The Subtraction of Rex Tremendous by an Outside Force
A cloud of spectral dust exists in three places at once: orbiting a decaying star, teetering on the edge of the universe, and floating above the audience during a travelling strongman's show
Max Barker is a short story and comic book writer from Sheffield, England, specialising in magical realism, speculative fiction and bizzarro science fiction. He is interested in the weird, the oneiric and the sublime. He recently graduated from Hallam University with a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Previous work has appeared in Arboreal Magazine.
A cloud containing the spectral dust of a hundred dead sailors drifted through the cold and finite intra-plane. The ethereal condensate was conducted by a galactic web of radio currents and influenced by the gravitational sway of macro bodies, data wells, and congealed clots of dead information. The particles had frozen, amalgamated, and were cutting through the thick blanket of space. Fat globules of code radiated from the miasmic sailors, and quickly diffused throughout the vacuum. The system struggled to render their remains in real time and the ice-cold space cloud convulsed, unable to establish its own coordinates.
The cloud existed in three places at once. Firstly, forty billion lightyears from Earth, teetering on the edge of the universe; secondly, a billion lightyears in the opposite direction, compromising the integrity of a red dwarf star; and thirdly, hovering bat-like six metres above an unaware audience at Unity Point Arena.
Circus strongman Rex Tremendous was promising a monumental feat; half the city had travelled there to bear witness. The gaseous composite of sailors lingered high above the audience, struggling to consolidate its constituents into tangible matter. They floated in shadow among the unlit rafters, decomposing in the dark and raining micro-pockets of information on everyone below. A soft drip of code fell and landed on the neck of a suited man near the barriers. It trickled down to his collar, leaving a pink trail as it descended. He ran a cloth over the mark and dabbed his forehead. The few remaining lights went out and everything was cast into darkness.
The crowd were silent. Several billion lightyears away, the red dwarf star was expiring fast, almost completely burnt up. Atomic bonds were snapping like rubber bands as gravitational wells formed and swallowed entire continents worth of solar fire, marking the celestial body like a victim of the plague. The flailing cinders set the sailors alight. Their edges crisped, fused, and formed a callous platinum shell that enclosed the egregore in a flawless metallic ball. Pockets of immense and concentrated mass peppered the star’s surface as arcs of smelted atomic debris lacerated the fabric of intra-space. The star heaved, its stomach upset. It inhaled a deep lung full of nothing and the surface cracked. It screamed in cosmic radio waves as its body collapsed into itself, then regurgitated all components. The sailors, now consolidated into a platinum bullet, fired across deep space, launched by the collapse of the alien star. The bullet soared like spittle flung from tightly pursed lips. The gravity wells that pocked the face of the dwarven super-structure converged and collided and spaghettified the last remnant strings of its principal data. The scream played in reverse as everything was dragged back to its point of origin. There was a puncture wound where the sun should be, bleeding inwards with a thick tar speckled with fragments of glass. A bullet launched by nuclear implosion now shot across the universe.
Two lights shone down onto a matted stage, forming a vesica piscis; in its centre, a vertical eye. The audience, silent, waited for more. The moment was savoured. The iris shifted as an ashen ghost slithered out. Grey smoke poured into the air, glittering gold as it passed through beams of light, glistening like tiny suns. The fog expanded and stretched across the arena until the stage was blanketed in mist. The lights flickered as if struggling to retain power. Streaks of lightning cracked through the silver smoke and the crowd gasped. Barely visible, in the heart of the small storm, the refracted silhouette of a humanoid creature was posed, his arms waving sporadically in the air. The chaos dance, soundtracked by lightning strikes herded the smoke into spiralling waves that twisted serpentine into figures of eight. Several members of the audience clapped along, a slow rhythm that others adopted. The phantom adjusted his movements. He became fierce. He twisted his body into broken shapes. Swinging huge arms like an incensed beast. The fog exploded with brilliant cluster bombs and swirled like a maelstrom. The audience stamped their feet. The spectre in the storm waved his arms in a final syzygal arc. The smoke followed the same pattern, ravelled up into a tight ball and was quickly swallowed by the man’s enormous fists. Rex Tremendous was posed, bent on one knee, his arm thrust high in the air like a knight of old; between his fingers seeped a small wisp of encaged storm. The two spotlights converged and became one. The audience stood by their seats and applauded.
