They don’t scream like we do.

Pleasure-howls that twist around walls and bleed through the cracks underneath locked doors. Yips that crash into the echoes they create like shattering mirrors. They submerge our voices until we can’t hear our own kind through the bars and barbed wires that separate us. Their enjoyment is louder than our pain that brings it about.

I hate them. I hate them and I want them to know, but communicating that truth would only increase the volume of their satisfaction.

I know what they do here. They segregate us and pull the wool over our eyes, and they trick us with their actions and their metal curtains and pleasure-howls. They hide what they do until it’s our time to join what lies on the other side, but I know what they do here. They placate us with stimuli and exhaustion, our eyes too tired to see farther than our own bodies pressed against each other, our stomachs too empty and riddled with ulcers to anticipate the coming pain that’s greater than what we yet know. They stick needles into our skin and pump liquids into our veins that dull our minds and dizzy our spirits and swell our tongues and fatten our limbs and torsos with tumorous layers. We are made stupid and isolated. Scattered, sinking islands in a sea of pus and excrement.  

They have no faces behind their masks but I can see through them, and I know what they do here.

Some of us are guiltier than others. I know this because we pad the hours with discussions, filling the gaps with possible reasons for our imprisonment. We comb through the transgressions in our pasts, weighing the gravity of our actions against the lengths of each of our stays. Some believe it to be retribution for crimes they’d thought to be wiped away by time or anonymity. Others grow mad, digging into their centers to find any crumb of misdeeds that could possibly merit their present situation. Some, whether their piety is valid or not, have decided that our hell has been brought upon them through no fault of their own, but that it is a collective punishment that sees no good or evil in the individual, but rather has enacted a great revenge upon us all for the worst crimes of the few truly evil among us. They have decided that these walls are to contain a cleansing of our kind, to start anew.

For this reason, religions have sprouted, and groups have splintered into varying layers of insanity and faith. Some have called this the end of times. The masked creatures are angels of The Cleanse, here to issue forth the coming steps towards a bright utopia where only the purest of the imprisoned will emerge hand-in-hand with their captors to enjoy the fruits of our misery. They beg and plead when the masked creatures approach to drag them away through the metal curtains, screaming for forgiveness, crying for another day to prove their worth to the new world. But each time they are taken, while others grovel and pray and celebrate as the massive machines whir, and the death-howls and pleasure-howls twist and converge until pleasure blankets the pain, and the death-howls become silence. The others celebrate this, because with each new body cleansed by the masked creatures and hidden machines, that can only mean we are that much closer to the opened gates. 

To some, the deaths of the others are the finest gifts given to those who witness. They love their captors. They love them and their masks and their machines. They love the cold walls and the injections, the starvation. They love it all. It is all a beautiful test to weed out the unworthy. And so they prostrate themselves and submit and hurl words of admiration and thanks to the masked creatures as they defile us, squirming and fighting to catch a glimpse of the faces behind the masks as they pass. But I know it’s all in vain. I know there are no eyes behind the masks. They harbor no soul, and so there are no windows through which to see what isn’t there. I know this. I know what they do here.

Infighting has broken out between religious sects. What started as squabbles over the correctness of splintering theories quickly devolved into violent skirmishes, bloodied by the stubbornness of fervent beliefs. The creatures allow these brawls to continue to a point, only coming in to break up the onslaught once enough blood has been spilled. They will not allow a kill to occur if it’s by our own hand. That is a right only they—and they alone—hold. They are the arbiters and the death dealers. We have no right to life, nor to end one.

Some of us claim to understand this practice, and so honor it. The Cleanse is not ours to make use of or accelerate. The Cleanse is not our claim. It is solely the project and property of the masked creatures. To interfere would be to defy the holy process towards cultivating a new paradise. To some, this would be the vilest of any sins in this place. Their sect watches the others destroy themselves in the name of their beliefs, and shake their heads with pity, decidedly enlightened and above the masses of shortsighted heretics. To be so confident in one’s own understanding of our prison must be a comfort like nothing else available here.

One group tried to gain insight through more tangible means. There were five of them. They collected five discarded syringes off the cement floors. Four were still filled with pus and blood, but the syringes themselves were intact. One’s syringe had been broken and bent after failing to pierce the skin of a subject. They then took the five syringes, burrowed them each deep inside one of the bales of hay that served as a bed, and one by one, they took turns digging through the hay bale until finding one of the hidden syringes. The unlucky fellow who found the broken syringe was to be the one chosen for the operation.

