Like Any Other Day?

By Jesse Workman

Science Fiction

 

The day the madness came to Sherigawa village was like any other day. The sun rose in the east like it always did. The northwest wind gently blew wayward stalks of rice like it always did. The roosters crowed at the dawn exactly like they were supposed to do, and the clouds blew lazily across the sky like they always did. There wasn't any sign of the impending calamity, but, isn't that how life always is? Life sometimes plays havoc as though God were an overly bored child stomping on a colony of ants just because.

It came first to old man Kakuso. He sat idly watching the clouds pass by when he felt a sharp pain in his head. He would have cried for help, but he could not. His voice was frozen behind his numbing lips. There was a terrible flash of light before his eyes and he fell forward on his face. Later, he didn't know how long, he awoke. He shook his head blurrily. He had the strangest recollection of an odd dream. He dreamt of blue geometric shapes, unrecognizable symbols that paraded before his mind's eye then vanished. They were, he knew, somehow very important and try as he might he couldn't understand why or how. He stood up feeling as though he were twenty years younger. There was lightness to his limbs and he jumped up and down filled with the feeling.

He whooped and ran toward the village square. Several children noticed him and gawked at him. One or two ran to catch up to him. Old man Kakuso ran without looking in front or behind as though he were a child again. Truly, he had not felt such spring and vitality in his step since those distant bygone days when he was a messenger for Lord Saito. He ran faster and faster taking great leaping bounds as he ran. He didn't feel at all winded or tired. He shrieked for the sheer joy of it. By now, a few of the farmers stopped their work to stare. A woman hanging laundry in a tree dropped her bundle of clothes to stare open mouthed. She didn't notice the wind sweep her robe up into the air, blowing it into the bushes. The old man didn't see the oxcart coming towards him, though the woman yelled a warning. The ox cart struck the old man and sent him spinning into the ditch. The ox kicked him twice and when the animal panicked it reared, throwing the driver. He landed on top of the old man. The ox brushed him aside, as though it had chosen not to harm him. For a moment, it stood over the old man, pawing at the dirt. Then, deliberately, as though imbued with a higher purpose, it stomped on Kakuso's face. There was a sickening crunching sound and the cart overturned. Wood splintered and boards and splinters drove into the driver's up thrown arm. He recovered quickly and tried to brush the dirt off himself. He didn't notice the jagged piece of wood sticking out of his left arm.

"So sorry. Oh. Are you hurt?"

He leaned down to get a closer look at the old man. He was covered in blood and his face was crushed in like a rotten gourd. Kakuso shook his head and stood. The driver shrieked and leapt back.

"Thank you, sir. No. I am not hurt. I just fell down, that's all."

Blood poured from his head. The driver went white and backed away. He gestured wildly in the air and then forgoing all dignity he turned and ran leaving the demented ox kicking madly at the air. It bellowed with a great roaring sound and then went as still as a statue. It stood with pieces of the cart still harnessed to it with one leg suspended in the air. It did not appear even to breath. It held that position for first minutes, and then hours. As the day progressed, it would stand there, still and frozen, never to move again.

But, Kakuso didn't perceive any problem. He brushed the blood out of his eyes and looked down at his reddened fingers with stupefaction. Maybe, he scraped his hand when he fell, he thought. He walked on for some distance when it occurred to him, finally. How, he wondered, was it that there wasn't any pain? Surely, there should be. He knew that he shouldn't be standing now. He knew on further reflection that in fact he shouldn't be living right now. He remembered the hooves of the ox stomping down on his body with devastating force. He remembered the sound of his own skull fracturing, and yet, there wasn't any pain. He felt as he had before his fall, quite chipper. So, he resumed his leaping run as before feeling that somehow there had occurred a strange miracle. He couldn't conceive of what it might be, but the fact that it was couldn't be denied. It must be that the Ox god had favored him with a blessing. It had to be, he thought as he ran. Blood spewed from his smashed skull and soaked his dirt-smeared robe. The Ox God had bestowed a blessing upon him; that was the only explanation. And he knew now what he had to do.

