's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Nelke

>Ay de aquel que atraviesa, forastero

>La frontera del sueño en esta tierra

Thirty-three hours awake. I switched from caffeine pills to amphetamines three hours ago, and I am still riding it hard; mouth dry, heart drumming in my chest, my thoughts coming to my mind pure and clear and unstoppable. The sun is finally coming out, and I am afraid of nothing, although I should be.

Drugs made me chatty at first, but small talk died down, so I pulled out my headphones and played music as loud as I could. Some of my teammates are doing the same. There is a clear division between us, the the old-timers, and the young. We stick to the drugs we know from the previous era, the ones that appeared on TV in fear-mongering news stories. The young do not have such taboos: velocet, sizzle, implants and neuronal enhancers that leave burning traces on the brain grooves.

The world is muted. There is no way to trick the eyes when they are tired. Color perception is a chemical process that gets depleted after long periods awake, and the eyes have to rest five hours out of twenty-four to recover visual acuity. Mine are not getting that anytime soon. I will probably get tunnel vision before I come back, but I do not care about it, nor about the burning of my calves and my lungs. That is a handy side effect of amphetamines, too. I put on my sunglasses.

We are now fifty kilometers deep into the territory of Brandenburg-Treptow Kirchhof. dePopulated. We are here because some idiot slipped and broke her leg during a clandestine escapade and now she cannot get back to safety. We have extract her before she succumbs of hunger or thirst or exposure, or before the other side decides our provocations have gone too far. If they determine that they have been outrageously insulted, there will be measures.

We keep walking at a steady pace down the cracked road, ostentatiously careful with our steps, hands out of our utility belts. The cobbles resonate under our feet. I am grateful now for the daily training, for the footwear that does not let me feel how swollen my feet are now. In the sunrise, we drink our isotonic beverages and eat the energy portions silently flaunting our youth, our health. We come in peace, and we are very sorry for this inconvenience. None of us is going to trespass.

The terms set by the dead for this extraction are petty, punitive. No vehicles of any kind are authorized. We are not to sleep in the premises, for sleep is a mockery of death. We are not to leave any kind of waste. We have to piss in bottles while still walking and scoop our shit and carry it in our backpacks. This is a jab at the living, and indirect slur. You the quick are only good for pissing and shitting, they say. We see this message graffittied in our dreams, we hear it in some occult frequencies of the radio, it pops in message boards  sometimes, and disappears almost immediately. Both sides have their own radicals I guess.

It could have been worse, though. Two years ago, another rescue team was forbidden to release sweat in the air, so they had to cover themselves in liquid bandage and wear thick clothes. Imagine that, a party of six people walking on a dePopulated area, high on speed and sizzle and everything they had to take to stay awake, knowing that fainting would have fatal consequences. Still, the ten of us volunteered. All citizens have to perform a number of maintenance operations a year, and the hazardous bonus for this one is a handsome addition to my quota. It is not as if I am in trouble, but I have never been one to rest on my laurels.


There was a good reason why the dead never replied to our Ouija board sessions, or letters on graves, or phone calls into the ether: they did not want to. We do not know the specifics; whether it was inconvenient for them, or embarrassing, or just painful, it does not matter. When they decided to finally talk, they deafened us, flooding every communication channel, every radio frequency, every mail inbox with messages with empty sender fields, creating new information out of nowhere and casually violating the Laws of Thermodynamics. And they only had one thing to say to us: Stop coming. You are not welcome here.

I was sixteen when it happened, and I did not really have an understanding of the scale of it. I remembered that our fast reaction surprised me positively, almost piercing the armor of cynicism that all teenagers build for themselves out of fear: we created committees and extended peace treaties to old enemies. Religious authorities stood silent at the beginning, trying to re-organize, to react to the attack on their tenets. We sent the dead communications through every channel they had provided to us, introducing ourselves, sending greetings to deceased relatives, asking frantic questions about the afterlife. The world united in the purpose of talking to the Great Beyond and solving our ultimate questions. But the dead did not want to chit-chat. They kept repeating their message, drilling it in our heads through letters, voices, dreams, until we listened, and asked them about what we could do.

Dying used to be simple. Even with the breakthroughs in medicine of the 21th century, it was easy just to swallow a bone, or to be run over by a car, or just to become too old to keep living. All of this ended with the worldwide Trespassers Act, unilaterally imposed by the deceased. Immediately new names were found for it, forbidden monikers that could get us sanctioned if we ever said them aloud: Thanatos Act, Corpse Law. We all know it by heart: We, the dead, make this statement to be known immediately in all the corners of the plane. With the goal of putting an end to the uncontrolled migratory flux into our domain, we put forth the following laws, to-wit: (1) No human shall trespass to our territory unauthorized. (2) A yearly quota shall be established for each country, based on the characteristics and the needs of their population. (3) Any individual who willingly puts themselves, or someone else, through the border, will be suitably punished.

There are fifty pages of bylaws and exceptions, but this is the soul of it. There are no concrete threats of retaliation, only statements of facts. And, just like that, we stopped dying. Well, mostly stopped. The torrent of new dead became a trickle, as if someone had clogged a drain. People with chronic illness resisted much longer. Elderly ones in their eighties and nineties just kept living, as physically and mentally ruined as ever. Men and women injured in accidents agonized for months while receiving a constant influx of letters without stamps and pre-recorded phone calls informing them that an untimely exitus is a punishable offense. We the living have not rebelled so far. There is no way for us to do it.

The quota system works, if you are smart. I am fifty now, and I am to cross to the new world in seventy-six years, which makes me one of the most fortunate ones. I also got my ovaries removed immediately, just as they offered the first bonuses for it, so I probably have some privileges to look forward to when I finally croak. Shorter processing times, a bigger t-space allocation I guess. Some days ago I read an article claiming that the average waiting time allotted to individuals my age is over two hundred years. For the newborns it will probably be worse, at least until we reach the tipping point established by the other side and we bring down the population to manageable levels.

