19

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO SEE into either of the two titanium cylinders; their lids were too frosted over. He sat there between them, putting the gloves on, looking at one and then the other, trying to decide which to open. They looked, for all intents and purposes, identical.

Eeny meeny miny mo, he thought, and then chose one. He reached out and turned the unit off and immediately an alarm began to sound. Very quickly he undid the latches and opened the lid, releasing a blast of freezing air.

It was filled with a series of small metal cylinders, each slightly larger and thicker than his middle finger. With the tongs, he turned one around, looking for writing on it, some kind of mark. It was there, but not red; it was blue. He looked at one on the other side of the tank—blue as well.

How long until it starts waking them up? he wondered, listening as the alarm droned on.

Maybe Rasmus had the color wrong, he thought. Carefully he examined another, then another. All blue.

He closed and latched the lid and turned the unit on again. Immediately the alarm stopped. One of the storage units suddenly began making a creaking noise, but whether because it was thawing or freezing again, he wasn’t sure.

He turned to the other unit and flicked it off. The alarm began again. He quickly opened it, and this time saw immediately the red characters on one of the metal cylinders inside. He lifted it carefully out with the tongs and moved it carefully into his gloved hand, then closed the lid of the unit, flicked it back on.

This time the alarm didn’t stop. One of the storage units was humming now, definitely thawing. How long would it take? A long time, he hoped.

How do I carry it? he wondered, looking at the cylinder, and then had an idea. He removed one of his gloves with his teeth, held it open in his lap, and then dropped the cylinder in. It lodged in the glove’s thumb. Carefully he rolled the end of the glove down to seal it and then tucked it into his shirt. Then, spinning the wheelchair around, he moved toward the exit.

* * *

THE OUTER DOOR OPENED despite the alarm. He managed to bump the wheelchair over its lip and out into the hall. Turning around, he nudged the door closed, was pleased when it eased its way back into place, though less pleased when he didn’t hear the lock click.

A pale light was leaking far into the tunnel. It was dawn or perhaps slightly later. He rolled down the hall as quickly as he could, until he reached the metal grate. From there, he shouted for the mules until finally they lumbered into view.

“Where did you find a wheelchair?” asked Qatik.

“Long story,” said Horkai. “We have to go. I had to kill someone back there.”

“Did you cut off his head?” asked Qanik.

“What?” asked Horkai, surprised. “No, of course not.”

“Then he is not dead,” said Qanik. “You always have to cut off the head.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” said Horkai. “Right now all that matters is that you get the gate up and get me out of here before the others wake up.”

Qatik looked Qanik up and down, then turned back to Horkai. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t do it.”

“What do you mean you can’t do it?”

“Look at us,” said Qatik. “Qanik can barely stand. We have eaten nothing for several days. We do not have the strength to lift it farther. We are dying, Josef. You will have to crawl out. You will have to leave your chair behind.”

“Do you have the cylinder?” asked Qanik. His face was barely visible now through his faceplate, which was thick inside with smeared blood. Horkai saw Qatik, too, had been coughing up blood, though not quite so much, not yet.

“I’ve got it,” said Horkai.

“All praise be to his name,” said Qanik. “Then our purpose can still be accomplished. Our deaths will not be in vain.”

* * *

ONCE HORKAI HAD SLIPPED OUT of the chair and had gotten his head through, Qatik dragged him the rest of the way out. But it was Qanik who insisted on carrying him.

“No,” said Qatik. “You are too sick. You are too dead.”

“I can do it now,” said Qanik. “For a mile or two. I will not be here to do it later. You need to save your strength for the rest of the way.”

And so they set out, the sun to their backs, walking as quickly as they could back the way they had come, Horkai again balanced on Qanik’s shoulders. The going was easier now, the road winding downhill. They moved slowly back down the canyon, seeing signs of ruined civilization gradually reappear and thicken. And now, from this direction, Horkai could see, through the haze, to the north, the devastated center of the metropolis, a huge deep crater, maybe a quarter mile across, maybe even wider. He suddenly recalled what it had looked like before, several dozen large buildings, twenty or thirty stories each, and many smaller ones, including the dome of the tabernacle and the six sharp spires of the Mormon temple. Nothing was left now: the buildings that had been within it and all around it were completely gone, reduced to ash. Around that was a belt of ruins—buildings with a few walls still standing, but mostly a field of rubble. Only gradually, far from the center of the blast, did actual houses begin to appear. And then, as the road descended lower, it all fell out of sight.

“Why did they do it?” asked Horkai.

“Why what?” responded Qatik.

“The Kollaps.”

Qatik shrugged. “It just happened,” he said. “That’s what Rasmus says.”