Here, we have no names. We have no numbers. Nothing to signify or differentiate outside of the appearances we were born with. In the minds of the masked creatures, we are all equally qualified for slaughter. Any lines in the sand were all drawn by our own kind. The one chosen was young. He was missing an ear. The oldest of the group, in a fit of guilt, volunteered in his place, but the decision was final. This group was adamant that no single life was worth saving over another. No further lines would be drawn within the group. And so this child was to go forward, and he accepted this fact with silence.

The plan was this: The child was to start a fight. It didn’t matter with whom. He would continue to bludgeon and bite and thrash until either he or his victim was near death. The masked creatures would then enter, as they always did, to stop the violence from reaching its climax. The child would then attack the masked creatures, spilling the adrenaline into bloodlust invited upon his captors. If all went as planned, the creatures would take the child away, dragging him through the metal curtain to meet his premature fate. That is when the second phase of the operation would occur.

I watched it happen.

Sick and dizzy from my daily injection, I heard a shrill gasp and looked out into the crowd of bodies. My vision was blurred and twisted behind a veil of side effects, but the first splatter of blood lit up the room like a single strand of brilliant color inside a black and white photograph. My senses came alive and realigned to conjoin what I heard and saw. The crowd had parted and formed a wide circle like a cage for the two combatants. The child was tearing the skin off the other’s face, his eyes pockets of fire as he screamed. Blood coated the floor and each other’s bodies like war paint. It was beautiful and terrifying and I wished for it to never end. My excitement and horror dulled the stupefying effects of the drugs. For a moment I remembered that I was alive.

It wasn’t until the other was nothing but a mangled pile of blood and pulp that the masked creatures appeared with their weapons. Trampling their way through the ocean of sweating bodies, they brought with them the cries of our kind as they electrocuted all those in their path with their glowing rods. Crowd-controllers, we call them.

Through the open corridor the creatures had made, I could see the body lying there, twitching and convulsing with labored breaths, and there standing over him was the child, a river of blood running down from his mouth. There was no anger in his eyes. I could see it. The fires burned with intense fear, as if he’d been possessed and had just now emerged from the trance to witness what he’d committed.

The rods struck him again and again until his body submitted and collapsed, but as the masked creatures reached in to pull the child away from the other, he leapt up, knocking the creature closest to the ground.

I didn’t want to save him. I just wanted to hurt something. I needed this feeling to never dissipate.

Before my mind became aware of what my body was doing, I was upon the creature. The taste of warm copper entered my mouth, and I saw beneath me the burrowed hole in the center of its stomach. I gnashed at the intestines that writhed like a cluster of worms underneath a rock, and the vibrant, wonderful bolts of electricity struck my back. I was alive.

The prison erupted into chaos, the sound like explosives piercing my eardrums. Others joined in, toppling onto the masked creatures. Some were trying to take the rods from their hands. We outnumbered them. We were killing them, I knew, but I couldn’t look away from the wound I’d created. I couldn’t focus on anything but the shrill noise the masked creature was emitting: A death-howl. I’d never heard that sound from them ever before. It was more beautiful than anything I’d experienced. I wanted its mask. I wanted to rip the mask from its face and swallow its skin like the child did to one of our own.

The electric rods soon stopped striking my back, and the death-howls of the masked creatures multiplied around me as if I’d triggered the first in a series of ignitions. A gurgling noise came from underneath my victim’s mask and I knew it was choking on its own blood. I relinquished my jaw’s grip on its innards and reached out to reveal its face, when a force struck me in the ribs, knocking me off the creature. I turned and saw the oldest of the group that had enacted the revolution.

“What have you done?” he shouted. “You’ve ruined it all. You ruined our chance. We were going to get him out. We were going to take him back, and we would finally know what lies beyond the curtain. Now we’re all going to die—all of us. You’ve doomed us.”

More of the masked creatures were pouring out through every door, their rods creating waves of panic and pain that opened up a path leading directly towards us. Rows of the zealots among our kind collapsed in reverence, praying and begging for forgiveness as the creatures approached.

