When they first awoke him he had the impression of the world becoming real again and he himself along with it. He did not remember having been stored. He could remember nothing about what his life had been before the Kollaps, and the days directly before they had stored him were foggy at best, little more than a few frozen images. He remembered tatters of the Kollaps itself, had a fleeting glimpse of himself panting and in flight, riots, gunfire, rubble. He remembered a bright blast, remembered awakening to find himself burned and naked as a newborn—or perhaps even more naked, since all the hair had been singed from his body or had simply fallen out. He remembered feeling amazed to be alive, but, well, he was alive, it was hard to question that, wasn’t it?
And then what? People: he had found them, or they had found him, hard to say which. A few men banded together, acting “rationally” instead of “like animals,” as one of them must have put it, attempting to found a new society, attempting to start over.
Not having learned better, he thought grimly, the first time.
Was it all coming back to him? He wasn’t sure. And how much of what was coming back was real?
What was his name again?
At first he couldn’t feel his body at all. He heard noise around him, the low rumble of ordinary mortals muttering to one another, the scuff of feet against a floor around what must be his receptacle. He tried to move his mouth and found he couldn’t, that he couldn’t even feel it, that he wasn’t even completely certain that he had a mouth. It made him nervous. He tried to lick his lips, but either nothing happened or something happened that he couldn’t feel.
His eyelids were closed but there was the slightest gap between them. He could just see out, could see light, a slight blurriness of semi-differentiated figures, nothing more. He tried to will his eyes open further, failed. Nor could he move the eyes themselves: they stayed staring, fixed, his mind very clumsily processing the thin slit of reality available to them.
He tried to swallow, but couldn’t move his throat. Am I breathing? he wondered, but figured that no, he was in storage, he wasn’t breathing, wouldn’t breathe until he was fully awake. Assuming he understood the process properly, he was still frozen. He shouldn’t be experiencing anything at all yet, shouldn’t even be able to think. Why could he?
Horkai, he thought suddenly. Josef Horkai. That was his name. It came, flashing back and forth and painfully through him. He tried to keep hold of the name, tried to wrap it around himself and tie it in place with something else, some other fact, anything.
Horkai, he thought. Occupation? Before the Kollaps? Now?
Nothing came. Be patient, he told himself. Let things come as they will.
And then the name flopped away, vanished in darkness. He tried again to blink and one eyelid closed fully and held there. The other remained as it was, slit open, but the pupil behind it began to slide, smearing away the little bit of blurred vision he had and coming to rest against the backlit inside of the lid.
He sensed something on the horizon, in the vague redness, coming toward him. His eyelid slid open a little, but he couldn’t tell if he had done it or if it had been done to him.
And then suddenly there was a roaring and what was coming arrived and turned out to be pain, madly beating its wings. He hurt like hell, every part of him, and since he could not tell where he ended and the rest of the world began, it felt like the entire world was awash in fire. And still he couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, couldn’t take air into his lungs, nothing. It was terrible, as terrible as anything he had ever felt.
And then, slowly, it receded, melted away, leaving in its wake a slow twisting and turning of naked sensation that refused to drain off. He could feel parts of himself now, though those parts still felt awkward and dampened, as if wrapped in gauze. One of his eyes suddenly sprang open and he could see a blurred thumb and forefinger sheathed in latex holding the eyelids apart. Behind and past them, an arm and vague shapes, several of them, that he guessed to be human. Similar to human anyway. And then, suddenly, a blazing circle of light.
“Pupil contracts,” he heard someone say. A male voice, hoarse, similar to the one he had heard earlier. “Vision’s probably okay.”
The blazing circle disappeared, its afterimage tracking across his vision and the figures resolved briefly into being. And then the thumb and forefinger let go and he saw only the inside of his eyelid again.
“What was that?” asked someone new, in a distracted voice.
None of the voices sounded familiar. Then again, why should they?
“I said,” the first voice said, louder this time, “that he’ll probably be able to see.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Vision’s probably okay, I said. Amounts to the same thing.”
“Have it your way,” said the other. “Hand me the hypodermic.”
Silence. And then suddenly the remnants of sensation that had been eddying seemed about to burst. All of his nerves burned at once. He tried to scream but nothing came out.