“An accident?”

“That hardly seems a sufficient word for it,” said Qatik.

Horkai nodded. These things happen, he thought, his mind taking a strange turn, and then we say we didn’t mean it, that it was an accident, that it will never happen again. Never again we say: God will not allow it. We say no to torture, and then we find a reason to torture in the name of democracy. We say no to sixty-six thousand dead in a single bomb blast over a defenseless foreign city, and then we do it again, a hundred thousand this time. We say no to eight million dead in camps, and then we do it again, twelve million dead in gulags. Humans are poison. Perhaps it would be better if they did not exist at all.

* * *

THE SUN ROSE HIGHER, still hidden behind the haze, and as the day went on, the wind rose and the dust along with it. Half the time Horkai was squinting and coughing, trying to breathe through his shirt, despite the blood stiffening it.

“Any water?” he asked.

Qanik said nothing, just kept plodding forward, his steps deliberate and relentless.

“No food either,” Qatik said. “Nothing left at all.”

Horkai thought again of the water deep within the mountain, slowly trickling out of the rock. It made his throat itch.

“Will we make it back?” he asked.

Qatik, half-turning, took a long look at Qanik and then looked up at Horkai. “One of us will,” he said. “Maybe.”

* * *

HE WATCHED MAHONRI’S PAINTED SIGNS die out, replaced slowly by signs stripped to bare metal, communicating nothing. Lulled by Qanik’s awkward but constant gait, he entered a kind of reverie. He thought again of Mahonri, so trusting, believing he was doing the Lord’s work, taking a stranger in and falling asleep beside him without a trace of suspicion. He thought again of the way Mahonri had heaved himself up just before collapsing and whispered, Why? He wondered if the mules were right, if Mahonri was, even now, lying on the floor of his shack, his wounds sealing, his throat becoming smooth and opaque as his body re-formed itself and brought him back to life. Or if he was simply dead. He thought of the storage units, the alarm going off, the way one of the units had started to thaw, waking up a new keeper. Would the new keeper come after them immediately, while the trail was still fresh, or would he stay and nurse Mahonri back to health, assuming he wasn’t dead? Always cut off the head, he remembered hearing one of the mules say again—which had it been? Or perhaps they would come after him as a group, four or five at once, hunting him down for what he had done. No, he suddenly realized, his thoughts leaping back to an earlier track, it wasn’t that Mahonri let in a stranger; it was that he let in a brother. I look like him. He trusted me because of that. That was why Rasmus needed me for this: not because the keepers wouldn’t recognize me, but because they would think they would. As soon as I saw Mahonri, I should have realized.

“Qanik?” said Horkai. The mule below him had started to weave a little bit. He slapped the side of his hood lightly and the man stopped, then shook himself and continued on, a bit straighter this time.

“Qatik?” said Horkai loudly. “Maybe you should take me now.”

Qatik moved closer, touched Qanik’s arm. “I am all right,” said Qanik, his voice forced out. “I will still carry him.”

The mule kept walking, his step a little slower now, a little heavier, a little jerkier, perhaps. He was bent over more, seemed to be staring at his own feet. Qatik stayed close beside them now, just a little behind, keeping close watch.

They kept walking, and Qanik somehow kept going, both Qatik and Horkai growing more and more anxious. The freeway was visible, the road they were on sloping downhill, and Horkai let himself be lulled again by the motion.

“Qatik,” said Horkai.

“What is it?” asked Qatik, not looking away from Qanik.

“Have you ever met someone like me?”

“What?” said Qatik. “Like you?”

“Yes,” said Horkai.

“Not me personally,” said Qatik. “No.”

“But you knew the keepers in Granite Mountain looked like me.”

“Yes, of course,” said Qatik, surprised. “Why else would Rasmus need you?”

They continued on a little way in silence.

“What do you know about me?” Horkai asked.

“What do I know?” asked Qatik. “That you were stored. That you are part of our community. That you are ill.”

“If I’m part of your community, then why don’t I look like everyone else?”

For a long moment Qatik didn’t answer. Finally he said, “You used to look like us, then you changed.”

“How do you know this?” asked Horkai.

“Rasmus told—”

“—that’s what I thought,” said Horkai. “Where did I come from?”

“From a storage unit,” said Qatik, finally turning to face him. “You were stored for a long time.”

“And before that?”

“I don’t know,” said Qatik.

“You don’t know much, do you?” said Horkai.

Qatik fell silent. “I am a mule,” he finally said. “It’s not my purpose to know.”

“Aren’t you curious?” asked Horkai. “Don’t you want to know?”

“Yes,” said Qatik. “Tell me.”

Then it was Horkai’s turn to fall silent.

