I am falling upwards through the twilit sky...upwards in a lazy spiral through the frost-rimed, bare branches and twigs of the winter woodland. My breath mingles with the billowing, freezing fog and my feet are tumbling over my shoulders as I am drawn, bemused, ever closer towards the waiting glare. It is the size of a full moon in the darkening sky; its pearly light diffused by thick cloud, yet bright enough to render silhouettes of the countless tree limbs that seem to caress me like a poignant farewell to the world that I know and yet don’t know...
I am afraid. I feel empty inside...so empty that I dare not look within and face the nothingness. So devoid of being that I cannot feel my skin. I don’t know where I end, or where I begin. I remember nothing...know nothing...only that my name is Quin.
I’m staring at a mirror, and my face is tightly bound; layers of bandages conceal every square inch of my face, and yet I seem able to see clearly enough through the linen wraps. My mouth and nose are completely covered, yet I do not suffocate.
I am so afraid, yet I have no idea why. Everything is missing – my sense of self, my identity has been taken from me and I am a stranger even to my own very thought processes. The disorientation threatens to overwhelm me, and so I reach to grasp the edges of the bandages around my face. The mirror shows me that I have hands, though they too are wrapped in bandages. Feverishly, I grip the wraps between my nose and mouth and pull them apart.
The bandages separate easily...but behind them there is no face. My head consists of nothing but air and the dim view of bandages on the far side.
* * *
I woke up screaming in pitch blackness. My screams were cut short when a light came on with a faint click, and I realised I was sitting in a small glass box, stark naked.
My nakedness was an enormous relief to me. I was real! I was skin and flesh; I had a physical presence after all. I had a cock and balls. My scream died in my throat along with my panic, and I started to breathe more easily. No longer was I freaking out with the question ‘am I?’ so much as ‘where the frack am I?’
‘Have you quite finished screaming?’ a querulous old voice nickered pointedly from somewhere behind me. Turning around, I saw an ancient woman wrapped in an enormous beige shawl sat opposite me. I realised quickly that she was not in the same room as me; instead, she was seated on the other side of some sort of transparent wall.
‘I really hope you have,’ the old woman continued. She sat in profile to me, at right angles to my glass cell, her eyes averted; presumably from my nakedness. ‘Screaming stresses me out, and I’m not sure how much stress my body can take...at my age.’ The old woman fell silent, seemingly intent on some embroidery she held in her lap.
‘I – yes, I’ve stopped screaming,’ I assured her in a dry and rasping voice which nevertheless rewarded me with another great surge of relief. I could speak! Speaking would come in handy.
‘Hm. Here, you’ll be needing this,’ the old woman clawed off her shawl and tossed it into a metal cylinder at her feet. A second later, some unseen force spat it into my cell from somewhere above my head. She wore another, almost identical beige shawl beneath the one she had given me.
‘I’m sure you’re a fine specimen of a young man,’ she snapped then as I stood there, stupidly clutching at her shawl, ‘but I’m trying to avoid putting stress on my tired old heart, remember? Now please, if you don’t mind, cover yourself up!’
Still rather dazed, I wrapped the shawl around my waist like a bathtowel.
‘Are you decent yet?’
‘I’m not likely to cause you a heart attack, if that’s what you mean,’ I heard myself saying.
‘Hm.’ She turned to face me and I was struck by just how old she really was. Paper thin, dark brown skin shrivelled and wrinkled over fine, delicate features framed by sparse strands of wiry, silver-white hair. Kind, sad eyes, yellowed with age, squinting out through deep pits and a maze of crow’s feet. She could not have been any less than a hundred years old, and it looked like she could conceivably be quite a bit older than that.
‘Damn my eyes, I can’t see you anyway’ she murmured then, and returned her attention to her embroidery. Then her voice became indescribably soft and gentle. ‘Do you know your name, son?’
‘Pleased to meet you, Quin. I want you to know that you’re not in any danger, okay? But it’s important that you stay calm. My name is Gertrude. You can call me Trudie.’
‘Trudie. Where am I? Why have you brought me here?’ By now I was stumbling around my tiny cell, pressing the palms of my hands to the glass walls, but I couldn’t find any sign of an exit.
‘I’m sorry, son. But I can’t answer where you are in any way that would make sense to you. And it wasn’t me who brought you here. I was brought here myself, a very long time ago.’ She seemed to prick herself, intent on her embroidery, and let out a brief hiss of pain. She brought her bony thumb to her mouth and sucked at it briefly.
I sat down again, heavily. ‘I...don’t know who I am, Trudie. I can’t remember anything. Only my name.’
The ancient woman nodded slowly, gravely. ‘I know, dear,’ she said kindly. ‘Don’t expect it to come back to you any time soon. You may start remembering bits and pieces of your old life – in time. Consider yourself lucky we both speak the same language. Not everyone who comes here does.’
‘Everyone? There are others?’
‘There were,’ Trudie replied quietly. ‘Not for some while now, though.’
‘What happened to them?’
‘Elizabeth grew old – though probably not as old as me – and died peacefully enough. Her English wasn’t so good when she got here. There haven’t been any others since her.’ She sounded sad.
There seemed to be nothing else for me to do except ask Trudie questions. I had plenty of them, and she seemed content to answer with an open-hearted honesty which brought a lump to my throat. She was the only thing I had to cling to right now, the only thing that stood between me and nothingness; the terror of my nightmare.