More lights ignited, and the arena was bathed in a ruby red glow. Rex opened his hand, releasing the smoke that once again filled the entire stage. His body was a juggernaut that crashed through the thick fog, his piston like fists pummelled the ground and his fingers ripped holes in the gaseous fabric as if it were thick jungle brush. The red light washed over him like amniotic gore. His strength was immense. He was uncaged. He swooped and swirled and contorted the fog into incredible geometry. Each swift movement fluttered with the delicacy of a bee but landed with the weight of an avalanche. He finished his bestial dance, the smoke once again encased within his hand. He took a bow and the crowd cheered. Forty billion lightyears away, one of the gaseous clouds of sailors was threatening to cross the universal boundary.
Most of the cloud’s essential matter had already been lost to the threshold and the Operators were fearing an overload. They needed to consolidate the sailors before the whole system collapsed. The cloud was losing its spatial awareness and imagined itself drowning in the subsurface seas of a frosted moon. It slipped over the universal edge, and, in the same instant, landed buried in icy alien waters. As it was dreamed, so it came to be. The ocean currents washed through the sailors’ vaporous forms spawning sharpened strings of frozen crystalline fractals that pierced the moon’s core. A neural link of shared consciousness spread throughout the planetoid, infecting it with an abridged amalgamation of the sailors’ histories, imaginations, and horrors, interpreted as confused symbols and shapes, and manifested by a rapidly terraformed surface. The seal was broken. The pieces were coming together.
‘It is mighty fine being here tonight, ladies and gentlemen. This is just about the nicest bunch of faces this man has ever seen. I mean it. I really do.’ Rex Tremendous was wearing a sweetheart smile that stretched up half his face. His impressive musculature reached only as far as his chiselled jaw, his cheekbones and eyes were those of a teen heartthrob. His hair was slicked back save for the farm-boy curl that hooked over his brow. ‘Oh wonderful! Give a big round of applause for the brave lady, there you go. Thank you everyone, you’re wonderful. There you go, alright.’ His claps were light and popped rather than cracked. He helped a young woman over the barricade and onto the stage then hushed the audience’s cheer with an open palm
‘Thank you so much for coming tonight little lady. I love each and every one of you for making it out here, I really do. What’s your name miss?’
‘It’s Janine’. Her voice almost broke at the last syllable and she briefly hid her face in Rex’s shoulder. The woman was ecstatic but was struggling with the embarrassment of performance. A small, pink stain was visible on the back of her neck.
‘Now there, lady. Don’t be getting any ideas, you hear? Alright.’ The audience chuckled along. The sailor cloud skulked through the rafters above, now significantly reduced in size. The streaks of code that it shed like insect skin were still raining upon the crowd.
‘So, whereabouts are you from Janine? I like your accent.’
‘Oh, er…’ Janine looked back into the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know if I can say.’ She laughed and covered her face.
‘Is that right? Well, that’s a hell of a secret identity you got there Janine. I hope you get them before they get you! Moving on, if I may. Have you ever dreamt of flying, Janine?’
‘Why, yes, I have. In fact…’
‘What about invisibility Janine? You ever make believe you can turn invisible and get up to all kinds of shenanigans?’
‘Well I’ve thought about it sometimes, I guess.’
‘That’s wonderful Janine. Do you know what I’ve got in the palm of my hand?’
‘You have that big cloud of smoke. I really liked the way you did that Rex, I thought it was wonderful.’
‘Well thank you very much Janine, that’s mighty kind. But you were only half right. Half of what I got is smoke, that part’s no lie. But the other half, well Janine, I got so much more than that. Could you do me a favour, Janine?’
‘Of course, Rex, I’ll do anything.’
‘Will you breathe, Janine? Take a deep breath and then breathe out with all you got. Will you do that for me, Janine?’ She took a deep breath. Only when her lungs were full did she nod in agreement. She puffed up her chest. ‘Now, breathe out.’ A faintly visible strand of frosted air emanated from her mouth. Rex pinched the tip with his fingers and slowly pulled the delicate string up and out of her throat. She collapsed to the floor. The audience gasped and clapped along.
