Immobility, page 1
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For Peter Wessel Zapffe and Thomas Ligotti; and for Greb, always
And for Kristen Tracy
Tor Books by Brian Evenson
About the Author
In the true movement of community what is at stake is never humanity, but always the end of humanity.
It is the desire and goal of the Church to gather and preserve copies of the world’s genealogical information recorded through the ages into one central storage area where they will be safe from the ravages of nature and the destructions of man.… The magnificent machinery is in motion, and in an efficient, businesslike manner, page by page and book by book these records are being stored as priceless treasures, securely protected in the tops of the mountains.
—Brother Sidney B. Sperry
Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe.
—Samuel Beckett, Endgame
A SENSATION OF COMING BACK alive again, only not quite that, half life maybe. Still utter darkness, though perhaps a faint hint of light on the horizon. Scraps and bits of sound caught somewhere between brain and ears and slowly unthawing to become words, trickling slowly in, but in such a way that it is hard to be sure if they are words from now or words remembered from an earlier time, things imagined or things actually heard. The word food, or perhaps brood. Dying out or crying out, something of the sort, hard to say which exactly, if either. Claps? No, not that exactly, but Claps still sparked something, was close to something else. Clasp? Lapse?
The darkness bedappled now, but still nothing visible, figures not yet sufficiently separated from the ground to become distinct. A dripple, a strange sensation, intimations of shape and form and movement. Almost like being alive again.
And then, suddenly, sentences. Murky but comprehensible and properly sequenced—probably real for once rather than imagined. This:
* * *
“WELL, WE’LL HAVE TO USE HIM, then.”
A male voice, hoarse and loud.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Another man, this one perhaps younger. The voice, at the very least smoother, more quiescent.
“Do we have any other choice?”
“How do we manage the situation?”
“I’ll come up with something.”
“What?” The voices getting softer now, slipping down in pitch, starting to fade.
“I don’t know.” A long silence. “I’ll figure something out. We’ll just do the best we can.”
“So, you want me to wake him?”
A hesitation so long that the conversation seemed over. And then finally:
“Yes, wake him.”
* * *
SLOW SHIFT TO WHITE NOISE. Probably a remembered conversation rather than something he was actually hearing, but from when? And who was speaking? Were they even talking about him? If they were talking about him and he was asleep, how could he have heard them? And if they weren’t, why did he continue to have the impression that they were?
Strange the things that seep their way down to you while you are dead, part of him thought. Or is it just my imagination? another part wondered. A story he was telling himself, a dream he was dreaming.
And who exactly do I mean by he? he wondered. Don’t I mean I? Who do I mean?
And then came a light so bright that, despite just having begun to find himself, he was lost again.
WHEN THEY FIRST WOKE HIM, he had the impression of the world becoming real again and he himself along with it. He did not remember having been stored. He could remember nothing about what his life had been before the Kollaps, and the days directly before they had stored him were foggy at best, little more than a few frozen images. He remembered tatters of the Kollaps itself, had a fleeting glimpse of himself panting and in flight, riots, gunfire, rubble. He remembered a bright blast, remembered awakening to find himself burned and naked as a newborn—or perhaps even more naked, since all the hair had been singed from his body or had simply fallen out. He remembered feeling amazed to be alive, but, well, he was alive, it was hard to question that, wasn’t it?
And then what? People: he had found them, or they had found him, hard to say which. A few men banded together, acting “rationally” instead of “like animals,” as one of them must have put it, attempting to found a new society, attempting to start over.
Not having learned better, he thought grimly, the first time.
Was it all coming back to him? He wasn’t sure. And how much of what was coming back was real?
What was his name again?
* * *
AT FIRST HE COULDN’T FEEL his body at all. He heard noise around him, the low rumble of ordinary mortals muttering to one another, the scuff of feet against a floor around what must be his receptacle. He tried to move his mouth and found he couldn’t, that he couldn’t even feel it, that he wasn’t even completely certain that he had a mouth. It made him nervous. He tried to lick his lips, but either nothing happened or something happened that he couldn’t feel.
His eyelids were closed, but there was the slightest gap between them. He could just see out, could see light, a slight blurriness of semi-differentiated figures, nothing more. He tried to will his eyes open further, failed. Nor could he move the eyes themselves: they stayed staring, fixed, his mind very clumsily processing the thin slit of reality available to them.
He tried to swallow, but couldn’t move his throat. Am I breathing? he wondered, but figured that no, he was in storage, he wasn’t breathing, wouldn’t breathe until he was fully awake. Assuming he understood the process properly, he was still frozen. He shouldn’t be experiencing anything at all yet, shouldn’t even be able to think. Why could he?