“You are not going to tell me?” Qatik asked. “Is it a secret?”

“No,” said Horkai. “It’s not that. It’s just that I can’t remember.”

“You can’t remember?”

“No,” said Horkai.

“Then why did you ask me if I wanted to know?”

“I thought you might know,” said Horkai. “I thought you might be keeping it from me.”

“Why are you always trying to confuse me?” asked Qatik, his voice anguished.

“I’m sorry,” said Horkai. “I don’t mean to hurt you. But I have one more thing I need to ask.”

For a long time Qatik remained silent, walking along next to them. Finally he raised his hands and said, “All right.”

“What do you think I am?” asked Horkai.

“What do you mean?” asked Qatik. “Can’t you ask a question I can understand?”

“I changed, you said. That’s what Rasmus told you. What I’m trying to ask, Qatik, is if you think I’m still human.”

“Is this question a trap?” asked Qatik.

“No, it’s not a trap. Just answer honestly.”

Qatik shrugged. “You are part of the community,” he said. “Beyond that, what does it matter?”

“Just answer the question,” said Horkai, his voice starting to rise. “Am I or am I not human?”

“No,” said Qatik, turning his bloodstained faceplate toward him. “Of course you’re not.”

* * *

IT TOOK MORE TALKING, more coaxing, but in the end he got a little out of Qatik, almost in spite of the mule himself. No, Qatik told him, Rasmus had taught them that he was not human, but even had Rasmus not said that, Qatik argued, he would have known. Yes, Horkai was part of the community, but he was there to look after them, to protect them.

“A kind of keeper?” said Horkai. “A guardian angel? Something divine?”

“I don’t know,” said Qatik, clearly uncomfortable. “We did not call you that. We do not know what you are, only what you are not.”

“Which is human.”

“If you were human, you would be dead by now,” said Qatik. “Several times over. It is good that you are not human.”

“But what if it’s all a lie?” asked Horkai. “What if I don’t belong to the community? What if I belong somewhere else?”

“I don’t know,” said Qatik. “All I know is that the community needs you. We had something we needed and we could not have gotten it without you. Why would you help us if you were not part of our community?”

Why indeed? wondered Horkai. What game am I playing exactly? Qatik doesn’t know anything. Why am I torturing him?

* * *

SOON QANIK BEGAN TO STUMBLE, careening back and forth for a few seconds until, all at once, his legs gave out and he collapsed. Horkai, thrown from his shoulders, scraped his elbow going down, striking the side of his head hard enough to make his skull throb.

He lay there facedown on the ground, feeling his head ache. He turned over to find Qatik kneeling beside Qanik, knocking on his faceplate.

“Wake up, Qanik,” he was saying. “Wake up.”

He shook him, then shook him again. He lifted one of Qanik’s arms and let it fall.

“He’s dead,” said Horkai.

“Wake up,” Qatik said again. “Wake up, please.”

“Qatik,” said Horkai. “Stop it. He’s dead. It’s no use.”

And so Qatik stopped. Instead he just kneeled there motionless over Qanik, his arms hanging limply by his side.

“I need to bury him,” Qatik finally said.

“We don’t have time,” said Horkai. “You have your purpose to fulfill. They may already be pursuing us.”

Qatik shook his head. “I need to bury him,” he said again. “I have an additional purpose now, and that is it.”

“No,” said Horkai. “This is ridiculous. You don’t have a shovel. There’s no time.”

Qatik remained silent, not moving.

“Qatik?” said Horkai. “Are you listening to me?”

Qatik didn’t answer.

Horkai sighed. “Qatik, we need to move on.”

“Maybe my purpose means nothing,” said Qatik. “Just as you have been trying to tell me all along. Maybe my purpose is over now. Maybe I will leave both of you here and go off to have some peace before I die.”

“You’re not thinking straight,” said Horkai quickly. “You’re upset, understandably so. This isn’t what Qanik would want you to do, is it?” When Qatik nodded, he continued. “Let’s compromise. What about the hospital that you took me to when I was shot, the shelter there? We’re close to that, aren’t we? It’s the place where he spent the most time, apart from the community, no?”

“Yes,” said Qatik.

“Leave him there down below, in the shelter.”

For a long time, Qatik just stayed squatting and staring down at the other mule, stroking his hood softly. “It is not fair,” he finally said.

“It’s never fair,” said Horkai. “Why should it be?”

“All right,” he said. He reached down, got his hands under Qanik’s legs and back, and, straining, stood up with him in his arms. “The shelter.”

“Wait,” said Horkai. “What about me?”

“What about you?”

“You can’t leave me here.”

“One purpose at a time,” said Qatik, and strode away.

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