Quentin had been warned that the laboratory behind the grove of ornamental trees contained ghastly biological specimens that could do ‘immeasurable harm.’ When she indicated that she could not understand the word “harm,” her Before-Me had rocked slowly and become smiling.
“In that you are a fortunate creature of the earth,” it murmured. “Some of us from before still are haunted by the stories of harm.” When It did not explain further, Quentin experienced that harm was a box best left unopened.
On the 14th peaceful day, Quentin was with her others for the sustenance time. They languished in the circle, hovering above the multi-coloured pillows, energy connecting. In the centre of the empty room the blue flame in the stone pot flickered. From every to every other flowed warmth and tranquility. Soft breezes from the roses in the garden outside floated through the open wall. Quentin’s aura quivered and relaxed.
After the sustenance, Quentin drifted to the frozen learning exhibit. She moved about the room, vibrating against the ancient books and manuscripts.
“How curious,” she thought tenderly, imagining the beings who had expended such energy to try to stabilize thought in this way.
Now beings did not fight to last, they just moved smoothly through life. Then, there had been what they called struggle. Now there was stillness.
An unexpected noise from the corner of the room startled her. She swung around. This was not the living learning centre; this was the ancient dead things centre. Nothing should be here. Perhaps it was one of the growing-ups who had come in from the garden. She went to get it, silly creature. They were always fumbling and spinning around, getting into things. They were too young to know how to move easily, how to think with the rhythm. Quentin peered behind the shelf and recoiled in horror at the sight.
What was it? An animal, but what? So irregular, so ugly. Curious to go to all things, she moved back and lifted over the shelf. Two black circles stared at her. It was a curled up naked beast; dirty, thin hairy sticks poking out of a quivering middle. It emanated crying, running away signals. Was it a specimen from the laboratory/
She pulled away. If it were from the laboratory, it was dangerous. She had never experienced something dangerous but knew that many times ago, there had been such things. Or perhaps not. Some said that they were just myths to explain how the world had grown from chaos to order. She learned forward. The thing shook and whimpered.
“Are you of immeasurable harm?” she asked softly.
The things eyes widened. Its head moved into its body. Quentin lifted and opened from her centre.
“Are you of immeasurable harm?” she murmured again, then waited, pulsating.
Finally, the body opened a gaping hole, “No,” it squeaked. “No, I’m not.”
“Why are you not where you should be?” she asked.
“I’ve escaped. I was in a cage. I want to go home.”
“Home?” What was that word?
“Yes, to Kaslo.”
“Kaslo?” she …”Is that a place from the 21 thousands?
“It’s in British Columbia,” he insisted. “God knows how I got here. Some kind of practical joke.”
“Come,” she guided. “We will go to the Before-Mes, they can tell you how to go where you will.”
“No,” it shivered. “Please, they will put me back in the cage. They treat me like a lab rat.”
“If they were doing it, it should be done.”
“Look, joke’s over. I’m not dangerous. Help me to get out of this place.”
She studied the pitiful shape. The body was heavy and lumpy and solid like a rock.
“Why do you carry a body like that?’ she asked. “It is not graceful.”
“Gees,” it sighed. “It’s better than no body. You all look like holograms, you’re not there. No meat. No loving,”
he said but she missed the joke.
“It is only to carry the energy,” she lifted. “And why do you shiver like that? Are you in transformation?”
“I’m shivering because I feel bloody cold, that’s why.”
“Cold?” she asked. “How can a thing feel cold?”
“Duh. It’s the temperature. I need clothes.”
“You have a body like the old times that needs wrapping?”
“Yes and there’s not a damn thing around. There’s nothing to even cover myself with when I sleep.” If this was a game show, he’d be the laughing stock, shriveled penis, bare bum.
A bell rang. Quentin turned.
“It is time for me to go and hear the sun,” she explained. “If I leave you will be happy?”
“Whatever, but for God’s sakes keep your mouth shut.” The challenge was to get out. Maybe he’d win a prize.
She moved back from the violence of his sound. “Then I will leave you. It will not make the Before-Me’s unhappy as they do not know you are here.”
He thought grimly that the things he’d escaped from would be unhappy, but kept quiet. These game shows got more and more violent. Five minutes of fame or even a large cash prize wasn’t worth all this pain.
“I may come back,” Quentin said. “Do you have a designation?”
“What do you call yourself?”
“Peter,” he replied. “Peter Russell.”
