing younger compatriots back. I expected a full-on riot to start any moment, but the two sides merely glared at each other—and then began to disperse back home. As quickly as the showdown had begun, it faded away, and I searched the crowd in the dim evening gloom until I saw her.
Finally getting out, I approached the blonde woman who had once asked me for help. "Hey, do you still need a ride out of here?"
She turned at my touch and reacted defensively, but then saw that it was me. "Do you have any silver?"
I noticed that her necklace and crucifix were gone. "No, why?"
"Can I sell you something?" she asked.
Confused, I asked, "Like what?"
"Anything. Anything I own. Clothes. Food. Keepsakes." She clutched my arm near my slung gun. "I need to buy more silver." She looked toward the pedestal at the center of the square. "They want Gold to stand there, to be our new Lord. We have to stop them. They're all insane."
"I don't have any money. Or silver."
Sighing, she hurried off before I could her ask her more questions.
I had no choice but to go home. That night, I slept fitfully. I needed to know more. Something was happening in that town that had to do with the poisoning of my entire state, but I couldn't see the connections just yet.
Thursday morning I was back early and asking questions. I listened to that woman on the radio talking of resistance and solidarity on the way up, and, this time, I found the half the townsfolk that were not listening to the vile message of Gold. They were immediately receptive to me, as if I was one of them, as if all good people of the world were immediately on their side, and they explained in hushed tones what had been happening.
A year before, a deathly ill homeless man had wandered into town. He'd brought with him a large book and a small statue. His only words in the local doctor's office had been, "Burn it."
But of course they'd opened the book and touched the statue instead of burning either one of them. The doctor and the mayor had, together, ignored the homeless man's warning.
The mayor had been the first to start talking about a new way of thinking.
Half of the town didn't understand what he meant. His ideas were nonsense and his words didn't seem to mean what he thought they meant. His rhetoric switched often between anger and fear, but the reasons were inexplicable.
Half of the town agreed completely with every word. Makes sense, they would say, and yet when asked to explain why, they would simply repeat what the mayor had said, making no more sense than he. In the months since, the divide had widened.
I understood. Either the book or the statue was the source of the infection, and it was some sort of viral or memetic mode of thought that naturally seemed able to infect only half the population.
While we talked, the radio played for all of us, confirming what we were talking about.
"It helps to keep us sane to know that we're not the only ones feeling this way," one young woman told me, indicating the radio. "Drowns out that hateful noise that Gold spews out on the radio day in and day out."
An older woman gripped my wrist. "Got any silver?"
"Does it counteract Gold's influence somehow?" I asked, thinking of the silver crucifix.
The old woman nodded. "In a way, yes."
These were the only useful facts I got out of the conversations that day. Much of the time was wasted talking about how horrible the followers of Gold had been to them, how hateful the things they said and did were, and how insane and hypocritical they acted. At long last, they gave me the location of the book, and I decided to investigate.
The book had been set upon a pedestal in the Unified Church near the town square. Previously, Muslims, Christians, and more had used it as a place of worship together. Now, it sat empty and dusty. The front doors closed behind me slowly, cutting off the afternoon light, but I had my flashlight on my weapon to guide me.
Past the pews and up the steps at the back, I stood under the dim multicolored light from the stained glass windows and held a lighter to the corners of the book. No investigation, no reading. Screw that. As old and dried out as it was, it caught fire easily and burned away in moments. I watched from a few steps back until the embers died out, and then I went and sat in my humvee, mission accomplished.
But that night, Thursday night, the townsfolk again gathered in the square to scream at and bait one another. Multiple splashes of water were thrown, multiple torches were doused, and several buckets and wet torch-sticks were thrown on the brick between the gathered crowds.
I hadn't done anything at all by burning the book. Damnit. Back at the office, I looked up the foreign words that had been on the cover, and I found out that they'd been Greek for The Journal of Alexander of Macedon. What secrets or instructions it had contained, I would never know.
Some of the townsfolk had also mentioned an eclipse as some sort of approaching problem, and I looked it up: the next one would occur in four days on August 21.
The next day, Friday, I drove up again and listened to the increasingly frantic talk on the radio. Someone's house had been burned down mysteriously in the night. They were alright, but their home was not, and tensions were rising. Some were demanding retribution.
