The Burnt Man

By Greg Guerin

... how many times can a man be burnt before he becomes charcoal?

          Harold Maynard De Costa twinged painfully in his seat. His bulky pear shaped body resisted as he shuffled around as if the source of his discomfort was physical. But the scathing aberration that had unsettled him had come through the head-set which enveloped most of his sagging, beetroot-red face. Gritting his teeth through that discomfort, he summoned enough energy to push strongly into the brain wave receiving/sending apparatus, enough to surge around the offender. There was some risk that this upsurge of intensity would overwhelm the thousands of users that were on-line, connected to him, but the menace had to be controlled. Somewhere within the collective conscious of the on-line community, De Costa detected the insidious presence of a black soul, someone that thought it was clever to override De Costa's own thought patterns with their own vile inventions. First he detected the mind by the waves of sorrow and anguish it induced in the other clients, then he sought it out directly.
          He struggled against the effects of that mind now and even he, with the draining weight of so many other minds relying on him, felt its darkness enter him. At first he felt sharp aching pains in his head, then enforced disgust and anger, now almost a weeping sorrow. But De Costa did not consider himself a man weak of mind. He sat gripping the table in front of him, concentrating on pushing the incessant attacks aside.
          His first task was to ensure that the other clients received no further influence. He managed to cancel out the intruder's mental screams from the general band, and now started the process of homing in on the signal.
          He could easily at that point have let loose with a punishing blow of energy, probably rendering the offender unconscious, possibly even brain-dead, but that seemed a waste. The mind was the most powerful De Costa had ever encountered over the apparatus, a near match for himself but for lack of experience. De Costa's health was deteriorating rapidly and he was yet to find a replacement. Without him, the peaceful, contented life of his people would be depleted, even destroyed. People out there were relying on him. If he could find the person that owned this mind and convince them to undertake formal training, he might just have his successor. He would deal with the troubled psychology when the time came.
          Blindly grabbing at the bottle of pills on the desk before him and swallowing an uncounted handful, De Costa set about pin-pointing and gaining control over the newcomer.


Anton's torn coat dripped the lashings of rain-water onto the tarmac as he walked into the busy underpass. He didn't particularly care that he was wet. He didn't even bother to brush the stringy lengths of sodden black hair out of his face. He had only ducked out of the storm when he saw the crowd gathered around the Reality stand. Come on and soak up a piece of reality the sign above suggested in glowing green lettering. It made Anton sick.
          Anton charged through the impatient line of customers, ignoring the angry glares of those that felt aggrieved but which were silenced by the wafting stale aroma of cheap cigar smoke that preceded him- that indicated a certain sort of recklessness. One man turned to confront the line-cheat, but the sharp look of intensity in Anton's dark eyes soon had him backing down.
          He strode up to the stand and grabbed a brain wave receiving/sending head-set from a middle-aged woman, pulling out some of her fine hair as the scalp contacts peeled off. The lady spun around, gasping as her mind leapt out of one reality and back to another. Stifling a protest, she gathered herself up and walked away with the blank-eyed half-smile of a customer filled with a week's worth of 'reality'.
          Anton snapped the head-set into place on his own slightly lumpy skull and, noting that the lady's credit was still running, tuned in. Immediately, he felt the smothering presence of the mind- Harold Maynard De Costa, hero of the city. Just tune in once a week and he'll fill you up to your eyeballs with a heightened reality, one that will last until the next fill. His customers came away from a Reality stand suffused with the altered image of reality that De Costa had himself created out of nothing; they would see around them the same people and places as were actually there, but somehow the paint looked a bit fresher, the people more lovable. They would feel content to go about their routine, smile as they laboured over their undeniably monotonous jobs that kept the city's production industry booming, lining De Costa's pockets with every effort spent. Take away the Reality stands, came the message from the top, and society's fabric would be sure to fray, tempers rise, conflicts and depression turn the economy negative. All the things Anton felt were fitting.
          Anton felt De Costa through the electrical connection and winced as external thoughts fought to flow over his own, refusing to let them affect him. He had had enough of living under the lie of De Costa's reign. Why should everyone feel happy? he asked himself, and the roaming mind of De Costa. To what purpose when it was forced upon you? It was at that moment that he realised he had become the proxy of cold reason. A needle in De Costa's side. He took a second to recall all the negative emotion he had carried through his life, the remains of searing stings sent to him by others, the aftermath of a hundred rejections, a hundred sneers, a hundred names called. It didn't take long. Such thoughts were always frothing dangerously close to the surface of his thoughts. With a satisfying release, he opened up and let out an almighty mental bellow through the connection of the receiving/sending apparatus. It was as if the sum of the demons that had collected within him had joined and blasted through the connection in unison, yet, somehow they remained within him also, burning hotter then ever.
