The Pile – Chapter Seventeen

Before his shower or shave, Raymond turned on the news. Images of burning buildings and destructive rioters flashed across the screen. Were these pre-GCD images? No, the caption said, ‘More HFFE Demonstrations.’ And the building…it was John Lenin! They were burning down John Lenin! Raymond reoriented himself and listened to the SMN anchor.

“HFFE demonstrators backing the Crowley administration’s new lifestyle reform law showed their support today by burning one of the bill’s targeted institutions, John Lenin University. The new initiative rolls back the failed educational reforms of the defunct Clock administration and directs funds towards entertainment and athletics.”

A clip of a triumphant Bertram Crowley graced the screen.

“I’m not sure what former-President Clock had in mind when he tried to force us all into his brain-washing ‘education camps,’ but I do know the UHC was founded on personal freedom and liberty. This new law will ensure humanity has access to all the resources it needs to truly fulfill the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Raymond was out the door before the program cut to commercial. He commandeered the first vehicle he saw and raced towards the Copenhagen airport.

* * *

As Nico listened to Asher’s message, elation and fear parried their way across her brain. She left the private hangar she’d built adjacent to the airport and stepped into an idling vehicle waiting for her at the curb.

“The Copenhagen W Hotel, Fred. And please speed.”

Darting and weaving through the light early-morning traffic, Nico’s vehicle sped through the ruins of a city she’d decimated herself. As she travelled, she gazed at what her love had wrought and felt no regret. The city could be and would be rebuilt, perhaps modernized with more energy-efficient buildings and state-of-the-art air-conditioning and plumbing. Whether she could salvage Raymond was still in question.

Nico knew what Raymond’s neurosis was capable of creating, and it filled her with desperation born of dread. When Asher’s attrition strategy began to agonize her, she insisted on her own operation. She sacrificed a great deal of her fortune and knew it’d take months to reopen her grandfather’s war-machine factories and launch a fleet of left-handed warplanes, but the effort would keep her moving. She was digging her way closer to Raymond through monumental productivity.

When the first of her artisanal, carefully-curated bombs began to drop, the effects were real and dramatic; the changes in landscape palpable. Though the target was missed entirely and Danish villagers wielding pitchforks and torches calling for her figurative head[1] showed up at her hangar, Nico felt every sacrifice was in service of her goal.

After the initial heady month of bombings came to a close, Nico’s heart began to sink once more. The dramatic results the early explosions had elicited were less effective than she required. She needed Raymond to be out. Now. Instantly. So she stepped up the pace and scale of the bombings. In her haste, her crews forewent training to adjust to the left-handed equipment of her left-handed planes, resulting in inaccurate targeting and further destruction to the city.

A car weaving erratically in and out of traffic in a similar fashion to her own, but traveling the opposite direction, entered her awareness. Peering through the tinted windows, Nico saw the grime-caked mane of the driver. Could it…Yes! Her mind registered the unmistakable reality and she ordered the vehicle to turn around. Fred, the automated driver, made a U-turn.

The terrifying sight of Raymond driving wildly, together with his indecent and psychotic appearance, inflamed Nico’s misgivings.

Pulling back into the airport, Fred parked behind Raymond’s vehicle on the sidewalk and Nico darted out. Raymond’s trail was not difficult to pick-up, so she followed the chaos and the filth. There was pandemonium at the security checkpoint[2] where a horrified crowd had clustered. Pressing and fighting her way through the maddening crowd, Nico managed to reach the entrance and came before a pair of surly-looking security guards. The men appeared displeased, with the blood running from their broken noses mixing with the muddy fist-print bedecking their faces.

When Nico attempted to break their blockade, shouting that the men must let her pass, the guards responded in heavily accented English, “Miss, not with here! A dirty man on a loose!”

“I know! He’s my dirty man! I have to find to him!”

The two men looked at one another in confusion before the stockier of the pair shook his head horizontally and reemphasized, “We no you pass.”