The three cardinal points of the intra-plane were now each home to the same cloud of disembodied sailors, the latest taking the form of an ice-covered moon whose continents were shifting and tessellating into complex alien hieroglyphs. Another cloud was now a silver bullet ricocheting through an infant nebula, caught in the hungry orbit of a million baby suns, and the third was witness to the uncanny brawn of Rex Tremendous. The Operators were restless. The clouds were digital poison injected into the absolute coordinates of the universe, and that poison was bleeding through the channels of a dimensional tripod; the intra-plane was breached. Everything was crashing.
‘Could I get a glass of water for the lady, please?’ Rex turned on his heel, browsing the stage for an assistant he knew was waiting for the signal. A young boy in a yellow cape and domino mask skipped out of the shadows carrying a glass of water in two hands and made his way over to the fallen woman.
‘I got it right here, Rex!’ he said with joy, raising his arms above his head and only barely reaching the height of the colossal man’s jaw.
‘Why, how’d you like that, Nigel. You must’ve known we were gonna need that water.’
‘I sure did sir. Well, I best be on my way now.’ Nigel turned to wave goodbye to the audience. ‘You enjoy the rest of your night folks, you hear?’ The crowd whooped and hollered, stamped their feet, and cheered as Nigel scuttled off the stage, his yellow cape limply trailing behind him. Rex was still delicately holding the breath of Janine between his thumb and forefinger, and a trail of steel blue air drifted around his face. He elegantly waved his hand in a snake-like motion and collected the streams of Janine’s gasp in his palm. Darkness returned to the arena, and the spotlights reignited. Rex’s face was visibly strained as he used all his power to squeeze together his jackhammer fist. Janine’s breath was under incredible pressure. He put down the glass and used his other hand to double the force. With both hands he crushed her breath, solidifying the vapours until they became a small charcoal-black seed. The audience could barely make out the small grain as he dropped it into the glass of water. Rex poured the drink into the woman’s mouth, and she came back to her senses.
‘Big round of applause for Janine, ladies and gentlemen.’ The room was relit, and the crowd roared. Janine was visibly disorientated but waved for her new fans, smiled, and curtseyed before returning to her seat.
‘Wasn’t she great, ladies and gentlemen? And Nigel too, can I get another round of applause for our boy Nigel?’ The audience complied.
‘Thank you guys so much, oh, you’re too kind, too kind. I’m mighty glad to be here this evening, I’m having a lot of fun. Okay, settle down now, settle down. Thank you, settle down. So, I heard from a friend of mine that this wonderful city, in which I’ve been so lucky to perform, is home to some of the toughest, burliest young men this side of the Capital Sea. Ladies and gentlemen, have I been woefully misinformed?’ The audience enthusiastically replied in the negative.
‘I’m hearing a lot of talk, but I don’t see any of you rising to meet my friend’s claim…’ the crowd’s jeers grew louder and soon hundreds of people were stood on their chairs waving fists and screaming for attention.
‘Okay, okay, settle down now, folks. I ain’t implying nothing, I’m just curious is all. I like to get a sense of a city’s mettle as I pass through. You’re a fiery bunch, though, I’ll give you that. One fiery bunch. I’m having a great time tonight, I really am. Please settle down, I don’t mean nothing by it. Besides, I can’t have you tearing each other apart just yet, the show’s not over. In fact, I think you’re gonna love what I got next. This one’s real special, something I’ve been working on lately. You’ll be the first to see it. It’s real special this one, folks. I’m gonna need your help again, just like before. Just like Janine helped us. But this time, I’m gonna need three of you, that’s right. Will those that want to help me with my act tonight raise your hand, this one’ll be special I promise. There we go, raise your hand and I’ll send someone up there to collect you. We’re gonna need three of you for this next one.’
The silver seas of the alien moon rippled as titanic masses of ice broke loose and crawled across the northern hemisphere. A reflected starry sky was carved by concentric archways that reverberated across the circumference of the sphere before dying at the poles. The sailors’ combined memories were materialising as abstract icons, strange patterns mirrored by the equator like psychometric inkblots. It was a code, a signal to something far out of view. The sailors’ brother bullet, meanwhile, was circling ever closer to its final position., pulled into a centripetal vortex, sinking into a golden spiral. Time was running out, the pyramid almost aligned. The third coagulated mass of sailors had shrivelled to half its original mass, its relinquished components now scattered about the arena, each recipient wearing a pink streak on the back of their neck. The ice moon shifted two of its large continents into a pair of perfect circles. These circles overlapped, forming a perfect winking eye. The pink streaks too, became two circles.
