THE WHEELCHAIR SQUEAKED as its wheels circled around. With each revolution there was a sharp peal of complaint followed by a circuit of deathly silence. Donald lost himself in this rhythmic sound as he was pushed along. His breath puffed out into the air, the room harbouring the same deep chill as his bones.
There were rows and rows of pods stretched out to either side. Names glowed orange on tiny screens, made-up names designed to sever the past from the present. Donald watched them slide by as they pushed him to the exit. His head felt heavy, the weight of remembrance replacing the dreams that coiled away and vanished like wisps of smoke.
The men in the pale blue overalls guided him through the door and into the hallway. He was steered into a familiar room with a familiar table. The wheelchair shimmied as they removed his bare feet from the footrests. He asked how long it’d been, how long he’d been asleep.
‘A hundred years,’ someone said. Which would make a hundred and sixty since orientation. No wonder the wheelchair felt unsteady — it was older than he was. Its screws had worked loose over the long decades that Donald had been asleep.
They helped him stand. His feet were still numb from his hibernation, the cold fading to painful tingles. A curtain was drawn. They asked him to urinate in a cup, which came as glorious relief. The sample was the colour of charcoal, dead machines flushed from his system. The paper gown wasn’t enough to warm him, even though he knew the cold was in his flesh, not in the room. They gave him more of the bitter drink.
‘How long before his head is clear?’ someone asked.
‘A day,’ the doctor said. ‘Tomorrow at the earliest.’
They had him sit while they took his blood. An old man in white overalls with hair just as stark stood in the doorway, frowning. ‘Save your strength,’ the man in white said. He nodded to the doctor to continue his work and disappeared before Donald could place him in his faltering memory. He felt dizzy as he watched his blood, blue from the cold, being taken from him.
They rode a familiar lift. The men around him talked, but their voices seemed distant. Donald felt as though he had been drugged, but he remembered that he had stopped taking their pills. He reached for his bottom lip, finger and mouth both tingling, and felt for an ulcer, that little pocket where he kept his pills unswallowed.
But the ulcer wasn’t there. It would’ve healed in his sleep decades ago. The elevator doors parted, and Donald felt more of that dreamtime fade.
They pushed him down another hall, scuff marks on the walls the height of the wheels, black arcs where rubber had once met the paint. His eyes roamed the walls, the ceiling, the tiles, all bearing centuries of wear. It seemed like yesterday that they had been almost new. Now they were heaped with abuse, a sudden crumbling into ruin. Donald remembered designing halls just like these. He remembered thinking they were making something to last for ages. The truth was there all along. The truth was in the design, staring back at him, too insane to be taken seriously.
The wheelchair slowed.
‘The next one,’ a gruff voice behind him said, a familiar voice. Donald was pushed past one closed door to another. One of the orderlies bustled around the wheelchair, a ring of keys jangling from his hip. A key was selected and slotted into the lock with a series of neat clicks. Hinges cried out as the door was pushed inward. The lights inside were turned on.
It was a room like a cell, musky with the scent of disuse. The light overhead flickered before it came on. There was a narrow double bunk in the corner, a side table, a dresser, a bathroom.
‘Why am I here?’ Donald asked, his voice cracking.
‘This will be your room,’ the orderly said, putting away his keys. His young eyes darted up to the man steering the wheelchair as if seeking assurances for his answer. Another young man in pale blue hurried around and removed Donald’s feet from the stirrups and placed them on carpet worn flat by the years.
Donald’s last memory was of being chased by snarling dogs with leathery wings, chased up a mountain of bones. But that was a dream. What was his last
‘I mean—’ Donald swallowed painfully. ‘Why am I…
He almost said
One of the orderlies held Donald’s wrist — two fingers pressing lightly on ice-blue veins, lips moving as he silently counted. The other orderly dropped two pills into a plastic cup and fumbled with the cap on a bottle of water.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ the silhouette in the doorway said.
The orderly with the pills glanced over his shoulder as the older man stepped inside the small room and some of the air was displaced. The room shrank. It became more difficult for Donald to breathe.
‘You’re the Thaw—’ Donald whispered.