“Well…sorry” Nico shouted as she zipped under their arms and tore through the security area with the harried guards in instinctual though realistically ineffectual pursuit. Following the trail of mud to the Washington DC gate, Nico found herself embroiled in another unruly scene. The door was closed and the gate was filled with disgruntled passengers wailing, gnashing their teeth, and ripping their clothing in grief about needing to get home for a sister’s wedding, a grandmother’s funeral, or a daughter’s birthday. As Nico stopped to get her bearings and reassess, the security guards caught up with her, puffing. Shaking them off in annoyance, she walked up to a nearby airline agent and inquired as to what’d happened.

The agent looked up from her work and responded curtly, “A man ran in and stole the plane. If you need to be rebooked please get to the back of the line and wait your turn. We are doing our best.”

As the woman spoke, Nico looked out the oversized airport window to observe the plane in question backing away from the gate. She ran back through and out of the public terminal, then hastened over to her own hanger where her planes were being fueled for their next fiery jaunt over the city.

“Charlie!” Nico called to her crew chief, “I need to get to DC immediately!”

“Well…Miss Leftiè, these planes weren’t built for that sort of distance…we would need an in-flight refuel which…”

“Just organize it and get the crew on the plane!” Nico responded, walking up the nearest lowered ramp.

Twenty minutes later she was in the air flying back to DC with a refuel waiting halfway across the Atlantic.

Less than halfway across the Atlantic, Nico’s aircraft came under attack and was shot down by lofo pilots from the HFFE. Angrily floating through choppy Atlantic swells, Nico had no choice but to accept the assistance of an HFFE battleship clearly pre-positioned to retrieve Nico Leftiè from the wreckage. This left her bedraggled and perturbed employees to find their own ways home. Berating and cursing the captain for his ignorance while attempting to bribe, intimidate, cajole, and genuinely reason with his crew to change course, Nico was made to feel entirely ineffective.

The ship pulled into Funchal a few hours later and Nico, hoping to find a pilot she could bribe to fly her off the island, allowed herself to be marched up to a newly built, gaudily splendid palace in the center of the city. There she was, after passing through the most horrendously tacky interior decor she’d ever seen, summarily presented to Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Crowley, the UHC Pretender.

When President Raymond Clock disappeared, the HFFE, based out of Funchal on the island of Madeira, quickly declared their own administrative authority and began aggressively exporting a philosophy calling for the use of humanity’s newly blessed state of immortality to pursue the heights of pleasure. The movement found millions of followers who preferred the Crowley message to the mandated self-improvement espoused by the now-leaderless Clock regime. HFFE doctrine spread across the globe and the HFFE leader, Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Crowley, became the de facto head of state.

The smell in the new president’s council chamber was one of sterile lust and gluttony. Nico gagged as she approached the long table populated by dozens of bloated, wrinkled white men and young, lithe women of all races, everyone naked and smiling as if in on a secret joke no one found funny.

Lieutenant Colonel Crowley sat at the head of the table gorging himself on three different types of custard-cream pie. Looking up from his work at the announcement, the man’s smile widened as he spoke to Nico in a disturbingly high-pitched voice, “We welcome the great Nico Leftiè to our humble palace. I know it’s not your famously refined taste, but it suits us just fine.”

Nico grimaced, “What do you want?”

“Oh now where are your famously well-bred manners, my dear? Wouldn’t you at least like to join us at our table? I’m sure your voyage has been an arduous one after that unfortunate accident with your plane that…”

“What do you want?”

“You’re not going to hold our little misunderstanding with your plane against us, are you? Not with your famously generous liberal broad-mindedness,” Crowley smiled at her and motioned towards the table’s disrobed inhabitants, “Now sit down and join us. Over here by me. And feel free to change into the traditional cultural-garb of our people.”

Nico remained motionless and repeated, with increased disdain, “What do you want?”

Crowley’s smile flickered for a moment, “Oh come now, you wouldn’t deny us a chance to dine with you, would you? After that we can talk about getting you home as soon as possible.”