“There’s nothing to see beyond the curtain,” I shouted back. “There is no utopia. There is no opening the doors. There is no freedom. I know what they do here. I just want to see their faces as they do it.”

I turned away in disgust and reached out to tear off the mask, when the weight of an army fell upon me. The rods struck every part of my flesh, until my skin was a blanket of fire, and consciousness failed me.

Between fading moments I saw the child limp, dragged away, and the old man disappearing into the crowd of failed violence. The ground slid beneath me as my body was lurched forward, and the death-howls dissolved into a sea of familiar, percussive control. 

I hoped I had killed the creature. My only regret was that I would never know if my face was the one it would remember in those final moments of agony. 

I wanted to be its angel of the Cleanse.


* * *


I awoke to the sound of machinery. I lay on my back, and as my eyes adjusted I bore witness to a sight I’d never thought to be real.

There were few of us—a paltry few only amongst the oldest of our kind—who weren’t born here but were brought in as children from the outside world. Some spoke of it freely in a desperate attempt at dissociation, while others spoke of it little and in hushed tones to only those whom they trusted. But all it took was one story from one of the outside-born for the tale to spread and take on its own life as folk legend.

It was a story often told to the dying or those broken by the abuse, as a way to maintain hope or solace. It was the genesis of many great things, and saved many from thrusting themselves into the arms of the masked creatures for volunteered execution. But it also brought out the ideologues, hungry for any sliver of control, twisting its purpose into stories of masked saviors and redemption and the coming utopia.

The story splintered into many different interpretations, each molded in a separate image to suit whatever philosophy any of us chose to cling to. The new stories that formed became like currency to be hoarded, because they bred hope in the minds of those who believed. But one currency had to be universal—otherwise who was to say which system was correct? Thus contempt was sowed into the population and violence arose. Bodies could pile, as they did every day, but hope—hope was necessary. And its source had to be undoubtedly true for it to maintain its effect.

Over time the original tale became so mutated that no one quite remembers how it went. All those who first told it are now gone, whether from starvation, suicide, murder, or they simply found themselves on the other side of the metal curtain, as we all will one day. That’s why I only ever took credence in one truth: The masked creatures come for all of us. Anything else is inconsequential—words and ideas to fill the space between the present moment and the inevitable finale.

But what every mutation had in common—the single facet of the story that had never once changed—was what I was looking up at in that moment:

The sky. A bright blue sky. With fluffy, white clouds and a big, round, yellow sun. A world without a ceiling.

I lifted myself onto my haunches and felt sticky, warm liquid coating my back. A pool of blood surrounded me. At first believing it to be my own, I jerked upright and twisted around to get a look at my wounds, but found nothing but singed ovals of cauterized flesh left by the crowd-controllers. That’s when I saw the child beside me.

He was still unconscious, eyes fluttering, his life filtered through shallow breaths, but his body was mutilated almost beyond recognition. If it weren’t for the missing ear, I wouldn’t have been able to tell him apart from any other wounded animal. His opponent inflicted the marks and abrasions; I’d never known the masked creatures to damage us to this extent. Their methods of violence were invasive and mental, never superficial. Why this was, none of us ever knew.

The sun’s glare was hot and blinding and alien, but I could see clearly enough that we were contained within a gated pen. Beyond the gate was something massive and mechanical, and it was so loud that I couldn’t hear my own words as I shook the child and spoke: “Hey. Hey, stay here. I’m here. Wake up. Open your eyes.”

The child stirred and gave a grunt that vibrated through his broken ribs into my palm.

“Keep your eyes open. Focus on me.”

“Did it work?” said the child.

I glanced around the room outside the pen. Dozens of large objects swayed back and forth in the air, strung up by metal wires. I couldn’t yet make out what they were. What were they hanging from? I had little understanding of the outside world—if any—but my instincts were at odds with what I was looking at. Something wasn’t right.

“Did I make it? Is this it? Utopia?” The child’s eyes darted across the heavens of his new surroundings, his neck seemingly unable to move. “It’s beautiful.”

With a sudden jolt, the machinery stopped. Born from the silence came an arrhythmic symphony of droplets hitting the floor, like a hundred leaking faucets.

“Rain?” said the child. “It’s real.”

I followed the metal wires down from the sky, allowing my double vision to refocus on the objects they suspended. 