          Instantly Anton received back the appalling mental howls of everyone on-line. Their naive, weak minds had been easily penetrated by the darkness of his life experience. Immediately he sensed the outrage of De Costa, seeking him out with great power. For a second he flinched and considered ditching the head-set and running, but then he regained courage and threw all his emotions directly at De Costa himself. He could almost have believed that De Costa faltered for a moment, but then he was back at double strength. The final thing Anton perceived before he did finally throw off the head-set and run through the ring of screaming head-set wearers was an unmistakable message, a single word, a name... Anton.
          He crashed through the lines of punters and ran blindly down the concourse and out into the softer light of an open market place where water from the storm was escaping along cracks in the bitumen, down rusty grates overlain with layers of green moss. All the while that word echoed in his head... Anton. He wasn't quite sure why his own name should impart that kind of fear, but it was there all the same. He ran.
          Slipping on a wet patch of soil, he cornered into a quiet lane that headed back towards the back-streets he knew so well. The lane was uncovered and with the rain it was nearly empty- except for two broadly framed men who stood under the deluge like they were enjoying a shower. He suspected straight away they were looking for him. He tried to spin around and head back the other way, but in several athletic strides the men cut him off, grabbing him silently with hands that were too strong to be argued with. Anton writhed and tried to bite one of the well dressed assailants, but somehow they had him restrained.
          "What's this?" he demanded, wriggling as a display of defiance rather than a serious attempt at escape.
          The man at his left was looking calmly at his watch as he replied, "De Costa wants you. You're in deep..."
          "De Costa? What's he want me for? Liar."
          The man's smirk was humourless. "True, normally De Costa wouldn't be bothered to bend over to wipe scum like you off the bottom of his shoe. But for what you just did, he wants to deal with you in person."
          Anton might have guessed De Costa would have security measures in place, but he scarcely cared. A rock at the bottom of a hill could not be made to fall any further. Let De Costa try to break him.
          The men led Anton to the lift system that traversed the entire height of the column-like city, shoving him into a locked security lift. The number on the display flicked higher at speed. By now he was higher than he had ever been.                    Finally the lift came to a stop and, the doors opened, Anton was shoved out without warning, landing awkwardly on the carpet. He heard the doors close and peered around to discover that the two men had left him there alone. He took a second while on all fours to scoop up a few of the cigars that had fallen out of his coat pocket when he had fallen. The last one he kept in his hand, lighting it with a match. That gave him some satisfaction. With any luck this De Costa would be a chronic asthmatic.
          There seemed no way to re-open the lift so he walked through the only doorway leading out of the foyer. He stopped short when he realised that he had apparently walked straight into the office of Harold Maynard De Costa, the most powerful man he knew of. There was no mistaking his immense size and drooping lobes of skin that were his cheeks and chin. He hadn't actually expected the men that caught him to have been serious when they said De Costa would deal with him personally. Surely even De Costa had better things to do.
          De Costa breathed coarsely but didn't seem to notice the cigar smouldering in Anton's hand. He gestured for Anton to come closer then leaned back in his chair as if the motion had exhausted him.
          The word sounded much less daunting, reaching him this time via his ears. "What do you want me for De Costa?" he said, spitting the name as though it was an insult.
          De Costa examined him gravely before replying, "That was a dangerous stunt you performed earlier. Do you know what damage you could potentially have done to all those innocent people?"
          Did De Costa have any idea of the vicious zeal with which any number of those people had dealt with people like Anton?
          De Costa didn't wait for an answer. "Those people rely on my service to them. Without their time with me, improving their reality and their lives, society would go back to its old festering days of insubordination, strikes, crime. Is that what you want?"
          Another rhetorical question?
          "Is that what you want?" he bellowed, growing redder in the face. Calming instantly, he added, "Well?"
          Anton looked around the windowless room and took several short puffs of his cigar, flicked ash onto the carpet. When De Costa ignored this and kept staring him down, waiting for a reply, he said simply, "I don't want anything much."
          Apparently taking that as a serious answer, De Costa became more philosophical. "That may well be so. There's no reason why you should have any real goals in mind, a no-gooder like yourself. Me, I'm different. I have a great deal of responsibility, a great number of people relying on me. And now I am relying on you, Anton."
