Sometime during the third consecutive night spent huddled over the toilet, insides heaving and shuddering as I vomit forth seemingly everything I’d ever eaten, I realize what’s happening: He’s trying to poison me. It’s all so elegant, so perfect, and so clear, that I almost laugh, but another barrage of retching forces me into silence.
The next morning I threw everything in the kitchen away, wrapping it three times in black plastic and burying it deep in the apartment's communal trash cans, to prevent an unfortunate transient from the crossfire of His wrath. I am out the door of the complex and halfway to the corner store when I realize: He knows, must know, where I would shop.
I pick a direction and walk, enjoying the chill winter air that soothes the ragged shreds of my inside. I turn at random intervals, following an improbable path out of my familiar neighborhood, until I find a small shop with an unfamiliar name. Once inside, I hurriedly fill a small plastic basket; brands that I never have eaten, strange tins of ethnic ingredients I don't recognize, foods that I’d never thought of buying. Soy milk. Tofu. I can feel my stomach reborn in anticipation of an untainted meal.
I prepare the meal in a fog of nervous anticipation, trying to focus on savoring the aromas and the grease spitting sounds of the frying pan. It tastes clean, but then, so has every other meal before this. I try to tell myself that the mounting pain inside me is simple fear and anxiety, but before the stroke of midnight, I am again crouched in the dingy bathroom, surrendering the days work into the porcelain mouth of the sewer.
The next day, I pack up the remaining food and dispose of it with the same care. I eat out that day, layering debt onto the last of my credit cards at restaurants on the opposite side of town.
He is more clever than I could ever imagine, and I am awash in despair as I spend another sleepless night gagging and sobbing on the tile floor. I imagine the Algorithm, the perfect predictive models at His disposal, brilliantly charting my every move across the city; every time I thought I’d outwitted Him, I was willingly walking into his web.
I buy a candy bar from a vending machine in a theater, and hold it close like a talisman. When I get home, I fill the bath a few inches deep with rust-colored water, and hold the little plastic wrapped bundle beneath the water and squeeze. I know that I will see it, but it still breaks my heart when I do. A thin almost invisible stream of bubbles picks out the point where a foreign object has pierced the protective layer. Through the haze of piercing hunger, I convince myself to try, just one bite, and to take the chances. It’s a gamble that I do not win.
In the small hours of the morning as I press my fists into my empty protesting belly, I imagine the legion of His followers sliding silently through the restaurants and produce aisles of my life, slipping hypodermic needles into carefully selected packages of food. They are ruining and corrupting at His whim, surgical and efficient, before vanishing into the throng of the city at my approach. They will always be one step ahead of me until I learn to think in new ways, to chart new cognitive pathways, and turn the game back upon Him. So, I tell myself, this is what I must do.
The first day of my new life, I spend in the small living area of my apartment, organizing my thoughts with clean and sterile efficiency, and conserving what energy I can from my wasting body. Night brings the retching sickness, but all that arises is water… and pills, half-digested in the bilious water.
The pills. Of course. Not for the first time, I feel a sharp twinge of respect for crystalline perfection of His plans. I dump the last of my dozen prescriptions into the toilet.
On my third day, I feel a clarity and a sense of purpose that shocks me in its intensity, and my will penetrates the starvation malaise. I must win, or I will die. The rashes and sores in my cheeks are deeper, and I can feel the gentle sway of loose teeth in my desiccated mouth when I grind them in thought. He is winning, but not for long. There is still time.
Water, I collect from the roof in a small army of cheap hardware buckets. I know that somewhere in the byzantine plumbing of the aged building, there must be one of His infernally clever devices; a tiny pump, squatting like a predator and pulsing its vile contents into the water main. I’ll have to give up bathing. A small sacrifice. The rainwater will keep me alive for a while longer, but I must find a way to eat.
The answer comes to me in small unconnected puzzle pieces over the next few days. While gently working another loose molar from my bleeding gums, they suddenly snap together, and a warm smothering blanket of epiphany coats my aching frame. The clattering of the tooth into the sink basin is like the ringing of bells.
Late in the evening, I begin another unconscious dérive, drifting through the city on shaking and atrophied legs, knowing full well that He is watching. But this, my beautiful solution, is beyond even His reach.
I choose the house at random, and then, in one final attempt to baffle the Algorithm, turn around and choose another house across the little tree-lined street. I sift through the mail; it’s a small sample size, but enough to confirm the most necessary of facts. A single occupant.
The poor man is surprised to have a visitor at all, and his face contorts with fear as I force my way inside. I am flooded with guilt and regret as I push him to the floor and strike quickly with the crowbar I pull from the folds of my jacket.
I must steel myself. This is His fault. He has brought us to this, and this poor man is just another of His victims.
I make quick work of the meat, the muscle memories of summers spent hunting in the mountains flaring up with each quick cut. I allow myself a quick bite, a feast to my shrunken and withered stomach. The iron and mineral salt taste floods my head like a vapor and I bawl in relief, like a child. When I have the meat packed tight into my rucksack, I light a single candle on the top floor of the little house and turn the gas range on high.
I’m not yet home when I hear the low rumble in the distance; the pulsing lights of fire engines highlight the black cloud hanging in the sky.
For the first time in more than a month, I sleep well, my body rapidly healing as pure, untainted nutrients penetrate my cells. I am not yet well, but after a few more meals, I will be ready, once more, to fight Him. I know I can beat him now. I know the Algorithm can only predict the actions of my past self, bound by the laws and morals of the old world.
That world is dead.
I am a free man.