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Companion Trilogy: Bareheaded

Mike Buckley is a widely-published short story writer whose work has appeared in national journals such as The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern California Review, and Clarkesworld. His work has been anthologized numerous times, including in The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2003, and the upcoming Red Hen LA Writers Anthology. His debut collection of short fiction, Miniature Men, was released in 2011. Find him at mikebuckleyauthor.com.

"Rebels isn't the right word," Varner said to me. We were standing on a bluff overlooking the beach, the white van parked a block away. Tarifa stood next to Varner and they both looked at me, their expressions crosses between fear and excitement.
They had what I knew were fake companions on their heads, but if I didn't know, I wouldn't have been able to tell. Companions resemble very large roaches, with the graceful, long legs of a stick bug. The needle that they place in the forehead to join with their host's mind is about seven inches long, and a gently darkened purple. I was having the thought that their fake companions had none of the grace and beauty of the real thing, and then that thought began to fade.
"You're starting to realize, aren't you?" Tarifa said.
My own fake companion moved on my head.
"Those moments are the worst," she said, "and the best. Every decision you've ever made, Marlon, was influenced--even outright controlled--by your companion. It was with you since you were an infant. You couldn't feel the control. But look around."
Indeed. Down on the beach, which had been pristine just yesterday, piles of burned trash lay scattered with empty bottles. A human body lay half in the water, moving with the tide, and when the water went out, a group of half a dozen companions skittered across the sand and tore at the body, yanking off scraps of flesh.
"Just yesterday this beach was perfect," I said.
"No it wasn't," Varner answered. "Your companion showed you what you wanted to see. This city is a wreck. Garbage. Corpses. Sickness. Those," he said, pointing to the companions that ran in all directions when a wave washed around the body, "rogue groups like those run free and eat dead people, dogs, sometimes kids. Your companion manipulates what you see."
Tarifa picked up where Varner had left off: "Rebels isn't a good word because, well, there's only two of us. Varner and I. Unfortunately, the police--us--have gotten very good at finding and killing the companionless."
"So why come after me?" I asked. Even as I said it I couldn't be sure if I was happy to be free of the companion.
"I sent you after Ott, your ex-partner. You reported that you never found him," Tarifa said.
There was a gleam of hope in her eyes.
"We thought that maybe you did find him, and that he was companionless, and then he converted you. We hoped he'd have access to a network of rebels."
"I found him. His companion was dead. But he tried to kill me before I could get anything out of him. I got the better of him."
"Ott's dead?" Varner asked, staring down at the companions sprinting back and forth across the sand, the perverse mirror image of the tide.
"Dead," I said.
The look on Varner's face when I said it made me look down at the body on the beach. It was better than seeing that hollow heartbreak in his eyes.
In the end, of course, there was really only one way for it to go, one decision for me to make.
Two weeks after the day that Varner killed my companion, we sat in the white van a block from the nesting site where he'd become famous as Bloody Varner. He handed me a bottle.
"It won't be easy," he said, "but drink it all."
He was right. The smell was bad and the taste was worse. Immediately the fluid leapt in my throat and I had to force bile back down. The second gulp was easier. By the third Varner started talking.
"You know, the day after I told my squad to open up on a crowd just out there at the nest site, I was walking on the beach. I remember I was happy. Isn't that something? I'd just ordered my men to shoot down thirty people."
I took a deep breath and paused drinking from the bottle.
"Your companion made you happy?"
"I guess. The next day I was walking to my car and Tarifa drove by in this van. She asked me to get in, and she did for me what I did for you. She blasted the companion right off my head. Once the venom faded, I remembered ordering my guys to fire, and I knew I was a murderer. My companion had made me one, and I knew I'd get revenge for it."
He looked at the bottle in my hand.
"Drink it up, Marlon. It's gotta get into your muscles."
As I finished whatever was in the bottle, Varner took his fake companion off of his head and held it in his hand, staring at it, as if it could help him understand all the years he had spent with a real companion's needle sunk into his brain. At last I set the empty bottle down.
Varner looked at me. "Gonna puke?"
He set his fake companion back on his head and opened the van's doors. We stepped out and he set his hand on my shoulder and stared at me with his dark eyes.
"Thank you," I said.
He smiled oddly, as if just at that moment he'd meant to thank me.
I walked down the block to the nesting site. It was a great hole in the cityscape, the place where one of the companion's spaceships had crashed decades ago, and crowds of people stood around the ruin, craning their heads to watch the glistening eggs chains emerge from the pit, carried by the attendants. They'd be taken to hospitals from here to be joined with infants. And seeing the nesting site like this, free of a companion perched on my skull and manipulating my brain, was horrifying. The crowds were filthy, dazed, some of them naked. Burned out cars blocked the streets.
I pushed through the crowd. From the barricade I could see the police officers. There were only a few, and they were filthy and dazed too, staring down into the pit instead of at the crowd.
Varner had told me that if I threw myself into the pit I'd fall past street level, far down into the dark depths that the companions dug out and festooned with their ova, which poured out the egg chains that would be collected by companions and then brought out for the human attendants to bring to the hospital. I'd fall, probably die on impact, and then I'd be cut apart by companions and brought to the ova to consume.
Which is where the poison, by now pooling in my muscles, came in.
I stepped over the barricade and stared down into the darkness of the nesting site.
And I jumped.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 15th, 2016

Author Comments

For me, this story trilogy is about how ideas, experiences, and biases influence the way we see the world. They're our companions in a very intimate sense, and it has always interested me how we spend so long putting together our memories and habits and identities, only to, later, go into something like therapy to break free of them and try to find an authentic self. Beyond all of the ideas about ideas, though, writing these stories made my head itch.

- Mike Buckley
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