21

WHEN THE SUN FELL, it grew very dark, though perhaps not quite so dark as it had been a few nights before when he couldn’t see anything at all. He could now, from time to time, see the outlines of things. Or at least he managed to convince himself he could. The going was a little quicker now, Qatik letting his legs carry him down the slope out of one valley and into the other.

He did not know for certain when he fell asleep, when he started dreaming. One moment he was observing the vague outline of things and feeling the rolling motion of Qatik’s gait, listening to the intensity of the quiet. The next he was asleep. He dreamt he was back in a storage tank, not in storage yet but preparing to be stored. The lid of the unit was closed; he was webbed in. The glass itself was clear, not yet frosted over. On the other side of it was a technician, standing by a bank of machinery upon which he would move a level or adjust a slider, as if mixing a song. He was looking at Horkai, waiting for something. Horkai, not knowing what else to do, finally raised a thumb and the technician nodded and smiled. He reached out and touched a button and the storage process began.

In the dream he knew the feet were always the first to go for him, the toes and then the rest of the feet, though he knew other people who claimed it was the hands that went first, not the feet. Then the numbness spread to his fingers and hands and up his legs and arms, slowly converging on the center of his body. The head and chest were always last, but of course he wouldn’t feel those; by the time his chest was being stored, he would have been administered an injection to suspend his heart. The head was always frozen quickly after that, almost immediately, so as to minimize damage to the brain.

Everything was fine, everything went well, nothing went wrong, not with the storage, anyway. But outside, something was happening. The technician was no longer there, had simply vanished. In his place he saw Rasmus and the twins, Olaf and Oleg. And one other person, bald and hairless, his back to him.

I’m watching myself, he thought for an instant, but then a moment later was filled with doubts and had to ask himself, Is it really me?

As he watched, willing the man to turn so that he could see his face, he saw Rasmus make a gesture that the twins immediately seemed to pick up on. They each took hold of one of the other man’s arms and held them tight to his side. Through the glass Horkai heard the muffled sound of his protest, though he was unable to hear the exact words. The man struggled a little, but the twins kept his arms immobilized.

And then suddenly Rasmus lifted his arm and Horkai saw that he was holding a long, very sharp knife.

He must have made an involuntary noise, because for a fraction of a second the twins glanced toward his tank, the man using it as an opportunity to attempt an escape. And, indeed, the man did manage to break free from one twin and was well on the way to breaking free from the other when Rasmus plunged the knife deep into his chest.

Horkai watched the knife come out and then plunge back down. The man screamed and momentarily slumped out of his vision. Then he was up again, struggling and half turning as the knife came down again, and yet again.

And it was only then, as the man grew looser in the twins’ grip and finally seemed to lose consciousness altogether—unless, in fact, he was dead—that his head flopped in the right direction and his body turned enough for Horkai to finally get a look.

But what he saw was not what he expected. Instead of seeing his own bloodied face staring back at him, he saw the face of Mahonri. And as he watched, certain that the man was dead, Mahonri’s eyes suddenly blinked open. With blood pumping from his chest, he turned to face Horkai’s tank, his face wreathed in an unnerving smile.

* * *

HE WOKE UP FEELING like he was falling, and had just enough time to realize he actually was. He struck something hard enough to knock the breath out of him.

He must have been unconscious for a few moments, perhaps longer. When he regained awareness, it was to find himself in the dark, listening to someone groaning. It took him some time to realize that the man groaning was in fact him.

His head throbbed. His face was pressed into something dusty and he could taste blood in his mouth. His shoulder ached. He pushed himself over and stared into the dark, trying to remember where he was. Was he in storage still, something having gone wrong? He couldn’t feel the walls of the cylinder around him. Dreaming still?

And then he remembered where he was: near a pool in the heart of a mountain, trapped in a shack with a dead man. If the man was in fact actually dead. His skin began to crawl. Where was his knife? He searched the floor beside him, found nothing. He felt around for the cot that he had been sleeping on before it had turned over, but didn’t find it. He felt around for a wall, for any of the three walls of the shack, but didn’t find those either, touched instead chunks of rock and rubble. Had they been there when he’d gone to sleep? No, he didn’t think so—the floor had been clean: Mahonri had been sleeping on the floor and would have swept it clean first. He was sure of that, or reasonably so. He felt around for his own blankets or the blankets that Mahonri had been using, but did not find those either.

And then finally, groping around, his fingers brushed something. Fabric of some kind, a blanket maybe. He passed over it again, brushing it lightly, and then brought his hand down more fully upon it. The fabric, whatever it was, was thick and stiff, not a blanket. The shape was strange, too, and too regular to be just folds in a crumpled blanket.