He lay there immobile, certain he was dying, until, mercifully, like a candle, he was snuffed out.
“How are we feeling?” a voice asked.
His body felt distinct, like a body again, more or less, though tender, sore all over. He willed his eyelids to open, was surprised when they obeyed. His eyes, though, took a long time to adjust. Slowly a blurred figure became distinct, human. A middle-aged man wearing a soiled white technician’s coat.
“How are we feeling?” the man asked again, smiling, perhaps two feet away from his face.
He tried to speak, but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and wouldn’t move. He grunted.
The technician squinted and brought his face closer, his eyes lost in a web of wrinkles. Then suddenly his face relaxed, grew smooth.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” the technician said. He reached down, came back up with a bottle of something, a long glass tube running out of one end of it. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve unstored someone.”
The technician forced the tube into his mouth. He felt it scrape against his lips, then slowly burrow its way in between his pallet and his tongue. It felt like layers of tissue were being torn off. Something was seeping slowly out of the tube, a liquid of some sort, slightly bitter to the taste. Slowly, his tongue loosened, then began independent of the vault of the mouth. The liquid trickled its way deeper into his mouth, down his throat, down his windpipe as well. For a moment, he felt he was choking. He began to cough.
The technician withdrew the tube, helped him to turn his head to the side until the liquid had oozed out and the coughing had stopped. A strand of the fluid hung, black and ropey, from one corner of his mouth.
“There now,” said the technician, wiping it away. “All better.”
“Hardly,” he muttered.
His voice was cracked, his vocal chords having difficulty making the right sounds. The technician looked at him quizzically. He cupped his ear with one hand and leaned in. “You’ll have to repeat that,” he said.
“Who am I?” he asked.
The technician drew back. “Who are you?” he asked. “Yes, I should have asked that—part of the procedure, just to make sure you came out all right. So, yes, who are you?” the technician asked, and waited.
He shook his head. It felt like his brain was sloshing against the sides of his skull. “No,” he said, his voice a little firmer now. “I’m asking you to tell me.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ll give you a hint,” claimed the technician. “I’ll give you the first letter.”
“Just tell me,” he said.
“You start with an H,” said the technician, leaning closer, rubbing his hands. “It’s better this way. It needs to come back to you on its own. That’s in the manual.”
“Just tell me,” he said again.
“After H, the next letter is—” the technician started to say to him, but by that time, almost without him knowing it, his hands had found their way to the technician’s throat and were squeezing, the man’s face darkening.
What am I doing? he wondered in amazement, and let go.
The technician stumbled backward, hacking and coughing, until he slammed into the wall and slid slowly down.
“My name,” he said again.
“Hork eye,” the technician gasped.
Horkai, he thought. Yes, that sounded right. Plausible at least. Close enough anyway. For now.
The technician stayed pressed against the far wall, rubbing his throat, regarding him warily. Horkai had managed to prop himself up on his elbows, but it hadn’t been easy. With each movement he’d been struck by a new burst of pain, the last one so bad he had nearly passed out.
He was on a table. Plastic or plasticene, sturdy and long. Why can I remember what a table is when I can’t even remember my own name? he marveled. He brushed the tabletop with his fingers lightly, feeling its dimpling, but even that simple sensation was almost too much to bear.
In a moment, he told himself, once I’ve gathered myself, once I feel okay, I’ll swing my legs off the table and stand up. Only not quite yet.
“You could have killed me,” said the technician, his face pale and appalled.
“I’m sorry if things got out of hand,” said Horkai. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“If you didn’t mean to hurt me, why were you strangling me?”
Horkai closed his eyes. He shrugged, then winced.
“You’re dangerous. They were right to store you,” said the technician. “But they weren’t right to wake you up.”
Horkai didn’t bother to respond. “Tell me where I am,” he said.
“You’re here,” said the technician. “Where you’ve always been.”
The technician didn’t answer.
“Shall I come over there and make you answer?” asked Horkai.
The technician smirked. “Empty threat,” he said. “Even I know you can’t manage that.”
Horkai pressed his lips together. Carefully, he rocked his weight onto one elbow, shifting from the opposite elbow to his hand. The pain made him groan. He rocked the other direction, forced himself onto that hand as well.