          Anton looked up, bemused.
          Opening a drawer and pulling out a bottle, De Costa continued, "I make no secret of it, to you that is, that I am a sick man." He paused to remove several pills and swallow them. "Of course Joe-public mustn't know or he'd become distressed, as well he should. If I die, who will continue on with my work? Who is even capable?
          "Let me tell you, kid. I caught a glimpse of some real potential in that mind of yours today. You're the first one I've encountered that even comes close to matching me. So what do you say? Want the job?"
          Anton was rather surprised by this apparently sincere admission of weakness. It wasn't hard to believe that a man in De Costa's state was ill, but as if to prove it, De Costa let out an almighty rasping cough.
          Anton smiled. "You're gonna cark it, aren't you? Best news I had all day."
          De Costa looked him in the eye. "You know, you could do a lot of good. You might not fit in now, but you'd be the person on everyone's lips, the public's favourite. It would be hard work, but rewarding. What do you say, boy?"
          Anton fenced off a passing sensation to melt to De Costa's demands, to fill in and allow the city its false reality, however perverse. Once it was gone, his thoughts clear, he shouted, "No way, never, and you can't make me."
          With that he sprinted out of the room in a rage and searched for an exit. There had to be a way out. He found a grilled panel on the wall. He kicked it and it flew off easily, revealing some sort of air duct. He clambered in without pause, ignoring De Costa's strained voice yelling, "Anton... Anton."
          In a few short minutes, Anton forced his way down to the end of the duct and found light coming through a second grill. He forced it open and slid out onto a concrete platform in the open air. It was wet but the rain had stopped. The sky was grey, darkening towards night. Around him was a series of bulky structural projections made of corroded metal. It was quiet and lifeless. So this is what the place looked like on the outside.
          "Oy, you," came a cry from above.
          Anton looked up and saw a security guard point down at him then launch into a run. Cursing, he looked around for a further escape route. The only real option was to climb around the exterior of the building until he found somewhere to get back in and disappear. He walked across a beam that led to a second ledge, balancing carefully on its slippery surface. The ledge curved around in an arc and broadened out before stopping with a ladder. Pausing only long enough to register the echoing footsteps of those following him from behind, he descended the ladder and instinctively jumped across a large gap between ledges then slid down a drainage pipe that clung to the wall. They would never come for him now; they wouldn't dare get their clothes dirty.
          Anton waited there for some time, eyes closed, catching his breath and listening. When he heard nothing, he relaxed. After all, it wasn't the first time he'd had to evade the authorities, although never in the upper reaches of the city like this. But his view on the matter changed somewhat when he opened his eyes and looked around him. He had reached a part of the exterior wall where a shear drop led down to the lower section of the city, many floors below. It made him dizzy just to look down at it. And now that he had stopped, he noticed that it was freezing cold out in the air, up so high, especially when gusts of wind passed through. Below him was only a system of drainage pipes and cable installations winding their way down the wall. Above him, the pipe was far too slippery to climb back up to safety. He would have to climb across until he could get back onto a ledge. One slip and he would fall to his death. Immediately he began edging along a beam.
          Outside, he noticed, away from the cosmetic dressing of the interior and Reality conditioning, the immense structure, symbol of man's potency, was corroding badly. As a shower of rain began, Anton stopped and clung tight to the beam, waiting for it to pass. At such a great height, the structure attracted its own weather patterns and it rained almost constantly, usually an incessant, cold drizzle that ate away at the outer metal casing as it dissolved air pollutants and turned to acid. Not only were the bolts that held the pieces together themselves rusty, Anton now saw, but along a given seam, one in four was missing in a regular pattern- the job had been done on the cheap.
          The shower didn't pass, instead it grew heavier and the light dimmed further. So Anton bit his lip and moved on with painful slowness. At great length he managed to find his way back to a solid wall and a ledge to sit on. Panting in relief, he pulled his coat over his head for cover. Bloody De Costa. Why did he want a nobody to take over his stupid job? He had no intention to do anything to help people continue on with their cosy uninterrupted lives, half-dream zombie states. De Costa could go red in the face till he died and Anton wouldn't change his mind. They could lock him up if they wanted, but he still wouldn't do it. Let De Costa die, let everyone else feel a little of the pain he lived with daily from their treatment of him.