Nico said once more, “What do you want?”

“Just come here!” Crowley shouted furiously, “Come and sit and we’ll talk about taking you home.”

With an eye-roll that would have made a mountain tremble, Nico reiterated her question, “What do you want?”

Crowley stood up and stalked towards her in a rage, dragging a portion of the tablecloth with him and knocking all three of his half-eaten custard-cream pies onto the floor. He shouted for a telephone as he approached.

“We know Clock is out and we know he’s flown back to DC with you following. Why weren’t you in the same plane?”

“What do you want?”

Crowley seized the phone he’d called for and dialed a number off the accompanying slip of paper.

“Yes, hello? This is President Bertram Crowley calling for Raymond Clock. I know he…oh…where…what?! No, he can’t! Wait, tell him that…wait…hello?”

The blood had drained from Crowley’s face by the time his short conversation ended. He dropped the phone and looked around the room, the stench of panic oozing from his gelatinous form.

Nico finally asked, “What is it?”

* * *

Raymond landed in DC, abandoned his hijacked plane, thanked his compliant pilots, gave them the name of a good nose surgeon, tore through the airport lobby, commandeered the first car he came across in the passenger pick-up area, and sped to the White House.

When he arrived home, Raymond confronted the startled guards who failed to recognize the dramatically altered and soiled countenance of their president. After demonstrating irrefutable proof of his identity, he made his way to his private quarters while fending off a herd of curious staffers as word began to circulate of his sudden return.

When he reached his private chambers, Raymond issued a standing order that he was not to be disturbed with any calls, visitors, or staff inquiries until he emerged. Before he closed the door, however, he paused in contemplation and requested the presence of his personal secretary and Chief of Staff.

Once cloistered, he addressed his secretary first, “Jon, I want you to please bring Nico, Chandra, and Asher here at once. Find them, wherever they are, and bring them here. Nico and Asher are either still in Copenhagen or, because they know me, on their way here already. Nico is here in DC, I think. Thank you so much.”

Raymond turned to his Chief of Staff, “Jackqualenya, I want you to know what I’m going to do…” To an increasingly startled audience Raymond unveiled his vision for the future of the UHC.

Ignoring reasonable objections, pleas for a delay, and horrified protests, Raymond ordered his staff out of the room. When he was alone, he walked over to a hidden panel next to his bed to key in a series of numbers[3]. The correct sequence[4] opened a secret side room holding his weapon control system. Stepping up to the machine, Raymond scanned his retina and fingertips, inserted a blood sample, typed in the target’s coordinates that he’d looked up while stopped at a red light during his drive to the White House, selected his weapon of choice, flipped open the safety glass, turned the first switch, the second, the third, pulled the final switch, pressed the now brightly lit “Launch” button, and finished.

* * *

Thirty years later, an aged President Raymond Clock, the only human still keeping track of time, sat alone in his office. Saddled with his violent raison d’être and excommunicated from happiness, he slogged on, year after year, implementing policies and following his grand scheme to fix his species. He did this without experiencing a single moment that bore any resemblance to joy. This effort hollowed out his soul and left him empty, a policy-enforcing automaton obeying an externally programmed mandate. He performed his duty by continuing to exist.

Following the Funchal Incident[5], Raymond experienced a falling out with his best friend and compatriot, Asher Sen-Rose, due to Raymond’s increased proclivity for expressing his violence in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles and drones, which soon became the UHC’s standard response to any trouble or challenge. Feeling increasingly separated from his fellow man, the President rarely left the confines of the White House, preferring either solitude or the company of a dedicated group of toadies he called his staff. He spent the preponderance of his hours in the giant media room he’d built adjacent to his bedroom containing over two-hundred screens, each programmed to display current news reports from around the globe, high-definition satellite imagery monitoring potential hotbeds of anti-UHC activity, or various situational comedies chattering away vapidly in every language. Raymond whiled away his days issuing presidential decrees based on the information he gleaned from these screens.