That day, the showdown in the town square was earlier, at five o'clock, and I used the sudden opportunity to sneak back to the parts of town controlled firmly by the followers of Gold. I had a mind to find that statue.
Thing was, their houses were bare. There was no furniture, no belongings, just hundreds of boxes littering the neighborhood that were all from an online cash for gold site.
They'd sold everything they owned for gold. Literal gold.
The only object left in every home was a radio plastered to the wall or to the floor by hardened oozing gold. Why didn't they take that stuff out from around the radios if they were so desperate for it? I again used my knife, this time with more freedom since nobody was around, but I found that I couldn't even nick it anymore. It was stronger than before, and no doubt could not be removed by the townsfolk at all.
Now where was that statue? The resistance had described it as about six inches tall, so I figured it would be hard to locate. It wasn't until I passed it four times that I realized the tarp-covered form in the mayor's yard had to be it. I pulled the tarp off and stared up at it.
Six inches tall? That godforsaken thing was eight feet, and was carved in the form of an ancient hero in the style of Greek statues I'd seen in textbooks in school. It was pure gold from its bare feet to its ivy-crowned head, and I had the eeriest feeling that it might turn and look at me at any moment despite showing no ability to move on its own.
Just to confirm, I turned on my radio—and turned it off just as quickly as I nearly passed out. The evil radio signal was incredibly strong here at its source: the statue itself. It was not just a statue made of gold. It was the entity Gold itself, taller and stronger for all that the controlled half the townsfolk had nurtured it.
I hid beyond the trees for two hours to get proof of what I suspected. As the conflict in the square let out, many of those that bore torches now returned and offered up pieces of gold jewelry and coins and trinkets. These were absorbed into the statue on contact, and it grew slightly bigger as I watched from afar.
It was also guarded by twenty men with assault rifles equal to mine. That would be the local self-trained militia, policing their interests even though they had no right to do what they were doing. Who was going to stop them?
I drove home that night and prepared as much C-4 as my depleted department had left. I would blow that monstrous thing back to Hell long before Monday. Letting it survive until the eclipse seemed like a bad idea.
But I would need help.
"There are almost always men around that statue," I told my co-conspirators in a resistance meeting in the home of the blonde woman I'd met twice. Her name was Kara, and she'd sold everything she owned to buy silver. The only thing she had left now was a radio in the corner, and we met while it gave off soothing notes of confirmation and solidarity in the background. "I need to know when the next rally is ahead of time."
"They're not exactly planned," one of the girls said. "We just show up when everyone else is showing up."
"Then how does everyone else know when to show up?" I asked.
The girl pointed to the radio. "When she says it's time, that the other side is coming. She warns us."
"Who cares?" Kara demanded. "It's time to start killing anyone who believes in Gold. He's obviously pure evil, and his followers are insane idiots. Literal Nazis. Can't they see what's happening to them?"
I nodded. It was a little extreme the way she put it, but I did wonder how they could be so blind to the truth of what was happening.
Saturday's rally showdown happened at four in the afternoon. It was raining heavily, so the C-4 plan was a no-go. There were too many complications with the heavy downpour; notably, I couldn't confirm every one of Gold's followers was at the town square. Without torches, they were far more timid. With the torrents pouring down, the resistance was emboldened, and Gold's side backed down first.
That night, I didn't drive home. I stayed in town in one of Kara's empty rooms. We sat and listened to that supportive voice on the radio until the late hours. I don't remember sleeping, but the woman on the radio told us Gold's people were back with a vengeance because of yesterday's slight. At three o'clock on Sunday, we got our gear together and joined the flow of the resistance on the street.
I separated from the crowd and slipped past them. This time, though the ground was wet, the air was dry, and all of Gold's people were out with their torches. The mayor's house was unguarded, and Gold stood glowering over all the land, ten feet tall and in a more aggressive stance than before.
Absurd overkill was what I would call it. I used all the C-4 I had, and it took out the mayor's house completely and set two neighboring homes on fire. I laughed and clenched my fist in the air as the cloud of dust and soot rolled across town.
But when that dust settled, Gold was shining and undamaged—and his face was now towards my hiding spot in the woods. His blank Greek-statue eyes were on mine. He had not moved as far as I had seen, but still he had caught me. As the angry mob with torches surged back to investigate the explosion, I ran.
That had been my only chance.