He took hold of it more firmly and squeezed. There was something inside the fabric and Horkai realized suddenly that he was squeezing a glove.

Just as he realized this, the hand within the glove moved.

He gave a cry and scrambled away as quickly as he could, trying to orient himself in the darkness.

No matter how hard he tried to make it fit, tried to plaster it to the image, he could not picture Mahonri wearing a glove.

That simple fact was enough to open a crack in his perception, to bring everything into doubt, to make his heart slow down, his panic stop. And with that, everything shifted. As quickly as it had sprung into existence, the world that had been building itself up around him in the darkness—the shack, the lake, the dead body on the floor—simply dissolved and was replaced by himself and Qatik, fallen to the ground in the middle of an old freeway.

“Qatik,” he asked, “are you all right?”

He heard a groan again, made for it, knuckling backwards over the ground until he found the man’s hand again. From there, he worked his way up the arm and to the hood. He shook the mule’s shoulders.

“Qatik,” he said again.

“What happened?” asked Qatik, his voice slow and thick.

“We fell,” said Horkai. “You must have tripped.”

Qatik coughed. “I am sorry,” he said. “I am weaker. Not paying enough attention. Not enough sleep. Or food. Blood on the inside of the faceplate makes it hard to see.”

“No need to apologize,” said Horkai.

When Qatik didn’t say anything, he shook him again.

“Just need a moment,” said Qatik. “I will be all right soon.”

“Shall we wait for morning before moving on?” Horkai asked. “When we can see?”

“Can’t,” said Qatik. “By morning I am dead.”

He lay there for a few minutes more, Horkai leaving him alone. Finally he began to move, one of his arms brushing past Horkai’s face. His hands were busy at something and then he grunted, and the movements stopped.

“Suit torn,” he said, his voice flat and dead.

“Where?” asked Horkai, picturing in his head again the tear on the back of Qatik’s arm.

“Belly,” said Qatik. “Something went in when I tripped. I am cut, too. Cannot say how bad it is.”

And then he fell silent. Horkai waited, trying to see him in the dark, catching only the vaguest hint of his outline. He thought he might have drifted off again. He reached out and felt around, touched him gently on the belly, found the fabric there sticky with blood.

“It’s all right if you can’t go on,” said Horkai.

“Just give me a minute,” said Qatik. “I just need a minute.”

* * *

HE HAD ALREADY BECOME RECONCILED enough to the idea of Qatik’s death when the man, grunting, sat up. He groped about until he found Horkai’s shoulder, then used it pull himself to his knees.

“How bad is it?” asked Horkai.

“Not good,” said Qatik. “But this is not what will kill me.” He groped around until he found Horkai’s hand and pressed one of the backpacks into it.

“You will help,” he said. “You have an additional purpose now. It is this: There is a fusee in here. Find it and break it open.”

Horkai felt around the edge of the bag until he found the pull for the zipper. He tugged it open and stuck his hand in, feeling through the shapes until he found a bundle of long, thin tubes. He extracted one, then pulled it out and sniffed it, smelling the garlicky odor of phosphorus.

He carefully felt his way along it until he found where the casing was scored, then quickly cracked it open. It flared up immediately, its light red and blinding, and he quickly tossed it a little distance away.

“Good,” said Qatik. “This part is done.”

Horkai could see him now, stark in the glow of the flare. The rip in the front of the suit was perhaps four inches long. Blood had spilled down and no doubt was pooling inside it as well. In one hand Qatik held a sharp-edged piece of metal, perhaps part of a signpost, slick with blood. He balanced on his knees, swaying slightly.

“There is an ampoule of morphine and a hypodermic,” said Qatik.

“Yes,” said Horkai. “Here they are.”

“Prime the needle and load it. Push it through the rip in the suit and inject me.”

“How much?”

“All of the ampoule,” said Qatik.

“Is that a lot?”

“Yes, a lot. You will have to speak to me to keep me awake.”

He affixed the needle to the hypodermic. Breaking off the ampoule’s tip, he pushed the needle in, drawing the fluid up into the chamber. Carefully he parted the lips of the tear until he could see Qatik’s bloody shirt behind it. Rapidly he sank the needle in and depressed the plunger.

Qatik groaned and swayed but did not fall.

“All right?” said Horkai.

“Now,” said Qatik. “In the backpack is a plastic bottle of seam sealant.”

Horkai searched through the backpack, found it.

“Seal the wound with it, and then the suit.”

Horkai took the cap off and pushed the bottle into the opening, spreading the slit wide with his fingers again, turning Qatik a little now so that the light from the fusee would shine on the wound. It was broad and deep, and bits of metal were still in it, blood and fluid oozing around them.

He tried to pick the bits free but Qatik groaned and pushed at his shoulder.