That is the moment I saw. My lungs paralyzed, I stared. I stared until I was sure.

My mind needed time to wrap itself around the image my brain had relayed, but I saw, and I knew, and I understood at once.

“It’s not rain,” I said. “Don’t try to get up. Don’t say another word. Keep your eyes open and don’t look anywhere but ahead.”

A droplet landed on my shoulder.

Warm. Sticky. Crimson droplet.

Fear trembled the child’s voice: “W—What’s going on?”

“Do as I say,” I hissed.

I counted thirty of them. Hanging upside down, slashed across the throat. Arranged in rows like decorative ornaments. Blood seeping out, dripping onto the killing room floor. Thirty of us.

This revelation led to the next, as if in the face of such horror, my mind was now able to see the world equally for what it was: Artifice.

The wires hung not from the sky, but from a painted ceiling; a bastardized caricature of the outside realm whose idea we’d clung to for generations—a bastardization of hope itself.

Looming over us like an alien monolith, like only that which could have birthed the angels of the Cleanse, was the massive machine: The Archangel of Death. It was the conductor that orchestrated the score for our prison—the constant and all consuming and forever-enduring death-howls.

“We’ve crossed the metal curtain,” I said.

“Good,” the child replied. “That’s good. Then the others will come for us, and you can tell them everything you see. They’ll come for us soon. They told me they would.”

With the machine asleep, the child’s words echoed off the killing room’s walls.

Paranoia overcame my heartbeat, and I felt the weight of invisible eyes upon us as I pressed my face against the child’s ear: “Quiet.

The sounds of heavy footsteps approached from a tall set of stairs above the machine. A group of the masked creatures made their way down the narrow walkway, and formed pairs underneath two of the hanging bodies. Together, each pair pulled the bodies off their hooks, one taking the burden upon its shoulder as its partner held the dangling head from behind, ignoring the stream of blood cascading down its back.

The child and I stared as the small crew climbed up another walkway leading to the belly of the machine. There were brief glances exchanged between predator and prey, savior and sinner, but no words were shared, and they continued with the task at hand.

A button was pressed in the small, caged terminal that served as a control room for the machine, and the massive conveyer belt extending out like a demon’s tongue screeched and chugged and began to move. At the end of the conveyer belt was a large receptacle with steel teeth that gnashed in intervals. The child became frozen with fear, his eyes glued to the painted sun, his breaths growing shallower and shallower as the drops fell and joined the growing pool beneath his wounds like rain in the ocean.

The creatures dropped each body onto the conveyer belt, and all of us watched the dead float slowly towards the gnashing teeth. It was like watching souls of the damned condemned to the deepest ring of Hell. 

And that’s what it was. That’s what it had to be. This was the afterlife all had received before us. This was the utopia the zealots had proclaimed: The fangs at the mouth of the beast.

Behold its majesty.

The bodies fell, and disappeared into a pink mist that rose up from the receptacle like a winter fog. The machine sputtered, and from its jagged maw came the terrible grinding of bone and flesh. At the base of the receptacle was a spigot with a single open-faced barrel waiting beneath. Out of the spigot came a thick, pink mixture, filling up the barrel until matter weighted the hollow sound. The spigot dripped three final times before coughing out mist. One of the creatures again pressed a button, and the machine returned to its slumber.

It was as if they’d tamed a demon, leashed a wild animal, and subdued it with the sacrifice of our kind. I had bore witness to a ritual never meant to be seen, the religion of a foreign species, the religion that our prison was built for and upon; the true faith that served as the nucleus of our existence, hidden behind the metal curtain.

I’d stepped through the tangible veil of our afterlife, and laid eyes upon the answer we’d sought after—the source of our eternal question. I’d seen the only higher power that mattered.

In horror, I was enlightened.

Our Hell was their Utopia. A truth preserved in the greatest lie.

I’d found God, and I was going to kill It.

The creatures turned their sights to us and began walking towards the pen, forming a wide half-circle, creeping slowly like hunters approaching two fawns. One of the creatures stopped before the locked gate to our cage, reaching to open the door to our demise, when the sound of something wonderful erupted behind the metal curtain: Violence. Chaos and shrill violence.

The creatures whipped their heads and froze, listening to the unmistakable noise. They were unarmed. The smell of fear seeped out from behind their masks. The sound grew louder, wider, heavier, more forceful. Something was coming.