We all stayed up the entire night listening to the screaming and shouting on the streets. Random houses were lit on fire as both men and women ran amok in secret, no one knowing exactly who was responsible and no one wanting to know. Each side assumed the other lit whichever fire harmed them anyway; specific individual culpability no longer mattered. When Monday dawned bright and hot, nobody had died yet, but the fever of hate had us all burning at the edge.
A fire-axe in hand, Kara recited to many of us in her empty living room, "The eclipse will peak at 2:30 PM, when the moon obscures eighty-six percent of the sun. We will still have some light, but it will be a dark time for us all if Gold is allowed to reach the center of town."
"The moon is at a disadvantage against the sun," one girl said.
An older woman replied, "Which only means we must fight that much harder."
Kara gripped my shoulder and told me, "Go hold the line. We'll need you. Try to block what you can with your humvee."
I nodded. I wouldn't let them down.
At 1:12 PM, I peered up with my sunglasses on and finally noticed that it was happening.
At 1:47 PM, the chanting of Gold's followers reached my ears, preceding the men themselves. I took up position behind my vehicle, and good that I did, for at least forty of them had automatic weapons. They held these at the ready as they appeared across the square. Others bore torches.
At 1:51 PM, the ground began to shake ever so slightly. I stared in horror as a gold form as tall as a house appeared from around the corner and stepped slowly into view.
Gold was animate, and he was approaching. His eyes were blank and his face was expressionless, but I could feel the hate coming from him in waves. What would happen if he was allowed to reach the central pedestal of this town? The men were screaming for me to stand down even as a wall of people approached behind me with weapons of their own. This place was about to be a killing zone; a massacre under the darkening sky; a human sacrifice of hundreds for a new God made of gold.
But the ground was shaking again, and I peered over my shoulder in surprise.
Behind me, behind the resistance movement with their guns and buckets of water, appeared a silver statue as tall as a house. Carved in the Greek style and bearing the form of a heroic woman or ancient goddess, it stepped forward in direct opposition.
"Help her!" Kara shouted to all of us. "We must help Silver reach the center of town!"
2:12 PM, and the eclipse would reach its darkest in nineteen minutes. I stared at Silver as she approached, and as she drew closer I felt the same bolstering energy that I'd been getting from the radio this entire week. The ground shook as Gold and Silver took steps closer at the same time, and the followers clustered around each roared for blood.
"Take the shot!" Kara screamed at me. "Shoot them!"
But I was frozen in place by shock and awe. Why hadn't they told me? And why hadn't I seen? They were seized by the same mania as the men with torches, just in opposition. None of us had seen it, while at the same time wondering why the enemy couldn't see their insanity. I let my gun slide back around my shoulder and instead gripped my head. Were there—had there been?—I smashed open a nearby window and leapt into a house.
As dangerous as it was to create the sound of gunfire, I shot the radio I found therein. Its signal went from reassuring words to silence, and I finally saw the truth.
Silver had oozed out of the speakers and hardened all across it, making it impossible to turn the radio off or change the channel.
Hate your enemy, they're insane. Bear fire / water. Your fellow citizens are monsters. Ally the men / women. Fight each other. Sacrifice at the apex of the sun / moon. Kill each other. Murder each other in the streets, turn the world red with blood, but above all, give me gold / silver. Make me stronger.
That was the real message.
Just one message, delivered two different ways.
It was the same being.
Gold and Silver were one entity with two faces.
And the pain in my head was echoing torture now that neither message held me enthralled. This was the blight, the poison, the cancer—a message oozing out into the land. It would start here with the sacrifice of a thousand men, women, and children, and it would spread once Gold/Silver knew how best to divide and conquer us.
My watch: 2:23 PM. Eight minutes. What to do? What to do? I ran back out into the square under a ruddy sky leaking blood upon us as a dark drizzle of madness. The two lines of followers faced each other with guns drawn, so many guns, so many weapons, each side screaming for the other side to start the violence and be the ones to blame. Meanwhile, Gold and Silver stood tall among them, nearing the center.
What object was I missing? What detail? There had to be some way to stop this.
Who hadn't I seen in all this insanity? Who hadn't I met? There had to be someone here who—
The homeless man.
The doctor's office!
I ran down the street and smashed through another window. There were four beds within, and one held the ill old man. He'd been here the entire time, and nobody had thought to ask his opinion. While the ground shook and the light from the windows deepened to darkest blood red, I screamed over the roar of the crowd: "Alexander! What do we do?"