The temple stood authoritatively and austerely at the top of a small hill. A clear stream flowed down into the fields below. He could hear the monks chanting behind the walls. He heard the bell tolling. He closed his eyes for a moment and keeping time to the tolling of the bells, he saw blue flashes of light. Again, he perceived the strange geometric shapes and this time he thought he knew now what they meant. It was the Ox God pouring its sacred texts into the waiting receptacle of his soul. He wiped the blood off his face, which was quickly covered again, and marched purposefully up to the temple. With one mighty shove he hurled open the iron gates and strode through. The gate slammed into outer wall with a great crash. The bells went silent. The crash reminded Kakuso of the sound of the hooves of the great Ox God's messenger crushing his skull. He let out a roar of challenge and raised his fists.

"You! You! Be gone from this city! Your false gods fall beneath the hooves of the ox. I stomp your false gods!"

A robed monk holding a walking stick approached Kakuso. He bowed politely pretending not to notice the blood soaked apparition standing before him, and acted as though nothing at all were out of the ordinary.

"Excuse me kind sir." He said. "This is a sacred place. You are disturbing the ritual and we-"

Kakuso lunged incensed at the monk. The monk tried to sidestep, but wasn't quick enough. Kakuso grabbed the man by the throat and with a mighty jerking twisted his head to the left. The monk's neck snapped like a dry twig. He let the dead body fall.

"The Ox smites you-"

The monk stood up, his head lolling at an unnatural angle. Kakuso stare dumb founded. The monk raised his staff and brought it down with such force that it broke. Kakuso only had time to raise one arm to defend himself. He watched his arm snap, heard the crack, but felt no pain. He saw the symbols flashing behind his eyes and felt a great all consuming emptiness. The Ox God had betrayed him. He let out a long whaling cry of despair and lunged at the monk again.

Not far away, two brothers worked their fields side by side as they always had. They heard the scream, and they paused in their work. The younger brother turned and looked enquiringly.

"What was that?" He felt a sharp pain in his head and saw a flash of blue light. For a split second, he knew that all was lost. Everything was lost. He knew that now despite his prayers that God didn't hear him, and that he had been betrayed. While they worked, the elder brother sang a harvest song. His nasally voice echoed across the fields, off key, and to make matters worse, he had the words all wrong. The younger brother had finally had enough. He'd had it at last with his brother's unspeakably bad singing, had had it with his condescending overbearing attitude, had had it with his pretenses that he was the handsomer of the two, had had it with his lopsided ugly face, and his miserable taunting voice. It came to the younger brother that now was the proper time to rid himself forever of this walking pile of dung. Resolutely, he turned, raised his hoe high above his head and yelled: "This one's for you, brother! I'll have an end to your damned singing!"

And, he brought down with a ringing whack. He saw his brother's skull split under the force of the blow. He fell down in the rice thrashing in a steadily widening pool of red. The younger brother struck him repeatedly in an orgy of violence. He had never felt so good in his life. After a full minute of bashing his brother's head in, he stopped to survey his handiwork. He only had a moment to look, because, even as he watched, his now supposedly dead brother rose as though nothing had happened, raised his hoe, and began to sing his song right where he'd left off. He swung it in a wide arc through the rice. Blood spurted from his broken skull.

"Don't you like my singing?" he asked. "Why did you hit me? Surely, that wasn't called for."

The younger stared idiotically at him. "Why aren't you dead?" he asked for lack of anything better to say. "You're not dead. Well, I'll fix that." And, he swung again.

In the bloody courtyard of the temple, the fighting at last ended with four monks heaving Kakuso off the edge of the parapet into the stream. He struck the water with a flat splatting sound. He didn't even try to swim. He didn't try to float or even to raise his head above water. He knew that the Ox God had betrayed him, and now nothing else mattered. After what seemed like a long time he dragged himself out of the stream and walked resolutely across the field. He knew what he had to do. His shame was too great. As he walked, he looked over and saw the two brothers brutally beating each other with their hoes. They didn't notice him as he walked past. They both should be dead, he thought distantly. How was it that the Ox God had betrayed him, and yet, his strange gift continued, and now, seemingly he'd bestowed it upon others? A twisted jealousy filled him with greater shame then before. He knew there were no swords in the village, but there was a metal saw, and he must use that instead. He shook the blood out of his eyes and continued.