“I am designated Quentin,” she smiled. “The fifth, hoe many is Peter?”
“None, it’s a rock. Like ‘on this rock’”
She studied him. “You do look like a rock,” she acknowledged.
“No, no,’ he cried hysterically, “It refers to the rock on which the church…”
“If you are not a rock, you should not say so. That is fault.”
He shrugged. “I’m sorry.”
“You did not know,” she sighed, fading away.
Alone, Peter pulled his knees to his body, squeezed himself into a ball and wept. Until now he had felt frightened, annoyed and confused in turn, but after his failure to communicate with the phantom he felt desolate.
Why him? And how had they gotten him here? It couldn’t be a dream. A dream wouldn’t go on like this. And if it was a virtual game, it was mighty convincing.
The things were just forms. They had spoken in front of him when he was caged as if he weren’t there. When he complained, they signaled by vibrations that he should hush. When he got more agitated, they rocked him back and forth to calm him. It was like being submerged in jelly. Now finally, he had been able to speak to one and felt inconsolable.
He’d feel more sympathy for contestants in reality shows in future. He and Maria usually just sat there and ridiculed the contestants.
It was all so unsettling. The room looked normal, like an old library: shelves of books, a desk, and walls. It was the first place that looked natural. Every other space was empty, stark and unrecognizable.
Worst of all, it was so damn cold. He hadn’t found anything to cover himself with since he’d escaped. Now he knew how Adam must have felt chucked out of the garden nude. Why had they stripped him? He’d woken up bare naked and been shivering ever since. Maybe it was for entertainment value. People always loved strippers and he and Gerald roared with laughter when a streaker made it across the football field pursued by angry security guys.
And the food. The first day, they’d put about 30 things in front of him: wood, grass, slugs, bugs, and only two that were even edible—apples and a sort of paste. Just like on Survival.
Well, hungry and cold though he was, he’d better get away quickly. The creature would soon be back, perhaps with reinforcements. Not that it was unfriendly—stupid, gullible—but not vicious. Of course, you could be killed by a polar bear, mauled to death in good spirit.
He started towards the window he had entered earlier. He dreaded going outside again, he was so exposed out there but where else could he go? As he turned, there was a rattling sound and the window transformed into a wall.
“Shit,” he said. “How did they do that? They must be watching me?” Technology was out of control. He tried a door on the opposite side of the room. But there was nothing there. The books were real, he noted as he touched the shelves. Oddly, whoever set the stage had placed them backwards on the shelves so you couldn’t see the titles.
If it were a reality show, he didn’t want to look gullible. He gave a knowing wink towards the wall; then he swaggered bravely around the room, touching the walls, then pushing against them. He experienced something behind him, and swung around to face it. The thing was back.
“You are agitated?” she asked.
“Yes, I damn well am agitated,” he shouted, forgetting his resolve to remain cool. “I want out.”
“I have heard things about you,” she murmured, drifting in from of him.
“I bet you have.”
“You send unhappy feelings to me,” she said, moving back, “I will get the Before-Me’s to make you happy.”
“No,” he cried, lunging forward her and falling through her. Must use my brains, he thought, I must get it on my side.
“Quentin,” he smiled, unsure what tone to take to something with shadows for eyes. “Quentin, it makes me happy to see you. Tell me what the Beforers said about me.”
“Before-Me’s,” she corrected. “They said they had caught an animal from the other times. They sent a signal and the form it touched disintegrated and came forward to us. Isn’t that pleasant? They make it up again, to look just like it was.”
“You are not being happy,” she warned.
“No, I am happy,” he protested. “Do not believe what my body tells you. Our signals are not the same. You could not read them.’
“I do not read,” she shimmered obligingly. “I will follow what you say in words.”
He smiled smugly, this shouldn’t be hard.
“Did they tell you what to do it you saw the creature from before?”
“Have they caught other animals from before?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied cheerfully. “Sometimes they bring them to the learning centre. Some can fly. They are still brittle and solid but they can fly.”
He leaned towards her. “Can you help me get away?”
She twisted, hesitating. “Do not think you can go back to before,” she cautioned.
“You would be like me or lighter. You would have no hard body.”
“What’s this?” he challenged, banging his fist on his chest.
“It is just a copy of what was. Your body has gone.”
They were trying to trick him, but he was no fool. He had a body in all its solid, wrinkled splendor. But best to play along.
“I’d like to be like you.”