It had been thirty years since Raymond’s mistake, and not a moment had passed in which the memory did not threaten to break through his carefully entrenched mental barricades. He was a shell, existing because he knew he must, existing because he knew he was the only one who could accomplish anything that needed to be accomplished, the only one who could put humanity on the right course before his inevitable demise. No scientist, not even the great Chandra Sen-Rose, had discovered what made Raymond different, why he alone possessed the ability to inflict violence. So he’d continued living and ruling because this was his task and his burden, bequeathed to him by forces he didn’t believe in but felt obligated to heed.

Raymond’s empire had its faults, but it was a better place than the world prior to his extended tenure as humanity’s last traditional sovereign. His education initiatives had produced a highly educated and, more importantly, a highly-equitably educated population, helping to balance the historical inequalities humanity had once felt comfortable hosting.

Even with a nominally educated population, however, Raymond continued to feel frustrated with the collective choices his brothers and sisters made when left to their own devices. Despite Asher’s original hypothesis, selflessness was not derived from the acquisition of knowledge, but rather the result of a much more complicated and holistic process. Though Raymond had shifted his policies accordingly, teaching altruism and saturating his society with an incessant mantra stressing the essentiality of intelligent collective action, his newly educated population was more skeptical towards this type of subliminal propaganda than previously undereducated generations and seemed to resist his ideas merely out of principle. Anti-altruism riots became more common as Raymond stepped up his culture shaping campaigns. He met this dissent progressively by slowly increasing the number of people his rocket-propelled cure-alls touched each time a riot erupted.

With an exponentially expanding population and indestructible human body, space exploration, expansion, and colonization had become a crucial central focus for the human species. Even without overpopulation, humanity’s ravenous appetite for natural resources was quickly draining its home planet of valuable materials.

One of Raymond’s campaigns to promote intelligent collective decision-making was focused on raising public awareness about the looming resource crises. When this proved entirely ineffective, he was forced to impose international rationing. Consolidating and centrally stockpiling the Earth’s remaining raw-materials, Raymond carefully monitored and limited their use. These resources would be required to build space-crafts capable of ferrying humanity in large numbers to new, potentially-habitable planets.

Raymond knew he must complete the task of expanding humanity’s reach into the universe before his eventual death. Once he, the sole safeguard of human responsibility, was gone, all would be lost and the fate of his species would be too terrible to imagine.

Even with this threat rapping at the door, an incredibly sophisticated black-market sprang up to cleverly smuggle desired goods to an intelligent population demanding the right to self-defined comfort. For each ring Raymond destroyed, three more took its place, like an infuriating hydra mocking his impotence. And so the globe’s reserves dwindled at an ever-more alarming rate.

Over the last five years, with resources at critical lows and humanity’s incredible growth outpacing global infrastructure, power-outages and regressions in technological capabilities became increasingly common. The problems were first seen on the fringes of society, with power-grids shutting down for a few hours. But as the situation worsened the shutdowns lasted longer, covered a larger area, and impacted more centrally located power-grids. It was now not uncommon for entire cities to go dark for days at a time.

Raymond was observing humanity on two-hundred flickering illuminations and absent-mindedly slicing pieces off of an apple using a beautiful, hand-crafted paring knife with a blackened handle. He was sitting comfortably in his custom-made, maneuverable chair constructed from 200-year old Russian reindeer hide, the only piece of furniture in the dark room, twisting his head this way then that, watching. On one display a man was receiving a prize for displaying previously unheard of feats of athletic prowess in the 20th annual no-chute international skydiving competition. Another was playing an advertisement to sign-up as a settler for a proposed expeditionary colony on the moon Europa[6], one of Dr. Sen-Rose’s many projects. On another some UHC propaganda promoting the value of thinking of your neighbor’s needs before your own. Around and around Raymond looked, scanning each display with the same glazed expression bordering on indifference he’d worn for years.