‘A round of applause for our volunteers here, alright!’ Three handsome youths wearing brilliant white uniforms and heavy black boots were strutting down the centre aisle towards the stage. Each was jolly and red faced, waving, and smiling to the cheering crowd. One briefly stopped to shake the hand of an old man sat somewhere near the front before continuing down.
‘Now do you see that? What a lovely bunch of young men. That’s what I love about this city, you look out for each other. I heard that before I even got here, I did. They said to me: this is a city that looks out for others, and I’ve seen that tonight. You’re very supportive, I like that’. The three volunteers each stretched their legs over the barricades and made their way over to Rex. Each one shook his hand then lined up before him.
‘Now how about that. Look at you three stood there. I mean, you three look remarkably similar. Can I say that? It’s uncanny, are you three brothers?’ They failed to stifle an awkward laugh. The tallest answered for them.
‘No sir. Funny you should say that though sir. I mean, us hiding a smile just now, well that’s on account of us hearing that same thing only a few hours ago. Before the show that is. In fact, we only met each other this morning at the club, and we got to talking there and decided to spend the night in your great company, sir. We’ve heard great things.’
‘Is that right?’ replied Rex.
‘That’s right, sir,’ said one of the shorter volunteers. ‘You see, we three, we’re only around for a short while. Figured we’d spend the time wisely and do something you’d only get to do once in a lifetime. Just coincidence we met this morning, each with the same plan. And with the lady this morning reckoning we were brothers, and you, sir, doing the same just now - well, I guess we sort of found that funny.’
‘Well how about that…’ Rex had locked his gaze on the taller man’s eyes; his grin measured and posed, he chewed the moment before speaking again. ‘So how long you boys been in the service?’
‘Just one year sir. The first of many.’
‘Ditto sir, first year.’
‘Second year sir, I’m enjoying it very much.’
‘You boys are making us all very proud now, I hope you understand that. You’re making your mothers proud, your fathers proud and your country proud. Heck, you’re even making me proud. Do you know that?’ They nodded in unison. ‘Yes indeed. What’re your names, gentlemen?’
‘William, sir. William Renton. Junior, that is.’
‘Name’s Manny sir. Manny West from Westpoint.’
‘Theo. Theo Guidry.’
‘Beautiful names,’ continued Rex and placed his heavy hand on Theo’s shoulder. ‘Now I suppose we better be out with the pleasantries and move onto something a little more exciting. I suppose you recall me asking wonderful Janine over there earlier this evening if she understood what I held in my hand, am I right? Do you remember?’ The three young sailors nodded. ‘Smart kids, I appreciate attentiveness. You’re smart kids. But I never asked Janine if she understood what I held in my hand, I asked if she knew what was in my hand. To know and to understand are very different ideas gentlemen. We know it’s cold in wintertime. But do we understand where that cold goes or where it comes from? How it irritates us and makes us shiver and shake? We know the Egyptians built Pyramids, they built Temples, they built the Sphinx and doodled all over them. Heck, we can fly over to Cairo tonight and see for ourselves. But it takes someone smarter than even I to understand any of it. We know this beautiful world will end someday - I’m sorry, it’s true. But I’ll be damned to understand why it’s gotta be that way. Every day is a miracle. So, I wanna ask you boys again. And I’m asking you gentleman to speak your mother’s truth when you reply. Do you understand what I hold in my hand?’
The two pink circles that adorned the napes of most of Rex’s audience were beginning to collide, slowly overlapping and forming a third shape in the centre. This sharp ellipsis was the colour of the abyss, an obsidian eye to oblivion. It was the shadow of a different world, an echo of entropy. The Operators were preparing for a manual ejection of all corrupted code and a full recalibration of pre-registered anomalies. The platinum bullet was the final number in the sequence, and it was spiralling rapidly towards the event horizon, like a marble in a funnel. The cold planetoid had birthed its own jet-black eye that was awakening between the two circular continents. Almost all the pieces were in place.