The technician suddenly looked worried. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said.
Horkai ignored him. He tested his arms. They were both weak, atrophied, but would, he thought, support him. He gathered his weight on his arms, swung his legs and body out off the table.
Only his legs wouldn’t hold, wouldn’t move at all in fact. They splayed and collapsed, and his forehead glanced off the table next to his own just before he struck the floor hard, pain shooting through his ribs and hip.
He lay there on the floor, staring at a brushed metal table leg. He reached up and touched his head, brought his hand away and saw fingers grown slick with blood.
“You’re paralyzed, Horkai,” the technician said. “A paraplegic. Don’t you remember?” Horkai turned and saw that the technician was now standing. “I’d help you up,” the man said, “but I’m afraid to get close to you.” And then he left the room.
He patted his forehead. As far as he could tell, the gash was not bad. The bleeding seemed to have stopped almost immediately. Indeed, after a moment, he had a hard time telling where exactly the gash itself was.
He pulled himself up to sit, still feeling pain deep within each movement, and straightened his legs best he could. Then he lay back again and began to think.
What did he know? Very little. He had been stored—he knew that somehow, knew what that meant, but could not for some reason remember where he had been stored or why. Nor why they, whoever they were, had unthawed him. He knew his name, Horkai, or at least a name that sounded plausibly like it could be his own. He knew, looking at his arms, that for some reason his skin was exceptionally pale. He knew, looking at his body and running his hand over his head, that he was hairless, and remembered, or thought he remembered, losing his hair in a blast. There was a name for it, for the blast, or for the thing the blast had been part of, something he could remember: Kollaps. Why had that come to him seemingly more naturally than his own name? He could remember something about the Kollaps itself but very little about what he had done before or what he had done after, in the days just before being stored.
How long had he been stored? Was his brain sufficiently awake now that he could trust it? He closed his eyes, trying to capture and organize the bits and scraps that beat around his skull.
And why hadn’t he remembered he was a paraplegic? Even if his mind hadn’t remembered it, wouldn’t his body still have known? Wouldn’t it have done something to prevent him from throwing himself off the table?
He patted his leg, but couldn’t feel anything in it. He tried to move it, failed. Why, now that he’d been told he was paralyzed didn’t it feel right? Was he in denial?
The problem, he slowly realized, wasn’t just trying to assemble the little he thought he knew into a narrative—it came in determining which of the memories were real, which were things he’d dreamed or imagined.
He must have fallen asleep, must have dozed off again. The next thing he was conscious of was the sound of male voices, the feel of their hands as they lifted him off the floor. He saw three of them, one holding his legs and one lifting each side of his body. Or, rather, four: the original technician had returned as well, though he kept his distance, standing back by the door.
Horkai winced at their touch, groaned.
“Awake then?” asked one of them, a ruddy man with a wispy beard and a pockmarked face. He didn’t wait for a response.
They balanced him on the edge of the table a moment, muttering back and forth to one another, then gathered him up more securely. The ruddy man came around behind him. He threaded his arms under Horkai’s arms and locked his hands over Horkai’s chest. The other two made a kind of chariot for his hips and legs. They were larger than the ruddy man. One was black-haired and the other brown-haired, but otherwise they were seemingly identical in appearance: brothers, maybe twins.
“Still getting your bearings?” the ruddy man asked from behind him, his breath warm against Horkai’s ear. “Can’t imagine what it’s like to be frozen for so long. Nor what it’s like waking up.”
“It’s terrible,” Horkai said.
“Of course it is,” said the ruddy man affably. “But you’re awake now,” he said. “Oleg, Olaf,” he said. “Might as well do this. He’s not getting any lighter. Down to the end of the table and off it on the count of three.”
Horkai braced himself but it didn’t seem to lessen the pain when they lifted him. The ruddy man’s arms felt like they were cutting him in two, each line of contact like a band of fire. What’s wrong with me? he wondered. How can I make it stop?
“Knus, get the door for us, will you?” said the ruddy man, his voice abrupt with effort. “It’s the least you can do.”
“All right, Rasmus,” the technician said, and Horkai watched him pull the door open. The others, grunting, made their way awkwardly across the room, slowly maneuvering him through the door and out.