The screens all guttered in unison, causing Raymond’s mind to briefly stir from its malaise. His eyes shifted to the screen directly in front of him and landed on an English-language news station reporting on the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shrine of Madeira. The reporter, in full Hazmat, was describing the history of the holy island and the pilgrims who journeyed from all over the world to participate in strange rituals and pay tribute to Death as the spirits of the mystical shrine sapped their strength and they passed out of life with joy in their hearts. A science correspondent took over to explain the half-life of Americium-241. Suddenly, the display went dark. Raymond found himself sitting in a lightless room. Seconds later, when the red-hued emergency power lamps switched on, Raymond was staring at a reflection.

It seemed as if years had passed since Raymond had last seen his own likeness. Regarding himself now in the harsh, ruby light, he saw he looked haggard and worn, a man done-in by his ever-defeating reality.

His noble vision of humanity ascendant was a species-wide delusion dreamt up by an animal enchanted with its own unique ability to perceive and create. Raymond smiled at the idea, a smile bred from the painful absurdity of long-suppression. After decades of abstaining from reflection to fend off the doubts besieging the ramparts of his self-awareness, this moment of stillness and clarity hit his consciousness like a great wave, sweeping away the lattice of his grotesque bulwark. The absurdity and futility of his supposed obligation was revealed to him. A curtain lifted and he found the theater empty. The seats were unoccupied and Raymond saw himself standing alone, performing for no one but himself.

Here was reality staring back at him, the lines crossing his face etching a reminder of the energy he’d exerted. But what change had he wrought in the nature of his species? What permanent good had he done for the future of humanity? The answer his mind returned was Nico sitting before him in his own sheets, bathed in sunlight on their first morning together, an image he’d strained to censor for decades. Yet now here she was again, as real as she’d ever been, smiling back at him through time and space.

Why did his mind answer his questions with his prohibitions? Loving Nico was never his goal, only a compartmentalized section of his life reserved for moments he wasn’t busy with his real work. But when he’d killed her, he’d lost his passion. Perhaps even his capacity[7].

Understanding of his full failure came crashing down upon him as if Poseidon himself, after winning his bet with Athena, had summoned his full strength to wipe away Raymond’s grand delusions and drag his tower of lies beneath the waves. Having only ever paid lip-service to love while undermining its existence and worth at every turn, Raymond had failed to grasp the fundamental purpose and value of human life. His only chance to fully comprehend had been destroyed by his own hand thirty years ago, and now his vision was clouded by nihilism, misunderstanding his species and himself out of empirical ignorance. As he viewed humanity absent the light of love and empathy, he saw a replicating virus inflicting trauma on everything it touches. And thus Raymond Clock finally came to know the full extent of his hatred for his species.

The power surged back through the room as the red-lights blinked off and his television screens blinked back on. Back to life jumped the whole of his civilization spread out in front of him in all its glory, failure, happiness, and despair. The summation of this inanity coursed through him like an electric charge, filling him with physical disgust and rage. In a world where each organism had the ability and obligation to make its own choice, how dare these sentient creatures make the wrong one. His rage-filled mind was tired of their excuses and weaknesses. He determined they must face the consequences of their collective wrongdoing.

Perhaps this was his purpose, his final revelation at the apex of his ego’s self-realization. By destroying love when he destroyed Nico, he’d freed himself to see his most rational action. Why else anoint a human being devoid of love and happiness and gorged on hatred the sole arbiter of violence? He was the savior humanity deserved.

Filled with religious zeal, his breast burning and heaving, Raymond rose and walked through the door leading to his adjacent bedroom. Once inside, he strode over to the key panel controlling the well-worn global weapons system and punched in the now-memorized code. Through an increasingly muddled fog obscuring his mind, Raymond worked in a trance-like state to maneuver the levers and select the entire UHC arsenal as his weapon of choice. He had to be sure not a single member of his species survived his apocalypse. The final dial was turned and the “Launch” button was lit, glowing bright-red as it had so many times before, ready to execute Raymond’s last order.