‘Of course, you don’t! No one can possibly comprehend the awesome power of Rex Tremendous! Ha-ha!’ The audience burst with laughter as he tensed his biceps and bent down on one knee. ‘Alright, alright, settle down now.’ He waved his hand in the audience’s direction and threw a smirk towards the volunteers. ‘Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Get on with the show! Well, what are we waiting for? The culmination of all you’ve seen tonight folks. My new act, for your eyes only, the premier of a fantastic new spectacle. It’s sure to be an event. Can we dim the lights just a little? Just a little now, I get nervous in the dark. There we go, thank you, alright.’
William, Manny, and Theo were herded by Rex into a wide triangular formation. Rex was stood in the middle. Something about the deathly silence of the audience or the dim golden light of the arena had the boys’ expression looking nervous.
‘I sense you boys are a little on edge. Don’t be shy now, don’t be brave. If you want to leave, well, that’s fine by me, plenty of strong young men in this city. Remember, we’re proud of you, don’t forget that. You kids are brave, and you’re smart too. Close your eyes for me, will you?’ The three sailors stood with their arms by their side, shoulders shaking. They gave each other a forced smile of reassurance and false confidence, then closed their eyes.
‘Thank you very kindly for helping me here tonight boys. You’re doing a great job. Now place your arms out in front of you, knuckles facing God and your fingers stretched towards me. Perfect, you guys are doing just great. Remember to breathe slowly, I’ll need you all to concentrate while we do this okay? Relax your shoulders but keep your hands straight.’
They each took a long, deep breath. Rex began caressing the air in front of him as if softly compacting a ball of snow. His fingers stiffened; his hands became talon-like. The sailors swayed lightly on the spot. An invisible force tugged them towards the spherical space Rex measured with his hands. Their outstretched arms were each compelled to point directly at him, like the needle of a compass. Soon, their whole bodies were leaning to one side. Theo muttered something like a prayer under his breath, but Rex paid no mind. Forming between his hands was a concentrated mass of dark air that throbbed like the penumbra of the moon. The intra-plane was under immense pressure, reality was buckling under the stress.
Then, for just a moment, the geometries of the sailors altered. They appeared momentarily as shadows of larger, more complex shapes, confused triangles made of wire mesh fractals, like the silhouette of a spider’s web cast on the wall. Each became a solid-state palimpsest, bearing the image of the whole, replicated infinitely in increasingly smaller fragmentations, exponentially layered atop and through each other. Then everyone’s ears popped as the pressure in the room took a nosedive. The audience gasped. The sailors were gone. A stream of nautical mist had taken their place and was under the chaotic command of Rex Tremendous.
Applause! The audience were wiping tears from their cheeks and meeting partners in embrace. The whole arena was in awe of the incredible feat they saw before them. Three sailors, their clothes and all had given their ghost to the twisting torrent of smoke that was circling the arena. Rex Tremendous was conducting the current like a maestro as it danced, split, and entwined like a synchronous school of fish that spun, dived, and leapt across the audience. The people feigned terror as it swooped above them and cheered when it passed them by.
Rex directed it up into the rafters and let it seep into the corners of the ceiling. There it absorbed the remnants of the other sailor-cloud. At that same moment, the platinum bullet reached the zenith of its descent and slipped through a wound in space. Janine was watching the sailors in the sky when the bullet fired from the ellipsis on her nape and punctured the heart of Rex Tremendous. He fell to the floor and died instantly.
It began to rain inside the arena as the clouds disintegrated, folding away into a foreign world. The audience hadn’t even noticed Rex fall, too busy comprehending the impossibility of their evening, washing themselves in the strange shower and laughing hysterically. Nigel ran out from behind the stage with a glass of water and poured it gently in the mouth of his dear friend. Horrified, he tried to stop the bleeding, pumping Rex’s chest, and listening for a beat. He removed his cape, placed it over Rex’s face and sat down beside him. On the shores of the frosted moon, a hundred sailors, replicated in threes, washed up on the icy beaches and were immediately frozen solid. The Operators breathed a deep and prolonged sigh of relief.
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