10

BY THE TIME THEY HAD REACHED the place where the freeway skirted the edge of the mountain and started back down, it was so dark that Horkai couldn’t see at all. The wind whipped viciously around them, making his shirt flap against his body. It was troubling to be moving through the darkness with no idea where you were going. The mules seemed to have no trouble picking a sure-footed path forward, didn’t even bother to slow down. As they passed over the top and started down, the wind tapered off, going suddenly quiet.

Above in the sky, behind the haze, arose a pale blur that he realized must be the moon. It helped him see again—though just a little, just enough to differentiate between the ground and the shape of Qanik walking beside them. If there were buildings to either side of the road, or farms, he couldn’t see them. There was a glimmer that might be water or might be something else. Nowhere were there any man-made lights.

For a long time he stayed still, listening. There were no insect noises, no birds, only the measured tread of the mules’ footsteps.

“How can you see?” he finally asked Qanik.

“We can see,” said Qanik. “That is how we are.”

“Maybe after a time, you will be able to see,” said Qatik. “Maybe your eyes will adjust.”

He waited for them to adjust, but nothing seemed to be happening.

They trudged on. They passed through an area that smelled odd. Not a bad smell exactly, or a dead smell: something else. The mules, he noticed, had sped up, unless he was imagining it.

He watched the moon smear its light through the haze. He tried again to make out the land around him, without success. He rocked back and forth, suspended in darkness. Just as, he couldn’t help but thinking, I’ve been suspended in darkness for the last thirty years, stored. Is this so different?

And what if, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking, it has all been a dream, a momentary burst of electricity in my brain caused by some small short or malfunction within the storage tank? What if I’m still, even now, in storage? That would make more sense than this ruined, lifeless world, or the fact that he seemed to have different characteristics from those around him, that he could withstand things that none of the others could. The silo, once he started thinking about it, was a lot like the tank, but very hot instead of cold—perhaps his brain was trying to tell him something. What if none of it is real?

And if it is a dream, he wondered, will it stay a dream or become a nightmare?

He closed his eyes. This isn’t real, he told himself. This isn’t real. But no matter how often he said it, no matter how much he tried to think the world away, he could still hear the sounds of footsteps crunching beneath him, could still feel the rocking rhythm of Qatik’s gait.

* * *

HORKAI PATTED QATIK’S HEAD gently.

“Doing all right?” he asked.

Below, the mule made a sound that he took for assent.

“Would it help keep you awake to talk?”

After a long pause, Qatik said, “Maybe.”

“Tell me about yourself,” said Horkai. “Tell me who you are.”

“I have already told you,” said Qatik. “A mule.”

“And the oldest,” said Horkai.

“The older of the two of us,” said Qatik, “but not the oldest.”

“And you have no parents. And despite looking alike, you are not brothers.”

“We do not have parents,” said Qatik. “We are not brothers.”

“Everybody has parents.”

He felt Qatik shake his head through the hood. “That is not how we are.”

“None of us have parents,” said Qanik, coming closer now. “Not in our community.”

“But Rasmus does,” said Horkai. “He told me the name of his father.”

Qanik shook his head. “You misheard. Rasmus is one of us. None of us have parents.”

“You’ve given up your parents?”

“If you like,” said Qatik.

“We share everything. All property is held in common,” said Qanik in a singsong voice. “We have no parents. Each of us is his own man, and each of us has a part to play in the community. We must accept our purpose or the community shall suffer.”

“Rasmus taught you this, I’m guessing,” said Horkai.

They didn’t respond.

“You’re communists,” said Horkai.

“What are communists?” asked Qatik.

“We are not that word, whatever it means,” said Qatik. “We are a hive.”

“A hive?”

“Like a beehive,” said Qanik. “It is our symbol. A united order. Next to the welfare of the community, our own welfare is nothing. We each have a part to play and we must play it. We must consecrate our lives to the service of our whole. Each of us has our purpose and each of us must fulfill that purpose or the community shall suffer.”

“Sounds almost like a religion,” said Horkai.

“A hive,” said Qatik again. “A united order. The many as one. No more, no less.”

“Who holds the property in common? Who distributes it?” asked Horkai. “Rasmus?”

Qanik didn’t respond.

“Don’t you think—?” he started to say, but then stopped as below him Qatik came to a halt, stood there motionless. “I agreed it might help to talk,” he said. “You asked me and I gave my assent. But now I no longer want to talk. And I no longer want you to talk with Qanik. Not about these things.”

Horkai stared down into the darkness, trying to discern him, but made out little more than the feeble outline of his hood. “All right,” he said. “We don’t have to talk anymore.”

He felt Qatik nod once through the hood, and then they moved on.

* * *

QATIK’S EASY MOTION was making him sleepy. At times he felt himself beginning to fall, beginning to drop off, and once Qatik had to reach up and hold him in place. Finally, when it kept happening, Qatik reached round and pulled him down, held him instead in his arms like a baby.

The suit was cool against his face, the material strange, not like anything he was familiar with. It smelled of dust and stuck gently to his cheek. He lay there, gently rocking with Qatik’s motion. Eventually, he fell asleep.

* * *

HE DREAMT THAT HE WAS IN the storage tank, just going under, waiting there with the tubes in his mouth and his eyes closed for the storage to begin. He opened his eyes, and a face on the other side of the glass—a technician of some sort, maybe someone he knew—admonished, “Keep your eyes closed. If they stay open, they might be injured.” He nodded, closed them again. He could hear, muffled and as if at a distance, the sound of the technician moving around. When will it happen? he wondered. He parted his eyelids just slightly and through veiled eyes watched the technician. He was standing there, his back to the machine, looking at something, and when he turned around, his face had on it a look of mixed fear and surprise, and it seemed, for just a moment, to be directed at him.

Horkai scrutinized the face, pretending to keep his eyes closed. Did the face look familiar? Was it someone he knew? Maybe, but in the dream, just as in life, it was hard to be certain of what he did and did not know.

And then suddenly he felt fluid flood into his mouth. His eyes opened wide and there was a hissing sound, incredibly loud, and he watched ice branch over the glass. He tried to close his eyes but they wouldn’t close and he couldn’t move. He should have been unconscious now, he knew, his existence blacked out, but he was still there, frozen but still there, still thinking. Help me, he thought. Through the glass he could hear the technician pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

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