The child tried to speak, only able to release a choking gurgle as blood spilled from his tongue, but he smiled. The foundation was crumbling.

Then, like leaks in a dam giving way to a torrent of floodwater, they entered—a handful, then dozens, then hundreds. Bleeding and bruised and coated with fluids not their own. They poured into their afterlife as one massive organism, and in that first moment of recognition, a silence bloomed, so thick it pulled the oxygen out of the room. 

From within the mob of our kind, appearing from the nucleus of the revolution, came the familiar old man. Dragging behind him was the dead body of a masked creature. Like a vanquished combatant presented to an enemy officer, he thrust the body at the feet of the stunned captors, and it lay there stiff, shortening the empty space between the two sides.

Just as the palpable tension seemed to burst forth into further violence, a voice from the mob screamed out: “Look! Look at the sky! It’s true! It’s all true!”

“The bodies!” came another voice, and the eyes of the crowd all looked away from the heavens of their utopia to witness the reality.

I waited for the moment of recognition, for the worldviews of the believers to collapse into anger and horror and retribution. But instead, came the voice of a third: “They’re bringing us closer to the sky! A rebirth into the new world! Look! Look there! The mouth of the giant! The entrance to Utopia! Quickly, everyone! We’ve arrived at the door! We don’t have to wait any longer!”

Like a single, multi-headed animal, the crowd all gazed out upon the machine, and its jagged-toothed receptacle. The zealots among us moved to the front, stepping gingerly closer to the masked creatures still frozen and silenced by survival instinct.

“Thank you!” one shouted, prostrating himself before the creatures. “I never doubted for a second! I always believed! I beg you, saviors, let us pass and allow us entry—together, hand-in-hand! Have we not served you well? Have we not listened and obeyed?”

I was stunned. I’d seen the truth, and I knew what they did here. I could have screamed out, proclaimed the true purpose of their gods, denied the false prophets with proof. 

But I didn’t.

I wanted them to discover the truth.

The child’s eyes grew mad, darting back and forth, trying desperately to pierce into me, to be his voice, to say what we both understood. But all that came out was a garbled pool of blood and vomit, his limbs twitching and body convulsing in a final, failed attempt to conjure the last of his strength and stand.

Ignoring the zealots, the old man heard the wet sounds emitted, and turned to our pen. In a single moment, he’d charged into the gate, bashing with the full force of his body, severing the lock, and he flew forward as the gate crashed onto the ground.

He leaned over the child, panic thickening his blood, and before he could speak, I whispered softly so only he and the child could hear: “Stay,” I said. “Let it happen. Let them have their Utopia.”

The old man stared at me in horror and silence. He was disgusted. I realized then that I wasn’t the only one who knew. 

If he was going to respond, it was stifled by a final outburst from somewhere in the mob, the last needed for the event to proceed: “They’re murderers! Use your eyes! See what they’ve done! An eye for an eye! AN EYE FOR AN EYE!”

What fascinated me most about what happened next, was that it wasn’t the words themselves that caused the mob to charge, but that words caused one of the creatures to flee. That’s when it happened. It was a predatory instinct to kill. Not the words or ideas espoused, but the simple act of retreat. The wolves saw the rabbit run. That’s all it came down to. That’s all any of it ever was. Instinct.

The moment the creature had turned, the mob came alive with bloodlust and its three companions were buried beneath a pile of writhing flesh and flailing limbs. Splinters of the mob took chase after the massacred creatures’ companion, and stopped short as it swung closed the gate to the control room and locked itself inside. There were screams and clangs and spit and fury, and the creature stood pressed into the corner, cowering over the panel of buttons that gave their god life.

A group of zealots clawed their way up the stairs, trying to push the others away from the gate, shouting, “Leave it! Leave it be! It saved us all! They built for us the path out! The way is open—go now! Into the mouth of God!”

The words shook sects of the war party from their vicious fugue state, and like insects towards a light in the dark they disregarded the creature without another look and leapt onto the conveyer belt.

The old man held the dying child’s head in his arms, and looked up at me. “You have to do something. Put an end to this, there’s another way—there has to be.”

I watched the swarm converge upon the mouth of the beast, and the creature’s hand waiting and trembling above the button. “They deserve to know,” I said. “They deserve to know what they do here. We all deserve it.”