As his hand raised, trembling, poised to end humanity’s existence, a memory of Nico was summoned from the depths of his now unguarded mind. She was sitting across from him in a familiar café full of the intense determination and vigor that’d enchanted him so completely in their first moments together. She was saying something to him he couldn’t quite make out, a whisper; a faint thought that slipped away even as it was spoken. He leaned closer and begged her to speak up. Her condescending smile stopped his heart as she looked him in the eyes and stated:

“The reality humanity created is the reality it deserves to live in, Raymond.”

The vision faded and Raymond was once again staring at a button and a possibility. Imagining Nico as an observer, Raymond stabbed inward with the paring knife he still held and twisted to make sure it was successful in its work. When he was certain, he extracted the blade and dropped it to his side. He began to laugh as he sank to the floor.

His laughter stopped abruptly when he noticed that no blood was pouring forth from where his knife had not penetrated his chest. Once again he took the knife and stabbed himself, then again, then once more. Each time his instrument had the same effect. Processing this new information took his mind a moment, but the conclusion it eventually reached was undeniable. The horror of his fate swept through him and his body wilted, splayed next to the panel with the still-glowing button as his Nico-shade continued to observe him, now stifling her laughter at his ineptitude and misfortune.

He heard her laughter and his anger flared. His hand slammed onto the glowing button. Nothing happened immediately other than regret.

Soon, the shockwave from the nuclear explosion nearest the White House threw him to the ground as it disintegrated the structure around him. He saw multiple blasts on the now-visible horizon, their deadly gaseous structures rising to the heavens together in exultation of their own opulent atomic violence. His body felt nothing as he was thrown for dozens yards each time he was hit. Eventually the apocalypse ended and Raymond lay motionless in a pile of filthy mud and debris where he’d been deposited by the last wave.

Hours passed before Raymond began to feel ridiculous and worried someone might come along and recognize him. He stood up in the mire, hesitantly, understanding that wallowing in his defeat would get him nowhere. He worried for the future of his species, but brushed these thoughts aside as he realized it was no longer his concern. This, and the memory of Dr. DeMasters, lightened his burden considerably as he took the hand of the smiling phantom standing before him and left the filth behind.

With the knowledge that he no longer had to be Raymond Clock, Raymond felt better than he had in ages. As he strolled down the levelled streets of DC hand-in-hand with his imagination’s grotesque projection of Nico Leftiè, Raymond observed many of the same qualities in the air and light he’d so enjoyed while walking to meet her at Busboys. So much was similar, in fact, that it truly felt as if nothing in the universe had changed at all.

[1] Lots and lots of money.

[2] Now kept and maintained by private airline companies for insurance reasons.

[3] 1837482923740189237656852183172645823726871623000315

[4] Delayed by several frustrating and incorrect attempts, Raymond remembered he’d forgotten the code and crawled around his room looking for the scrap of paper on which he’d written the number series he’d known he was going to forget. This fault in his memory was something he was pleased with himself for admitting and taking proper precautions for. The projected scenario was currently playing out in the exact manner he’d predicted over a year ago and the satisfactory validation of his foresight was marred only slightly by the fact that he’d forgotten exactly in which part of the rug he’d cut a small, removable triangle to hide the code.

[5] Also known as the Funchal Miracle. The word choice spoke volumes about the speaker’s faith in Death.

[6] After years of delays, scrounging for resources, and frustrations, Chandra believed she’d put together a workable plan to send humanity to a new frontier. This belief proved false, however, when the last bit of rocket fuel needed for the expedition was stolen and used in a hydro-craft drag-race across the Pacific Ocean. The winner of the competition was Hambleton Chillersby, of the Upper East Side Chillersbys, who clocked in at a record 8:52:33. Spectators claimed they’d never seen a hydro-craft drag-race like it.

[7] Raymond had been celibate since Nico’s death. He claimed to any concerned parties who asked that he couldn’t trust anyone’s interest in him nor could get trust himself to love anyone else without unintentionally misusing his power to manipulate them.

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