She swayed back and forth. “It has taken many times to get like this, you are wise to want to be of our form.”
“Can you help me?’
“Surely,” she murmured. “The Before-Me’s did not say not to help. I will find a way and come back for you.”
She disappeared into the bookshelf. Peter moved to the corner, and crouched with his back against the wall, waiting. He body ached from the cold and fatigue, his stomach cramped with hunger. How had they got hold of him in the first place? And why had they let him escape? Had the cage door been left open deliberately? Surely they could find him if they really wanted to. And, if it was a show, where was the camera? He studied every corner marveling at the possible technology that had created this nightmare.
The last sane moment he remembered was dozing peacefully in his the back yard cradled in his new hammock. When he jerked awake, his body was burning: every fiber hot and tingling. Too much sun, he had thought. But no, he was trapped in what felt like a coffin, unable to movie; what a terrible dream. And before he could snap awake or get himself oriented, the things arrived and started prodding him. At first he thought he was hallucinating but from what? Sunday afternoon, two beers, warm sun. Finally, they had left him alone to think and worry. He had realized it was not a dream something bizarre had happened; was it a reality show of some sort?
Maria. He suddenly remembered Maria. He threw back his head and howled with laughter. What in God’s name would she think? Come out to the yard, there was the hammock still swinging and where was he? She’d think he’d gone to the store. No, he wouldn’t have gone to the store for no reason and besides she’d notice the car was still there and he never walked. Would she think he was dead? Kidnapped? Like he was so rich and where was the ransom note? No, she must be in on it—part of the game. He’d give her what for when he got home.
The thing was back again. “Peters,” it said, “You want to go back?”
“Yes, yes,” he grinned, nodding. “Yes, I do.”
“You will have my form.”
“Great.” Wouldn’t that be something? Maria would love that! Hop into bed with a phantom. And at the office, “Peter, would you show Mr. Chun the new computer. Don’t mind Peter, Mr. Chun, he’s going to weight watchers.”
“You will not be sad to lose your hard form?”
“No,” he lied heartily. “No it’s a bother.”
His mind raced. What could he say? “It gets older,” he suggested.
“It gets worn out. It gets ugly and wrinkled.”
She drifted backwards. Poor Peters thought its body was not ugly now. In truth, it was so disgusting she could hardly move in its direction.
“These bodies get sick,” Peter continued, venting his frustrations, “sometimes they get diseases.
“Diseases?” she recoiled. Maybe that’s what it reminded her of. “Why haven’t you given them up already? How can you be at peace if you have a body that is wearing away?”
“It can be dreadful,” he agreed encouragingly. He remembered his mother, trapped in the hospital bed, the cancer eating her away: her mind still there, her spirits still vibrant, her body decaying.
The thing swayed from side to side. “You sad creature,” it said. “You will be happy when you are like me.”
“Sure will,” he nodded. Sure will be happy to escape this loony bin, he thought grimly. No more TV for him. Better be a big prize or he’d sue.”
She moved away beckoning him to follow her to a bare room.
“There is the spot,” she said, indicating a spotlight in the centre of the room. “Stand where the light is blue.”
He stepped forward. Would he appear back in the hammock with no clothes on and some scratches where they’d been prodding him? How would he explain that to Maria? No, probably, the host of the show would jump out, throw him a robe, and turn the camera on him hoping for a smiling face.
“Go now,” Quentin guided. “It is your choice and the Before-Me’s said it was the finest to give even the animals from before a choice. They said you would know about that, that you had a myth.”
What was the silly creature rattling on about? “How do I do it?” he snapped.
“Just stand there, stay in the light. They are waiting until you decide.”
“I’ve decided,” he shouted.
Suddenly his feet slipped from under him. His body was ripped as if by a cold fierce wind bouncing him along a funnel, his body pulling out from him, exploding. My God, he gasped, I’m disintegrating.
From the house, Maria could see the hammock gently swinging. She leaned out the window and called, “Sweetie, do you want another beer?”
When he ignored her second call, she went out to scold him for daydreaming. The empty hammock had stopped moving. The sight of his clothes laid neatly in the form of a body started her. “What a joker,” she laughed indulgently.
“Peter,’ she called out, expecting him to leap naked from the bushes. “If you jump out and scare me, I’ll hit you.”
She waited but he didn’t appear. The bushes trembled but when she parted the branches, there was nobody there.
Originally published at: http://larksfictionmagazine.blogspot.ca/