He blearily opened his eyes.
"Tell me how to stop Gold and Silver!"
He blinked a few times, and then murmured, "Burn it."
"I did!" I shrieked in his face. "I burned your journal! I did that already!"
He shook his head, and his matted grey mane of hair exaggerated the motion. He touched my sternum. "Burn it."
I didn't solve his riddle. I'm not that smart. But what I did do was run to the gas station at the corner and fill a container with gasoline. At 2:29 PM, pulse racing near to knocking me out, I ran down the open space between the two lines and stood on the pedestal myself as bare gold and silver feet planted themselves on either side.
I knew nobody would hear me if I shouted, so I just did it.
I raised the container and started pouring gasoline on myself. The liquid rushed down over my hair and down my face; I tilted it back and shifted the flow mostly onto my back.
Then, I held up the lighter I'd used to burn the journal.
The screaming and shouting on either side of me died down as the folk that had been normal men and women now began to comprehend what I was doing.
I turned around and showed everyone the lighter. To my right, Gold stopped stepping forward. To my left, Silver stood motionless.
What could I say? I was no speech-giver, no officer. "Look at yourselves!" My words echoed around the dead silent square. For a moment, they lowered their weapons. I could only think of how assemblies had been handled in school. "Raise your hands if you've been told to hate your opposition!"
Ever so slowly, people on both sides began to raise their hands.
"Look!" I said, laughing because of the incredible tension. "Don't you think that means something? Gold wants you to hate them, Silver wants you to hate them? Let me ask you this: what did that sick homeless man bring to town?"
"A book," one of the men with torches called out.
"And a statue," Kara added.
I pointed. "That's it. That's it! One statue! Just one!"
People began looking at each other in confusion, something I took as a hopeful sign.
"They're the same!" I shouted as loud as I could. "You see two statues here, opposed and opposite, but they're the same! You've all given every single thing you own to make it stronger. It. One thing. One entity. And you're all about to kill each other in sacrifice to it like some sort of insane Mayan cult!"
I think I stood in fearful silence for nearly thirty seconds while people began to murmur to one another. I was deathly aware of the nearby torches and the lighter in my hand that might set me ablaze at any moment. The two statues stood tall above me on either side, and yet neither made a move to crush me.
The first act was done at random. A woman threw a bucket at Silver.
Where it struck, water spilled, and a section of the goddess statue began to dissolve.
To my right, someone threw a torch, and a bit of the heroic statue caught fire.
Seeing that, at 2:31 PM, instead of allowing that entity to lord over them, angry citizens defended their town by throwing torches and water, burning and melting one into a pile of molten gold and dissolving the other into a pool of inert silver.
I backed away and turned off my lighter.
The red hue in the sky faded as the eclipse reached its peak and continued on without incident.
Leaving the square, I entered a half-burnt-out house and washed the gasoline off with tap water, crying for some reason the entire time. I'd never been so close to death, and I'd never seen anything like that. Worst of all, I felt stupid for being so duped, for being so blind. It would never have come to all that if I had just been able to see the truth.
Exhausted and drained, the people went back to their homes for the night, this time with apologies, hugs, and commiseration. They would never let this happen again, they promised each other.
I sat in my humvee and watched the pools of silver and gold. I wasn't ready to drive. I wasn't ready to do anything. I turned up the heat to counteract the physiological effects of shock.
Afternoon became evening, and I watched the wanderer Alexander enter the square and scoop up a small handful of liquid gold and silver. In his hand, it formed into a humanoid statue about six inches tall. I got out and stormed across brick, ready to confront him with my weapon drawn, but as I rounded the fountain and the murky bloody waters it still contained from the earlier unholy rain, I could no longer see him. Statue in hand, he'd vanished.
And I was left with nothing else to do except drive home. On the way, I stopped by your neighborhood and saw that you had all collectively built a wall around your anomaly and were guarding it together. That sight made me feel better. Alexander of Macedon is still out there, and wherever he roams, the curse of Gold and Silver will rise again—but each community has a strength made of the hearts of the people in it. Together, they can beat anything, whether the threat comes from within or without.
That's my new plan. I'm not alone at all. Wherever danger appears, I will go and try to help the community handle it together. We may no longer be able to depend on government to handle these things, but we will always have each other.