Beyond the door was an access hall. It was wide and long, the floor made of concrete that was weathered and cracked. The walls, concrete as well, were falling apart and roughly patched, holes covered with warped half-sheets of plywood smeared with tar. The ceiling was also plywood, a rough series of overlapping sheets, the gaps filled with something that looked like tinfoil but had a bluish sheen. It was propped up here and there with lengths of pipe, some still gray with grease, others mottled with overlapping ovals of rust.
“Doesn’t look much like it used to, does it, Josef?” said Rasmus. “We’ve done our best to keep things going, but I’m the first to admit it hasn’t always been easy.”
“We’ve kept up the important things,” said either Olaf or Oleg.
“The things that matter,” said the other brother.
“Time, the great destroyer,” said the first. And then both brothers laughed.
“How long has it been?” asked Horkai.
Rasmus’s steps stuttered, and Horkai dipped in the brothers’ arms as they tried to compensate, the jostling causing him a fresh bust of pain.
“Knus didn’t brief you?” asked Rasmus. “He was supposed to.”
Horkai had to wait a moment for the pain to subside before he could respond. “Knus and I had a bit of a misunderstanding,” he admitted.
“I heard you tried to kill him,” said Oleg or Olaf, raising an eyebrow.
“We all heard that,” said Rasmus. He smiled. “Should we be worried, Josef?”
He acted as if he were joking, but there was an undertone in his voice that made Horkai wonder. But why would they be nervous about me? he wondered. I’m paralyzed.
The hall ended in a sort of garage door painted brick red. The paint had peeled away in places to reveal bare metal. A large handcrank was to one side.
“Olaf, help me hold him,” said Rasmus. “Oleg, take care of the door.” Rasmus inclined his head to Horkai, gave a tight smile. “Josef, we’ll have to go outside. It’s not as bad as it was before, not here anyway, and in any case we won’t be out long. But we’ll still have to move quickly. There’s no reason to be nervous.”
“Why would I be nervous?” asked Horkai.
“Each minute out there is a day we won’t live,” said Olaf.
“That’s the spirit,” said Rasmus, but whether to him or to Olaf Horkai couldn’t say.
He might have continued to question them, but at that moment the black-haired brother let go. Olaf grunted and planted his feet, while Rasmus tightened his arms around him and pulled back. Horkai screamed and passed out.
When he came conscious again, it was to hear Olaf say:
“—not so tough now is he?”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Rasmus responded.
Oleg had managed to roll the door up five feet or so. He rolled it up another foot then turned around. Horkai groaned, as if just regaining consciousness.
“Awake? As time goes on, you’ll probably feel less pain,” Rasmus said.
“Probably?” Horkai said.
Rasmus smiled. “No promises,” he said. “To be honest we don’t know all that much.”
“Door’s open, time to go out,” said Rasmus. “Action not words, friend. Olaf, you’ll have to walk backwards. I’ll let you set the pace. Oleg, close up quickly and then catch up with us.”
They moved forward and through the opening. Outside was a ravaged landscape, ruin and rubble stretching in every direction, the ground choked in dust or ash. Remnants of buildings, mostly collapsed. The sky was bleak with haze, and a wind blew, hot and indifferent. All of it was pervaded by a strange, unearthly silence. Olaf, Horkai suddenly realized, was holding his breath. Looking up, he saw Rasmus had his mouth closed tight, too. He heard a crunch as the metal door slid down behind them, then Oleg’s footsteps as he came rapidly alongside Olaf, helping take Horkai’s weight.
They travelled maybe fifty yards, maybe slightly less, Olaf and Oleg moving backwards crablike and quick, Rasmus pushing them forward until they came to a web of metal girders and shattered glass. Beside it, behind a broken stretch of pediment, was a hole and within it a set of granite steps leading down into darkness. It was into this that they took him, down to a thick metal door and through it, down a winding rusted iron stairwell and into the remnants of an old library, mostly a wreck now.
The bottom level was lit by a strange glow, an artificial light of some kind that seemed to emanate from the walls itself. The light was pale, just enough to see by but little more. He saw a crowd of perhaps two-dozen people, all middle-aged, who began to whisper back and forth as they came in. Rasmus nodded to them, but quickly moved past and to a scorched wooden door on the other side of the chamber.