Still more of our kind crashed against the gate like waves against the beach, desperate to tear into the creature before meeting their Utopia. Retribution had to come first.

“You’re as evil as them,” the old man spat.

The mob was breaking away to join the others on the beast’s tongue, leaving behind the piles of meat and blood that were once their captors.

“As who?” I answered.

Bodies began to drop into the mouth, collapsing on top of one another. It was a mad dash towards salvation, each individual a piece of a perfectly encapsulated entity spiting the last to reach the same exact goal. They scratched and pulled and shoved and bit and screeched to find a glimpse of beyond, of beneath, and so they tumbled down the throat together in clumps like tumors, until the mouth was full.

And the god came alive.

The surviving creature had found the moment, and pressed the button. The conveyer belt chugged and clicked, and the metal teeth whirred, gnashing, gnashing gnashing, and the pile of sinners lurched as those at the bottom were swallowed and digested. Pink mist sprayed up through the fissures of the great mass, dousing the floor and the painted sky, and there were cries of horror and of prayer, and there was pain, but it was smothered and unheard, and was only an acknowledged specter for the next layer in line to believe or dismiss.

Still, the bodies approached and fell, adding weight and stress to the beast that had already gotten its fill, that wanted no more sacrifice, but it was created for this sole purpose, and it was all it knew, and so it continued to tear bone and flesh as it coughed in bloated agony. Smoke rose from the machine’s armor-skin, and the miasma of charred meat and scalding oil tinged my nostrils. The conveyer belt halted as if colliding with a wall, and the cries of horror and prayer were muted by an insurmountable eruption.

The Gates of Hell tore open.

The force of the explosion hit me before the flames, lifting me off my feet as if spirited away after death. But then came the heat, the molten plasma singeing my skin, and the agony encompassed me, bringing my mind back to full awareness. My ears rang, and my vision trembled like my eyes had been shaken within their sockets by an invisible entity. As the ringing faded, I waited for screams to pierce the veil of static but all that remained was silence. Silence, and a sensation I’d never before felt. It cooled my burnt flesh like the ectoplasm of ghosts passing through me, gently kissing at the wounds.

The dust settled, and my vision found its footing, and there looming over my prone body was the hollowed corpse of God. The great machine was a skeleton of its former self, orange pockets of flames licking the air from a wide-open hole in the center of its anatomy. The control room had collapsed in on itself, burying the last creature in its final moment of autonomy. Smoldering fires spit from its gnarled gate; the brain severed. Fragments of limbs and jawbones and teeth and tongues and fingers lay strewn across the cement floor, each scattered piece of sinner and savior made indistinguishable from one another.

To my side were the old man and the child, the eldest huddled over top the other, together breathing heavy sighs, their eyes squeezed shut. Again came the unfamiliar sensation, like a beckoning call, and I looked out towards the echoing voice it carried. And there, where once stood an impenetrable wall, the limits of our prison, of their temple, was a puncture wound. What lay beyond was no mirage, no artificial farce. 

An exit.

“Get up,” I said, shaking the old man. “Get on your feet and look.”

They both stirred, opening their eyes to look upon me before experiencing the same foreign call from the other side, and they saw.

The three of us stood, leaning upon one another, the child stooped and wilting, rivulets of blood draining from his lips; each of us unable to speak, unable to put words to what presented itself through the prison’s killing wound.

As we approached, the cold air wrapping around us like a cloak, the old man finally whispered: “It’s nothing like what I remember.”

These were the last words I heard him speak, though the wet gleam in his eyes reflected hidden memories never shared and would never again be relived. That, perhaps, is exactly why they had been laid to rest with the last of his generation. He knew.

Framed by the crumbling exterior, like a portrait of the artist’s nightmare, was the world. 

No sun. No blue sky. No rain. No grass.

They dotted the flat, gray surface like hundreds of anthills in a desert, blanketed by a black wall of smog overhead. Suffocating the landscape like a multiplying virus, swallowing any iota of beauty that may have once existed—that now only existed within the mind of a single old man. Identical in every way, in each possible facet of order and the mundane. Leaving only enough space for cement pathways to snake through like dried riverbeds.


Hundreds and hundreds.

And hundreds.





What else could I do, but—