The monks at the temple soon resumed their devotions. One stood holding his head upright. Another stared in Zen like calm at the blood turning his orange kimono red. The head of the order shook his head. Something was terribly wrong, but exactly what he could not fathom. His monks were bloody and injured, but none of them appeared to feel any pain. He wondered if he too would be immune to it. He slapped himself, hard. No pain. He pinched himself on the hand as hard as he could. He saw the red marks in his flesh from his fingers. No pain. He took out a small knife for cutting vegetables. He put the blade to his hand. He hesitated with amazement at what he was about to do. His hands shook. He pressed down. The blade cut. The blood flowed. No pain. And, he knew that something terrible had been visited upon them all. Maybe it was punishment for past sins. Maybe, it was the vengeful wrath of a disembodied demon. Maybe, none of it was real at all, and in fact, they were already dead, dead and in hell. He began to cry. If he could reach the village elders, perhaps between the two of them they could figure out what needed to be done.

Kakuso knew exactly what needed to be done, and unlike the monk, he was determined to end it all. He walked down the main street of the village, past the still frozen ox, past the men beating it with shovels, past the village drunkard drinking cup after cup of sake until he finally howled with despair.

"It's not working. Make it stop. Make it stop!"

"You drunken fool. Shut your yapping mouth." A young man yelled. He struck the drunkard a blow that would have toppled a tree. The man rose smiling.

"Harder, please. That didn't hurt."

The boy glared at him.

"You want another? Well then."

Kakuso walked. He brushed the blood out of his eyes. He saw that nobody was working. Nobody worked in the fields. Nobody worked at the grinding wheel for the millet. Nobody was watching over the stalls in the open-air market. Everybody milled around with out purpose. Many were bloody. One man shambled on what looked like two broken legs. Another waved his mangled hand in front of his face. Kakuso walked past it all. He thought that the saw might be somewhere near the grinding wheel. He walked unchallenged into the threshing floor. He found the saw lying beside a pile of logs. He bent down and grasped it. He felt the cool of the metal against his over heated skin. He tried to compose a proper death poem.

"Oh, metal…"

He took another deeper breath and tried again.

"Oh, deliver me calm amidst the Ox God's river…"

He shook his bloody head.

"Moving yet still your hooves smash the stars…"

Disgusted with his failure even to do this properly he raised the saw blade and drove it deep into his stomach, but he might as well have been carving a melon for all that he felt. There was no pain, only the resistance of driving the blade through flesh. Shouldn't there be pain with dying. He thought that since his failure, he deserved pain. Somehow, the pain was right, and this was wrong. He yanked it sideways and twisted it. No pain. He leaned over and fell to the ground, his full weight driving the saw through his spine and out the other side. No pain. Breathing became more difficult, but that was all, and, now he began to realize something terrible indeed: he wasn't going to die. He couldn't die. He would live out the rest of his shameful eternal life with the saw blade sticking out his back, with his shame plain for all to see, a failure for the great Ox God and everyone else who had ever given him the slightest honors. He knew that it was all finished. He shrugged.

"It can not be helped." He wheezed, and walked out into the town.

A demoniac whaling rose up from the burning village. Some of the villagers had set themselves on fire and ran around in circles, fanning the flames, but failing to extinguish their miserable lives. The entire village was a smoking burning ruin. Kakuso walked drunkenly amidst a bloody pattern of shapes, trying as best he could to trace out their strange patterns. The saw blade stuck out at an evil angle and the blade glimmered redly in the setting sun. He thought he almost had it now, that first shape. Nearby, the head of the monastery chanted in the midst of the fire. "Even the fire is cool." He challenged. "I go to the cooling flames." But, his life went on and on. His flesh blackened. The fire went out, and at last the monk also knew that all was lost and that indeed he was amidst the eternal flames of hell. He saw a blue light behind his eyes, but he recognized the strange procession of symbols immediately. They were numbers used by the Christian missionaries. He read them behind his closed maddened eyes. It was a line of random numbers that streamed from left to right across the darkened redness behind his eyes. There was a distant hum inside his tormented mind.

"Oh, Buddha," he cried. And, then words failed him. He gave out a long desperate scream. Then, he went still, with one arm flung up in the air. He would have strongly reminded an observer of the ox frozen in place on the road.

Kakuso stood amidst a circle of ones and zeroes painted in blood. The village burned. He shuddered with seizures, and then, he too became still.