          Anton saw a movement and looked up to see a dove landing on the ledge to roost. It called to some of its companions on nearby perches, walked along a while, then stopped. Its white feathers were tinged with a sooty dullness from the brown rain. It shook to dry out, apparently not bothered by its discolouring. Bloody doves. Scavengers. As uselessly unaware of the true callousness of life as the mob that lived inside the city. He slowly spread himself low on the ledge and inched towards the hapless bird with an outstretched hand. In the dimming light, it didn't even seem to notice him. Soon he was within centimetres of the dove, which now had its head tucked firmly under one wing. With a sudden movement, Anton reached out and plucked up the bird in his hand, fear drowning out any instinct the thing may have possessed to cry.
          Anton regarded the thing close to his face, feeling its rapid, terrified heart beat through his fingers. He clenched his fist, meaning to squeeze the wind out of the thing then let it drop straight downwards in liflessness. But somehow the need left him. The bird had not hurt him. It had no choice in its life as people did. He relaxed his grip and let the bird flap away noisily to find another roost. The bird was gone then, and silence returned, impinged only by the constant trickling movement of water.
          Kicking himself back into motion he continued skirting the shadowy bulk of the city, gradually making his way lower as best he could. Before the light totally slipped away, he had reached a lower level where the tower of the city was more horizontal in nature, though still with sporadic steep drops. The wind had picked up and continued to spray Anton with misty rain, even when he found cover overhead. The cold kept him moving but he was no longer overly concerned by it. Of what consequence was his own discomfort?
          Now he was level with busier precincts where broad windows revealed public streets and shops, but he was still a good distance from familiar lower areas. It was just as he passed one such window that a voice piped up and made him jump.
          "In a hurry to get somewhere?" a young female voice asked.
          Anton stopped, irritated, and squinted into the deep shadows from where the voice had come. Then the girl lit a smoke and the red glow of it briefly outlined her slight features as she inhaled, her dark hair spilling out her parka hood.
          It had been some time since anybody had bothered to offer Anton a share in anything and his own cigars where saturated. He joined the girl in the shadows. "Sure."
          She passed him the cigarette she had already started then got out another for herself. "What's your name?" she asked casually.
          Anton glared at the girl over the cigarette. Now that his eyes had adjusted, he realised she was very short, but wore over-sized sports-fashion clothes and boots. Deliberately not answering, he said, "What're you doing out here anyway? Most don't like the rain." He squatted down to rest, looking out into the inky darkness.
          "I like it out here I guess, that's all. I have lots of quiet places I like to go to get away. Go crazy in there. So, what's your name?"
          Anton released a smoky sigh and regarded the girl. She was harmless enough he supposed. At least she was treating him as equal. Eventually he breathed, "Anton."
          The girl giggled. "Then I'll call you Ant. Hi Ant, I'm Formica."
          In the darkness, he realised he was being offered a hand. Reluctantly he took it. It was small and delicate, a tad cold. His own hand felt coarse and ugly in comparison. He was reminded of how the dove had felt as it fretted in his hands, helpless.
          "You're not very talkative," she pointed out.
          "Talk? What good is that? I gave up making polite conversation a long time ago."
          "That so? Why? Don't you get lonely?"
          He thought about that and curled his lips. "It's all false isn't it? Making polite conversation is usually the first step on the way to getting burnt."
          "What do you mean burnt?"
          "You know, back-stabbed, two-timed, done over. You name it, it all starts like this."
          "Sounds like you've had a hard time. Don't expect me to add to it."
          That seemed like such a peculiar thing for this young girl to say that he stared intently at her as she smoked, until he decided there was nothing behind what she had said. She was simply as she presented herself, a girl having a quiet smoke and greeting a stranger openly. Where did such simplistic trust come from? Why didn't she fear him, like everyone else?
          "Come on, let's go!" she said, suddenly leaping to her feet energetically.
          "Where?" he said, surprised that he had bothered to ask.
          "I need to get to work on you," she said, taking a step closer to him so that she had to look up to meet his eyes. "I can see you're messed up. You can't trust anyone. Come with me and I'll help you remember how."
          He found that he was holding her hands, not as man to woman, more like brother to younger sister. He had never met anyone so frank, someone that thought they understood him. "You're... different," he muttered quietly. This was close enough to expressing positive emotion that it made him feel giddy.
          Formica was smiling at him, looking terribly frail out in the wind, swimming inside her parka. "See, you want to come don't you?"
          Anton felt that he could begin to unravel the knot of pain in his head, if only he could get to know this girl. He was overwhelmed by feelings of acceptance. He nodded his head...