The room inside was the same, the walls aglow, though perhaps more feebly so. It contained a desk with a single chair behind it. Three chairs faced it.
They carefully eased Horkai into the chair behind the desk, and he spread his palms flat on the desktop to keep from falling. Then they took the three chairs facing him.
“Comfortable?” Rasmus asked. In the dim light, he looked strange, his outline fuzzy, his eyes pooled in darkness and barely visible.
“That’s not exactly the word,” said Horkai, his discomfort only slowly receding.
Rasmus nodded. He looked to Oleg, then turn to look at Olaf. “Where should I start?” he asked. And then he looked at Horkai. “Knus didn’t tell you anything?”
“Who is Knus?”
“The person who woke you up,” said Oleg. “The one you tried to kill.”
“Can’t you keep anything in your head?” said Olaf.
“Now boys,” said Rasmus. “He’s been asleep a long time. It’ll likely take him a while to find his bearings.” He turned to Horkai expectantly.
Horkai started to shake his head, stopped abruptly from the pain. “He just tried to make me guess my name.”
“And did you guess it?”
“We didn’t exactly get that far,” said Horkai. “I don’t like guessing games.”
Rasmus sighed. “Knus was just following protocol,” he said. “He was doing his best to help.”
Horkai didn’t say anything. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of Oleg and Olaf smirking at one another. Or at least he thought it was a smirk; in the low light it was hard to be certain. Meanwhile Rasmus had his fingers tented beneath his chin and, attentive, was staring at him.
“I suppose you’re wondering why we woke you, Josef,” he finally said.
“Among other things,” said Horkai.
“It’s simple,” said Oleg. “We need you.”
“For what?” asked Horkai.
“All in good time, Oleg,” said Rasmus. He turned to Horkai. “Yes,” he said, “that’s true. We do need you, Josef. But that’s hardly where we should begin.”
“Do I know you?” asked Horkai.
“Excuse me?” said Rasmus.
“Is that my name? Why do you keep calling me by it?” asked Horkai. “Are we on a first name basis? Do I know you?”
“No,” said Rasmus slowly, dragging the word out. “I don’t exactly know you. Or rather, I was introduced to you years ago, but I don’t exactly remember that. It’s something my father told me about. You used to know my father, back when he was in his thirties. He talked about you sometimes. He trusted you.”
“What’s his name?”
“Lammert,” Rasmus said. And when Horkai didn’t answer added, “Last name, Visser. He knew you,” he said. “He found you.”
He turned the name over in his head. Lammert. Did the name say something to him? Could he picture a face? No, not exactly, but there was something there, some resonance, a glimmer. “Of course I remember Lammert,” he said slowly to Rasmus, not lying exactly, but not exactly telling the truth either. Rasmus nodded, still watching him. “How is he?” Horkai asked.
“Dead,” said Rasmus. “But, then again, most people are. He’s been dead for a long time, ever since I was a child. He would have been sixty-three this year.”
“How long have I been stored?”
“Thirty years. Give or take.”
Rasmus nodded. “That’s why your memory’s faulty and your nerves are off—they haven’t been in use for three decades.” He looked curiously at Horkai. “How much do you remember about storage?” he asked. “Is that part of your memory hazy too? Storage isn’t meant to be long term, is normally just a few weeks or months, rarely more than a year at most.”
“Why would you keep me under for so long?”
Rasmus looked at him strangely. “What do you remember?” he asked.
“Most of it,” Horkai lied. Why did he feel compelled to lie?
“Just begin from the beginning,” said Horkai cautiously. “As you say, I’ve been stored a long time. It won’t hurt me to hear even the parts I already know again.”
Rasmus looked at him for a long time, then slowly smiled. “All right,” he said. “As you wish.” Placing a large hand on each knee, he began to speak.
Excerpted from “Immobility” by Brian Evenson. Copyright 2012. Excerpted with permission by Tor Books. Photo credit: Valerie Evenson
Brian Evenson is the author of twelve books, and is the recipient of three O. Henry Awards as well as a finalist for an Edgar Award. He lives with his wife Kristen Tracy and their son Max in Providence, R.I.