Horkai, he thought suddenly. Josef Horkai. That was his name. It came, flashing back and forth and painfully through him. He tried to keep hold of the name, tried to wrap it around himself and tie it in place with something else, some other fact, anything.
Horkai, he thought. Occupation? Before the Kollaps? Now?
Nothing came. Be patient, he told himself. Let things come as they will.
And then the name flopped away, vanished in darkness. He tried again to blink, and one eyelid closed fully and held there. The other remained as it was, slit open, but the pupil behind it began to slide, smearing away the little bit of blurred vision he had and coming to rest against the backlit inside of the lid.
He sensed something on the horizon, in the vague redness, coming toward him. His eyelid slid open a little, but he couldn’t tell if he had done it or if it had been done to him.
And then there was a roaring and what was coming arrived and turned out to be pain, madly beating its wings. He hurt like hell, every part of him, and since he could not tell where he ended and the rest of the world began, it felt like the entire world was awash in fire. And still he couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, couldn’t take air int
And then slowly it receded, melted away, leaving in its wake a slow twisting and turning of naked sensation that refused to drain off. He could feel parts of himself now, though those parts still felt awkward and dampened, as if wrapped in gauze. One of his eyes sprang open and he could see a blurred thumb and forefinger sheathed in latex holding the eyelids apart. Behind and past them, an arm and vague shapes, several of them, that he guessed to be human. Similar to human, anyway. And then suddenly a blazing circle of light.
“Pupil contracts,” he heard someone say. A male voice, hoarse, similar to the one he had heard earlier. “Vision’s probably okay.”
The blazing circle disappeared, its afterimage tracking across his vision and the figures resolved briefly into being. And then the thumb and forefinger let go and he saw only the inside of his eyelid again.
“What was that?” asked someone new, in a distracted voice.
None of the voices sounded familiar. Then again, why should they?
“I said,” the first voice said, louder this time, “that he’ll probably be able to see.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Vision’s probably okay, I said. Amounts to the same thing.”
“Have it your way,” said the other. “Hand me the hypodermic.”
Silence. And then all at once the remnants of sensation that had been eddying seemed about to burst. All his nerves burned at once. He tried to scream but nothing came out.
He lay there immobile, certain he was dying, until, mercifully, like a candle, he was snuffed out.
“HOW ARE WE FEELING?” a voice asked.
His body felt distinct, like a body again, more or less, though tender, sore all over. He willed his eyelids to open, was surprised when they obeyed. His eyes, though, took a long time to adjust. Gradually a blurred figure became distinct, human. A middle-aged man wearing a soiled white technician’s coat.
“How are we feeling?” the man asked again, smiling, perhaps two feet away from his face.
He tried to speak, but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and wouldn’t move. He grunted.
The technician squinted and brought his face closer, his eyes lost in a web of wrinkles. Then his face relaxed, grew smooth.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” the technician said. He reached down, came back up with a bottle of something, a long glass tube running out one end of it. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve unstored someone.”
The technician forced the tube into his mouth. He felt it scrape against his lips, then burrow its way in between his palate and his tongue. It felt like layers of tissue were being torn off. Something was seeping out of the tube, a liquid of some sort, slightly bitter to the taste. Slowly, his tongue loosened, then became independent of the vault of the mouth. The liquid trickled its way deeper into his mouth, down his throat, down his windpipe as well. For a moment, he felt he was choking. He began to cough.
The technician withdrew the tube, helped him to turn his head to the side until the liquid had oozed out and the coughing had stopped. A strand of the fluid hung, black and ropy, from one corner of his mouth.
“There now,” said the technician, wiping it away. “All better.”
“Hardly,” he muttered.
His voice was cracked, his vocal cords having difficulty making the right sounds. The technician looked at him quizzically. He cupped his ear with one hand and leaned in. “You’ll have to repeat that,” he said.
“Who am I?” he asked.
The technician drew back. “Who are you?” he asked. “Yes, I should have asked that—part of the procedure, just to make sure you came out all right. So, yes, who are you?” the technician asked, and waited.
He shook his head. It felt like his brain was sloshing against the sides of his skull. “No,” he said, his voice a little firmer now. “I’m asking you to tell me.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ll give you a hint,” claimed the technician. “I’ll give you the first letter.”
“Just tell me,” he said.
“You start with an H,” said the technician, leaning closer, rubbing his hands. “It’s better this way. It needs to come back to you on its own. That’s in the manual.”
“Just tell me,” he said again.