The dead claimed back their land, and we obeyed. Former inhabitants of homes wanted to be unearthed and to lie again in the places they used to live, so we left. DePopulated. Old tenants were dug out and placed again in their old houses in life-like poses, furniture reorganized to suit antiquated tastes, and then the homes were sealed. Town squares got repurposed as impromptu refuges for dead drifters and homeless.

We have moved into hastily built new settlements, created in the empty spaces between old cities, following the roads and the supply lines. Our technology has adapted: some fields have almost stagnated. Others, such as medicine, have advanced more in the last decades than in centuries. Exercise is mandatory, as well as a balanced diet. Wars are over now, at least the open ones. Nobody wants to be responsible for an unauthorized exitus.

We still do not know what expects us at the other side. Dreams, that now have become a sort of unofficial channel of communication across the veil, are a reliable source of information. We all have similar dreams now, like with old TV programs. Each one of us receives a variation of the message, as if we were attuned to slightly different wavelengths, and we have the obligation to write down every morning and to send it to the central to cobble the complete message for the community.

Some people claim to have access to privileged information. They talk about the new dead, the endless queues for an admission process taking part in an abstract plane, thanatos space, about retention camps for irregular newcomers who died in catastrophes, about fields and deserts of cut hands and feet waiting for their owners to join them. They could be lying.

Some others claim to have talked directly to the dead, and tell long stories about them. They talk about clerks with sewn-shut jaws and empty sockets, skin as dry and hard as cured meat, signing and emitting waivers. About the clandestine efforts by a minority of them to ease our passage into their world. I have personally only dreamed of barren landscapes, of vast crowds waiting in impossible spaces, but I do not know if they are real visions or just the usual residual anxiety of the days.


It has been twenty years since I walked down this now deserted streets. Gone are the Spätis, the small bistros like the one my parents used to have, the laundry hanging out of windows. I can barely recognize the landmarks, the old Tempelhof park, that used to be an airport, now entirely tiled with rows of tombs. Some mausoleums stand out like broken teeth. Almost all the tombs are made of rough concrete, hastily made in the hysterical times of the Great Exhuming to meet the harsh deadlines imposed by our ancestors. Streets were left in a hurry. There are remnants of that times: some cars in the middle of the road, a skeletal hand hanging from the window. I remember when this city was vibrant, alive, full of traffic and people and scaffoldings and noise. Now the chirping of insects reigns over Berlin.

There is joy in the empty city. When humans left, the other life crept back: ornamental plants are dead or wild now, and ivy hugs the sealed-down façades, trees and weeds grow through cracks into the asphalt. In some places, the street has broken down and pools of water have formed, full of frogs. Berlin used to be a swamp, and now that the underground pipes have burst, it will return to its primitive states. Packs of dogs, descendants from the strays, roam the streets, but they avoid us, maybe out of an old, genetic imperative. The native fauna is coming back, too. From far away, I could see deer grazing on the weeds of a Jugendstil corner. The air around Friedrichstrasse smells like leaves, and water, and earth. The city of the dead is a paradise of blooming life.

The sun is high now in the sky, but we are almost there. I pop a pill, and, like a single mind, my nine companions do the same with the drugs of their choices. Coming back is going to be the hardest part. We do not want to feel the exhaustion creeping up from our feet.

The GPS sent us to a back street close to an old park. There is no sound, but we know that the person has still not trespassed, for we have not received any emergency communication from the central.

We turn the corner slowly, in complete silence, and see the woman who caused us so much trouble. She is sitting with her back to a wall, and she seems to be trying to make herself smaller. She is huddled in a coat too big for her, and her right foot is sticking in an angle it should not be. She has dark hair and a nondescript oval of a face, red after hours of crying. I want to spit on her.

We walk up to her and form a semicircle, and launch the usual protocol. The two medics walk up to her, take out the emergency rations, start checking on her for symptoms of hypothermia or any condition that would put her at risk of trespassing.

"I am sorry" I can hear her say. "I just wanted to...." She keeps talking, but I stopped listening at that point, and started to mount the stretcher with the other team members. They are all sorry when we catch them, aren't they? They never wanted to cause trouble. They just wanted to present their respects to their fathers, sisters, lovers, whatever excuse they may have, even if that means going into a dePopulated zone without a permit and risking a diplomatic catastrophe. Assholes who do not move with the times, sometimes, some others just brownnosers who think they will get special treatment after they die if they place enough flowers or votive offerings to one of their ancestors. Others, however, want to cause trouble, and succeed: necro-fuckers, dissolution fetishists, proponents of a theology of decay. They all think themselves above the law. Intent or not, they all put us in danger.

The medics help the woman up and bring her onto the stretcher. Personally, I would have loved to have her limp along with us for the God knows how many hours we still have until we leave the zone and we can all sleep again, but the dead are clear on the matter: they do not want her touching their soil anymore. She is to be transported by us, and then brought to justice. As she lies down I see her hollow, haunted expression; what awaits for her is not pretty. Justice cannot apply death penalty, but we have found ways to make life unpleasant.

We all have defined roles in the team: two medics, one prospector, one communications officer, and the other six are the ones to carry the stretcher in shifts of two. Without a word, I take my place next to the stretcher and lift it with the woman. She is heavy, but at least she does not try to move or to escape.

There is a moment of quiet, when the birds fall silent. The sun warms my face. For once, I feel one with my team, and I am sure the others feel like that too. Our limbs ache, our ears ring, but at least we will be back home at some point. At least we are not her. We look at each other without talking, and we slowly start our way back.