The sun sank in the west as it always did. The gentle northwest wind ruffled the bloody stalks of rice, like it always did, even if the rice stalks weren't usually soaked in blood. The central processing unit sent a remote controlled radio pulse to a portable timestamp device as it always did. Al heard the soft chime and looked down at the blue numbers glowing faintly on the LED display on his watch like he always did. Sighing, he filled a paper cup with coffee and walked down the hall to his workstation. He nodded to several of his colleagues as he passed their offices. He swirled the coffee in his cup absently wishing as he always did that the dispenser didn't over heat it so… When he walked into Central Control the scene that greeted him was… Wrong. Bathed in the red glow from the monitors, Ernie, the technician leaned over the keyboard in shocked amazement. The fire's glow illuminated the control room in Smokey Hughes. Al stopped in the doorway. He looked through the apocalyptic light at his co-worker. The other man squirmed, his pimply pale face twisted in a frown. He pressed keys frantically muttering something under his breath.

"Ernie," he said dryly. "Uh, that isn't normal."

Ernie punched more keys. Al could barely see on the monitor the form of Kakuso shuttering, and then jumping up and down, yanking at the saw blade still protruding from his midsection, droplets of blood spraying up in purple arcs against the light of the setting sun. Al recoiled with shock.

"Ernie…" He took a deep breath and continued. "Would you mind telling me how the hell this happened, what ever the hell this is. You have an explanation, I hope."

The other man drew a deep breath. He punched more keys. One of the burning villagers did a summersault, and then lay still in the dirt.

"Uh, well," he dissembled. "Something must have gone wrong in the True To Life protocols. I ran diagnostics three times and-"

One of the villagers grabbed an axe and beheaded himself with it. The head had a stupid look of shock on its face when it didn't die. The headless villager walked into the fire holding the head low in the flames.

"Jack's probably gonna fire you. You know he's gonna fire or-"

"I didn't do anything wrong. You can check my log. Uh, uh, uh… Something went wrong with the self-preservation protocols uploading… I don't know what… Jesus Christ, Al. I didn't do anything wrong… I know I didn't… You can check my l-"

"Ernie," Al said gravely pausing for effect. "In all my years of running this god forgotten amusement park, I have never in my entire life seen anything like this." He tried unsuccessfully to keep the smirk from twisting his lips and tried not to laugh as he spoke.

"I mean, look at them. They honestly think they're alive. I mean if it weren't so damned funny it would be horrible."

Al gazed now with fascination and a grudging respect at the carnage on the monitors. It really was fantastic. As the sun simulation faded out behind the blackening horizon very real smoke rose from the burning village and some very confused very burned and slashed cybernetic androids walked aimlessly and stupidly through the rubble.

"We'll have to shut it all down." Al concluded reluctantly. He really was enjoying watching the scene. Ernie shook his head, the blood draining from his face. His hands shook visibly.

"Al. It's not my fault." He gesticulated frantically. " It's not-"

"Just shut them off, Ernie." Al said. He secretly hoped the recording software was intact. He couldn't wait to show this one to his students. He could see their faces.

Ernie reached over for the reset key. He pressed it. For a moment it seemed like it worked. The robots froze in their tracks. Ernie let out his breath, but then, they started moving jerkily in a direct line towards camera five. Al stared in amazement.

"What's wrong with the shut down sequence?"

Ernie frantically punched the key again and again. Panic distorted his features.

"Why aren't they stopping? Why?" Ernie shouted.

One of the nightmare apparitions stood nearly on top of camera five. There was no way it could know it was being watched, or that that bush was really a hidden camera, but the demented thing grabbed the bush and began tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces. Camera five went black and that monitor went dead.

"Al." Ernie said frantically. "Do something. Do something. It's not working."

Al reached over and hit the emergency over ride command. His grip tightened on the paper cup in his other hand. Hot coffee poured over his hands. He cursed and dropped the cup. Coffee spilled under Ernie's chair. Al gritted his teeth. There was a horrible buzzing sound. Again, the droyds froze in place, but then resumed their demoniac dance.

"All right." Al said meditatively. "All right."

He reached over for another keyboard. He punched in a series of commands. On the monitors the robots did a demented convulsive pirouette. Then, with a final epileptic jerk they all fell still. In the dust Kakuso's hand opened and closed, opened and closed. The last wisps of smoke rose from the burning village and then blew away. The control room smelled like burned flesh as the ventilation system tried to clear the air.

"Shut them all down, Ernie." Al said tiredly, holding his scalded hand cradled in the other. Ernie nodded.