          He was startled beyond comprehension when he saw Formica's face dissolve and be replaced by the revolting form of Harold Maynard De Costa and found himself standing in his office, exactly as he had been earlier. He had to concentrate to keep his legs from giving way under him. De Costa was smiling.
          "What the hell's this?" Anton demanded angrily.
          De Costa shrugged. "I have won the mental battle, that's what. You never left my office. I engaged you with field-emitters in this room to create a virtual reality, a purely mental wrestle. You were difficult to control at first, but I managed to get you to come back with me. You did well. Your ability to create reality was almost as good as my own."
          "What do you mean?"
          "The air duct to escape, a nice touch. The brave scaling of the outside, a bit far-fetched and awfully gloomy, but still, very powerful. I had to come up with Formica quickly, but your inner mind is open to me and I knew you would give in to her. Now you will find, you are under my full mental control. Now we can properly discuss your training to take over from me."
          Anton didn't have to think too hard to know that most of what De Costa was saying was true. All but one fact- that he never left his office. There was no doubt in his mind that he never entered the office at all. He was still standing on ground level with a headset wrapped around him.
          De Costa's form drew his attention like a magnet, and despite his irritation, Anton felt he couldn't resist anything De Costa might force upon him with sufficient will. Formica had been merely an invention of De Costa and he had fallen for it easily. What had he taught himself over all those years? Never let your guard down, never trust anyone. Never show your true self, or others would use it against you. He had let himself down badly. There were no real Formica's out there, not in this place.
          "We won't rush into the details of course," De Costa was saying amicably, "but you'll have to be prepared to go into this head-on. We'll work together to start with."
          Suddenly De Costa forced upon him a sample of the type of reality he wished him to create and pass on to others. In an instant, Anton knew that it was a world with too many simplistic straight edges to ever be a sufficient replacement for his own world. It served only to numb the senses, not to heighten them.
          Anton mused that the disgust of himself that he had attributed to others came solely from within. The cruelty with which he'd been humiliated so many times had been random. To think that others hated him was to overestimate his importance in their minds. But could he put all that aside and accept himself, use his ability to create a more digestible, if not better reality for others as De Costa wished?
          Inside, he was nothing but ash, a burnt-out shell with no ability for regeneration. He was a shriveled demon of a man that people shied away from because he had become worse than those he himself hated. Because that hatred was all he had left in him.
          Anton heard a cry and looked up to see De Costa holding his head, shaking violently. "Stop," he pleaded.
          Anton realised he had been projecting this image of himself directly to De Costa and it had negated his hold over him. There was a dream-like perception of light, then a short mental silence.
          Anton came out of this momentary blankness to find himself standing at the Reality stand. It was night now and there was no-one around him. Had he actually killed De Costa? Anton didn't care to find out. He didn't want to know any more, ever. The experience had left him empty. It had suggested to him that he himself possessed much of the blame for the bitter fate of his life.
          Perhaps happiness was something you created yourself, not something that was just there.
          Leaving the head-set swinging from its wire, he trudged through familiar back-streets, quiet apart from the ever-drizzling rain. Wet leaves rustled in the gusty breeze. He came to a narrow drainage line where eroded banks revealed the roots of the tangled fig trees that hung over the surging channel. Anton stepped down the embankment and walked through the wet grass by the water, navigating by instinct.
          The channel turned and finally opened out into a waste area where weeds grew unchecked amongst piles of debris. The sky really opened up then and splattered Anton with a heavy down-pour. He walked for the next hour oblivious to the cold until he reached the spot . He hadn't come to the rocky cliff face over-looking the sea for some time, but the familiarity of it had not left him. The sea here was wild. Waves swept in from some distance and hounded the ancient rocks with furious energy, foaming and spraying with every lashing.
          He listened to the sound of the water slowly eating away at the rock in the dark and imagined that he himself was a part of the cliff. The water might wash over him for thousands, perhaps millions of years, taking away small particles with every sweep. Eventually, he would become so irreparably damaged that he could not be redeemed. He sat fragile and unmoving, waiting for the final fracture to cast him into the sea.
          By the time the new dawn light struck the rocks, the swelling surf had already washed away Anton's blood.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Greg Guerin

Bio: This is a re-edited version of a story Greg wrote a while back which somehow got lost in transit to no less than three different editors but which kept begging for a final resting place. Greg is a regular contributor to Aphelion and a number of other webzines. He was published in the latest issue of Aurealis. He is currently sitting on a novel manuscript which needs editing and a place to be submitted. He doesn't consider himself to be a burnt-out shell just yet.



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