“Just seal it,” he said through gritted teeth.

And so he did, squeezing the tube until a translucent substance squirted out of it and filled the wound. It hissed against the flesh, connecting to it, becoming a sort of dark web. He heard Qatik’s breathing grow more labored, the muscles around the wound tightening. He squeezed a little more in, then realized that it had started to bind not only to the flesh but to Qatik’s shirt as well. He watched it until he was sure the bleeding had stopped and then pulled both sides of the suit’s fabric together and sealed them to each other. He held on too long with his fingers and had to tear them bloody to free them.

“All right,” said Horkai. “It’s done.”

“Good,” said Qatik, and then made a heaving noise and retched inside his suit. What came up was mostly blood. It gleamed wetly on the inside of the faceplate, slipping down. He reached out and steadied himself against Horkai’s shoulder. “I may last another hour or two,” he said, and then retched again.

They stayed there for a few minutes longer, until the fusee began to sputter. Using Horkai as a support, Qatik pulled himself fully to his feet.

“Yes,” he said. “I think I can do it.” He stumbled over to the remains of the barrier edging the freeway, leaned against it, and squatted down.

“You will have to climb on,” he said to Horkai. “If you can manage that, I might be able to stand.”

Looping the backpack around one arm, Horkai knuckled over to him. Carefully, he heaved himself up until he was precariously balanced on the barrier and then fell on Qatik’s back, wrapping his arms around his neck. His legs dangled, scraping the ground. Qatik grabbed them and pulled Horkai’s body closer, until he was riding piggyback. Slowly, Qatik straightened up.

When Horkai started to pull himself higher, Qatik said in a breathless voice, “Not the shoulders. I cannot manage this. Keep your arms tight around my neck and hold on.”

* * *

THE GOING WAS SLOW. As they moved away from the sputtering fusee, Qatik stumbling a little, the light faded and then was entirely gone. Horkai could see only the wiry ghost of the fusee still burning in his head.

“Can you see?” he asked Qatik.

“A little,” said Qatik. His voice was very thick now, slurred. “Not much.”

“Shouldn’t we wait until morning?”

“No such thing as morning,” said Qatik.

He kept on, moving slowly, feeling his way forward when he had doubts. Horkai could not help but think about what might happen if they fell again. Next time, he was certain, they wouldn’t get back up.

Horkai began to talk, at first simply urging Qatik on, telling him he could do it, but slowly moving to other things. He spoke of the little he could remember about the Kollaps, offered the scattered bits of it to Qatik, who did not respond back. He spoke of what he could remember about the world before the Kollaps, began to detail what animals could be found on a farm and what they looked like. Why could he remember such things in such detail, reconstruct so many details of the world as it had been, but couldn’t remember his own place in it? When he’d finished with that, he began hoarsely to sing, songs he remembered from when he was a child. “The Farmer in the Dell” he started with since it made a good transition from talk about farm animals, then a song about a garbage truck, followed by a long explanation of what a garbage truck was. He started a lullaby but then thought better of it. And then, tired and distracted himself, he slowly fell silent.

When Qatik weaved or stumbled, Horkai would shake his shoulder or strike him atop the hood, and he would straighten up a little. They kept on going, waiting for night to end.

* * *

AND THEN SUDDENLY HE WAS BEGINNING to see again, the darkness leaking away and revealing the things hidden within it. At first it was only the shape of Qatik’s hood in front of him, but slowly the world became more and more distinct, extending itself around them. Still hours until sunrise, he thought, but now at least it was coming. Now at least they could see the road.

Qatik had sped up just a little, not much. He was going forward, stumbling a bit, still weaving a little, clearly confused, sedated.

“Shall I talk to you?” Horkai asked him, realizing how tired he was himself. His eyes felt like they had been squeezed to bursting.

“I feel,” said Qatik, “like I’m walking…” And then he trailed off.

“You are walking,” said Horkai.

“… underwater,” Qatik finished.

“Oh,” said Horkai. “Do you need to rest?”

Qatik didn’t bother to answer. They kept on, Qatik letting the slope carry him forward, Horkai from time to time shaking him, speaking to him, urging him on.

“Promise me,” said Qatik. “Promise me you will finish it. Promise me you will fulfill my purpose. Promise me you will sing to the others what I and Qanik did for them.”

“All right,” said Horkai. “I promise.”

“There is a signal pistol,” Qatik said. “A Molins Number 1. A Very pistol. On a belt inside my suit.”

“All right,” said Horkai.

“When I die, take it, and the signal flares,” said Qatik. “Pull yourself along, as far as you can go, then fire it. Light a fusee, too, so they’ll know where to find you. Maybe they will see and come for you.”