“After H, the next letter is—,” the technician started to say to him, but by that time, almost without him knowing it, his hands had found their way to the technician’s throat and were squeezing, the man’s face darkening.
What am I doing? he wondered in amazement, and let go.
The technician stumbled backwards, hacking and coughing, until he slammed into the wall and slid slowly down.
“My name,” he said again.
“Hork eye,” the technician gasped.
Horkai, he thought. Yes, that sounded right. Plausible, at least. Close enough, anyway. For now.
* * *
THE TECHNICIAN STAYED pressed against the far wall, rubbing his throat, regarding him warily. Horkai had managed to prop himself up on his elbows, but it hadn’t been easy. With each movement he’d been struck by a new burst of pain, the last one so bad he had nearly passed out.
He was on a table. Plastic or plasticine, sturdy and long. Why can I remember what a table is when I can’t even remember my own name? he marveled. He brushed the tabletop with his fingers lightly, feeling its dimpling, but even that simple sensation was almost too much to bear.
In a moment, he told himself, once I’ve gathered myself, once I feel okay, I’ll swing my legs off the table and stand up. Only not quite yet.
“You could have killed me,” said the technician, his face pale and appalled.
“I’m sorry if things got out of hand,” said Horkai. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“If you didn’t mean to hurt me, why were you strangling me?”
Horkai closed his eyes. He shrugged, then winced.
“You’re dangerous. They were right to store you,” said the technician. “But they weren’t right to wake you up.”
Horkai didn’t bother to respond. “Tell me where I am,” he said.
“You’re here,” said the technician. “Where you’ve always been.”
The technician didn’t answer.
“Shall I come over there and make you answer?” asked Horkai.
The technician smirked. “Empty threat,” he said. “Even I know you can’t manage that.”
Horkai pressed his lips together. Carefully, he rocked his weight onto one elbow, shifting from the opposite elbow to his hand. The pain made him groan. He rocked the other direction, forced himself onto that hand as well.
The technician looked worried. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said.
Horkai ignored him. He tested his arms. They were both weak, atrophied, but would, he thought, support him. He gathered his weight on his arms, swung his legs and body out off the table.
Only his legs wouldn’t hold, wouldn’t move at all, in fact. They splayed and collapsed, and his forehead glanced off the table next to his own just before he struck the floor hard, pain shooting through his ribs and hip.
He lay there on the floor, staring at a brushed metal table leg. He reached up and touched his head, brought his hand away and saw fingers grown slick with blood.
“You’re paralyzed, Horkai,” the technician said. “A paraplegic. Don’t you remember?” Horkai turned and saw that the technician was now standing. “I’d help you up,” the man said, “but I’m afraid to get close to you.” And then he left the room.
* * *
HE PATTED HIS FOREHEAD. As far as he could tell, the gash was not bad. The bleeding seemed to have stopped almost immediately. Indeed, after a moment, he had a hard time telling where exactly the gash itself was.
He pulled himself up to sit, still feeling pain deep within each movement, and straightened his legs as best he could. Then he lay back again and began to think.
What did he know? Very little. He had been stored—he knew that somehow, knew what that meant, but could not for some reason remember where he had been stored or why. Nor why they, whoever they were, had unthawed him. He knew his name, Horkai, or at least a name that sounded plausibly like it could be his own. He knew, looking at his arms, that for some reason his skin was exceptionally pale. He knew, looking at his body and running his hand over his head, that he was hairless, and remembered, or thought he remembered, losing his hair in a blast. There was a name for it, for the blast, or for the thing the blast had been part of, something he could remember: Kollaps. Why had that come to him seemingly more naturally than his own name? He could remember something about the Kollaps itself but very little about what he had done before or what he had done after, in the days just before being stored.
How long had he been stored? Was his brain sufficiently awake now that he could trust it? He closed his eyes, trying to capture and organize the bits and scraps that beat around his skull.
And why hadn’t he remembered he was a paraplegic? Even if his mind hadn’t remembered it, wouldn’t his body still have known? Wouldn’t it have done something to prevent him from throwing himself off the table?
He patted his leg, but couldn’t feel anything in it. He tried to move it, failed. Why, now that he’d been told he was paralyzed, didn’t it feel right? Was he in denial?
The problem, he began to realize, wasn’t just trying to assemble the little he thought he knew into a narrative—it came in determining which of the memories were real, which were things he’d dreamed or imagined.
HE MUST HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP, must have dozed off again. The next thing he was conscious of was the sound of male voices, the feel of their hands as they lifted him off the floor. He saw three of them, one holding his legs and one lifting each side of his body. Or, rather, four: the original technician had returned as well, though he kept his distance, standing back by the door.
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