The old man with the white hair waved a hand at the two orderlies. ‘Give us a moment,’ he said. The one with a grip on Donald’s wrist finished his counting and nodded to the other. Unswallowed pills rattled in a paper cup as they were put away. The old man’s face had awoken something in Donald, pierced through the muddle of visions and dreams.
‘I remember you,’ Donald said. ‘You’re the Thaw Man.’
A smile was flashed, as white as his hair, wrinkles forming around his lips and eyes. The chair in the hallway squeaked as it was pushed away. The door clicked shut. Donald thought he heard the lock engage, but his teeth chattered occasionally and his hearing was still hazy.
‘Thurman,’ the man said, correcting him.
‘I remember,’ Donald said. He remembered his office, the one upstairs and some other office far away, someplace where it still rained, where the grass grew and the cherry blossoms came once a year. This man had been a senator, once.
‘That you remember is a mystery we need to solve.’ The old man tilted his head. ‘For now, it’s good that you do. We need you to remember.’
Thurman leaned against the metal dresser. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in days. His hair was unkempt, not quite how Donald remembered it. There were dark circles beneath his sad eyes. He seemed much… older, somehow.
Donald peered down at his own palms, the springs in the bed making the room feel as though it were swaying. He flashed again to the horrible sight of a man remembering his own name and wanting to be free.
‘My name is Donald Keene.’
‘So you do remember. And you know who I am?’ He produced a folded piece of paper and waited for an answer.
‘Good.’ The Thaw Man turned and placed the folded piece of paper on the dresser. He arranged it on its bent legs so it tented upward, towards the ceiling. ‘We need you to remember everything,’ he said. ‘Study this report when the fog clears, see if it jars anything loose. Once your stomach is settled, I’ll have a proper meal brought down.’
Donald rubbed his temples.
‘You’ve been gone for some time,’ the Thaw Man said. He rapped his knuckles on the door.
Donald wiggled his bare toes against the carpet. The sensation was returning to his feet. The door clicked before swinging open, and the Senator once again blocked the light from the hallway. He became a shadow for a moment.
‘Rest, and then we’ll get our answers together. There’s someone who wants to see you.’
The room was sealed tight before Donald could ask what that meant. And somehow, with the door shut and him gone, there was more air to breathe in that small space. Donald took a few deep breaths. Gathering himself, he grabbed the frame of the bed and struggled to his feet. He stood there a moment, swaying.
‘Get our answers,’ he repeated aloud. Someone wanted to see him.
He shook his head, which made the world spin. As if he had any answers. All he had were questions. He remembered the orderlies who woke him saying something about a silo falling. He couldn’t remember which one. Why would they wake him for that?
He moved unsteadily to the door, tried the knob, confirmed what he already knew. He went to the dresser where the piece of paper stood on its remembered folds.
‘Get some rest,’ he said, laughing at the suggestion. As if he could sleep. He felt as though he’d been asleep for ever. He picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it.
A report. Donald remembered this. It was a copy of a report. A report about a young man doing horrible things. The room twisted around him as if he stood on some great pivot, the memory of men and women trampled and dying, of giving some awful order, faces peering in at him from a hallway somewhere far in the past.
Donald blinked away a curtain of tears and studied the trembling report. Hadn’t he written this? He had signed it, he remembered. But that wasn’t his name at the bottom. It was his handwriting, but it wasn’t his name.
Donald’s legs went numb. He sought the bed — but collapsed to the floor instead as the memories washed over him. Troy and Helen. Helen and Troy. He remembered his wife. He imagined her disappearing over a hill, her arm raised to the sky where bombs were falling, his sister and some dark and nameless shadow pulling him back as people spilled like marbles down a slope, funnelling into some deep hole filled with white mist.
Donald remembered. He remembered all that he had helped do to the world. There was a troubled boy in a silo full of the dead, a shadow among the servers. That boy had brought an end to silo number twelve, and Donald had written a report. But Donald — what had he done? He had killed more than a silo full of people; he had drawn the plans that helped end the world. The report in his hand trembled as he remembered. And the tears that fell and struck the paper were tinged a pale blue.