* * *

THE SUN CAME NERVOUSLY OUT, still estranged in dust and haze. The slope slowly leveled off, grew almost flat. Qatik moved forward only with the greatest effort now. He veered slowly off the edge of the road and onto the frontage road, but got tangled in the remnants of a barbed wire fence. It took all Horkai’s wits to get him untangled and keep him on his feet. But just when he thought they’d truly reached the end, Qatik tore free with a groan and they were off again, swaying ponderously down the road.

They passed an old salvage yard—unless it was something else and just looked like a salvage yard now. A tattered billboard, little left of it beyond its metal struts. A concrete wall with a window chopped into it, the opening obscured by a metal grille. Pile after pile of dust-covered corrugated piping, a Quonset hut collapsed and blown flat.

“How far away are we?” Horkai asked.

“Far,” said Qatik, forcing the word out. “Miles and miles.”

And indeed they walked on for what seemed like miles and miles, the sun rising above them, Horkai trying to stay focused, trying to keep Qatik going, goading him on. But he himself was exhausted, his head lolling, and there were a few moments when his hands, tired from hanging on to Qatik’s neck for so long, started to slip and he nearly slid off. He was hungry, starving, almost terminally thirsty. He tried not to think about it, tried to stay focused and in control.

They must still have had miles to go when, abruptly, Qatik came to a halt.

“Qatik?” said Horkai.

Qatik stood there swaying back and forth. He took another step, then another. Horkai breathed a sigh of relief that they were going again. But after a half dozen steps, Qatik stopped again.

“Keep going,” Horkai urged. “It’s not much farther. Your purpose is almost complete.”

He heard Qatik retching again in his suit, swaying and nearly toppling, and then the retching suddenly turned to a low, keening laugh.

“My purpose!” he said in a choked voice. “My purpose!”

He took another step and then fell to one knee. “Get up,” Horkai told him, striking him lightly on the hood, “get up,” and Qatik struggled, tried to get his leg back under him. And indeed, he was already on his way to standing up again when the other leg went and he tipped slowly over and fell.

Horkai rode him down, letting Qatik’s body absorb the fall, disentangling himself once they were down. Qatik was lying on one side, moving his hands, motioning with his fingers, almost as if he were typing, but making no effort to get up.

Horkai rolled him faceup and leaned in over him. He tried to catch a glimpse of his face through the faceplate, but it was too filthy with blood spatter for him to see much of anything inside. It was as if someone had been murdered inside—which, thought Horkai, was the case.

“I’m sorry,” said Horkai, and was surprised to realize how sincerely he meant it. Qatik tried to raise his hands but couldn’t manage it and let them fall. He tried to speak, but his voice was too soft for Horkai to hear. He moved his ear closer to the speaker and asked him to repeat it.

“Hood,” mouthed Qatik.

What about it? wondered Horkai, and then suddenly got it. “You want me to remove your hood?” he asked.

When Qatik said nothing, Horkai fished a knife out of the backpack and began cutting through the seam sealant around the hood’s edge. Since Qatik still said nothing, he assumed it was what he wanted.

The seal broke away only awkwardly, and he had to roll the flap back and work the fasteners open. His fingers clumsily loosened the hood.

The inside of the hood reeked of blood and vomit. Qatik’s thick face was covered with bruises and sores, the flesh itself beginning to lose consistency. His eyes were half-open, fluttering. He looked fragile, extremely vulnerable. Horkai touched the side of his head and cupped his jaw, and Qatik opened his eyes and gave him a worried and frightened look. A look so painfully intimate, it made Horkai want to look away, but he found that he could not.

He saw Qatik’s lips move, but heard nothing. He brought an ear down until it was almost touching Qatik’s lips and stayed there, hovering, listening until Qatik whispered again.

“Morphine,” he whispered.

Horkai moved his head back and nodded, watched Qatik’s eyes slip closed. He rummaged through the backpack until he found a sheathed needle, a syringe, and the remaining three ampoules of morphine.

He filled the chamber with the first ampoule and injected it into Qatik’s stomach beside the wound, then stayed there waiting. He was about to throw the hypodermic away when he again met Qatik’s eyes. Despite the way the man’s gaze was already going glassy, Horkai still sensed a mute appeal in it.

He filled the hypodermic with the second ampoule and injected it in the same spot as the first. He stayed looking at the third ampoule, holding it in one hand, the hypodermic in the other. Finally he made up his mind and broke the glass tip off, inserted the needle and drew the morphine up into the reservoir. He hesitated for just a moment over the stomach wound, bringing the needle down to touch the skin and then moving it up higher, injecting it this time into the artery throbbing weakly in Qatik’s neck.

A moment later Qatik was dead.

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