‘I’m...sorry, Trudie. Sorry you’ve been alone.’
At that, the old woman looked up again and smiled a surprisingly radiant, though nearly toothless, smile. The relief and appreciation on her face was almost palpable. ‘Why, you’re a very kind boy to say that, Quin. Thank you.’ She seemed to reach some sort of decision and tottered slowly and unsteadily to her feet with the help of two stout canes that had been resting across her knees. With a visible effort, her back bent low, Trudie shuffled closer towards the glass wall that separated us. I wondered vaguely how I was able to hear her so clearly through the apparently seamless barrier.
‘I honestly thought I’d die before they brought another human being here,’ she murmured quietly. ‘Wasn’t sure how I felt about that. After ten thousand sleeps you wonder if you can still relate to other people. But you’re here now, and you speak kind words to me. I may not have known very many people in my life, but I know that there’s nothing more important than empathy.’ She seemed to frown at the space in front of her, squinting as if looking for something. ‘How does this damn thing work again?’ she said to herself, tapping on the wall feebly. She seemed to be attempting some sort of morse code-type sequence.
The glass wall shimmered and vanished with no warning. ‘Quick, step forward,’ Trudie said sharply. ‘Before it comes back.’
I stepped into the narrow corridor in which the old woman stood, leaning heavily onto her two canes. She squinted at me intently, dressed as I was in only her beige shawl wrapped around my waist. ‘Hm, this will never do, will it. Come on, I’ll take you to the clothes room. Bound to be something for you in there.’ She turned and shuffled off slowly. Behind me, the wall I had just stepped through had reappeared, cutting the corridor off from the small glass cubicle once more.
The corridor itself was semicircular and low enough that I had to stoop, though Trudie had no such problems. Vaguely, I wondered whether this was because I was particularly tall or because the old woman was particularly diminutive. Realising I had no idea whether or not I was tall compared to other people made the panic start to rise from the pit of my stomach once again.
‘Trudie,’ I whined slightly behind her as she ambled on up the featureless corridor. ‘This feels so wrong. I literally don’t know anything about myself. How can I know how to speak and yet not have any memories? How can I know this is a “shawl”?’ I plucked at the knitted garment at my waist.
‘Hm. It’s probably all there, rattling around somewhere.’ Trudy assured me. ‘I’d be grateful if I were you. Not remembering is a kindness. A girl came here once who remembered her family – long ago, it was. She withered away before my eyes. Died young.’ Presently, she led me to a spacious room with an ordinary sliding door and at least a dozen enormous wardrobes lining the walls that reached almost twice the height of my head. In one corner of the room stood a large stepladder.
‘The clothes room,’ said Trudie wearily, sinking down onto a chair padded with embroidered cushions by the door. ‘Don’t expect there to be much in the fashion of your time. They give us more clothes every once in a while but the last time was not long before Elizabeth died. By the way...do you perhaps recall when your time actually is? The year?’
‘2014,’ I replied immediately, then frowned at how I could know this without even thinking about it, yet have no memories of living during this time. ‘I think,’ I added vaguely.
The wizened old lady seemed to freeze. ‘Lord,’ she breathed. ‘I’ve been here over a hundred years now. I didn’t think people lived that long.’
Not wishing to even think about the implications of what Trudie had just said, I started pulling open wardrobe doors and inspecting the garments within. ‘I have so many questions, Trudie. Who are “they”? When exactly did you get here?’ There seemed to be just about every conceivable item of clothing in this room, in a variety of different materials, and in every realistic size.
Trudie was silent for a moment, perhaps lingering over the dimmest and most ancient of her faded memories. 'I was seven when they brought me here,’ she said softly. ‘I think the year was about nineteen hundred and something. Ought-eight? Ought-nine? Too young to have cared about things like what year it was or what year I was born, certainly. For the longest time, the only thing I could remember was a rickety old wooden farm, and fields of corn in the sun. I guess it must have been somewhere in one of the southern states, but that’s only something I’ve worked out since from talking to Elizabeth and...and others. Truth is, I had no idea where I was at that age. It was just...home. In time, I remembered my father’s strong hands as he boosted me onto some bales of hay, on a cart. Or did I just imagine or dream that?’ she mused sadly. ‘I wish I knew. I remember...I think I remember...I adored my father, and he loved me very much – ’ her voice broke, and she fell silent again for a long while. As I searched for clothes, I thought I saw her rubbing her eyes once out of the corner of my eye; a lonely little girl, perhaps, trapped in an ancient and failing body. Not knowing what to say, and fearing I would lose my tenuous grip on sanity if I opened myself to this poor old lady’s pain and isolation, and her incalculable will to go on living down through all the years and decades, I dived with an almost savage determination into a wardrobe full of shirts that seemed to be about my size, yanking them roughly off their hangers.
‘Have you never tried to escape in all these years?’ I asked her gently.
‘Escape?’ she cackled. ‘To where? Oh, I’ve looked over every square inch of this cage of ours. God knows I’ve had the time to do a thorough job of it. It’s sealed as tight as an egg. Food and clothes and various other things come in, sure, but much the same way as you got in from the quarantine room. I’ll show you about the food later. And even if I did get out of the cage, what then? Can I even breathe out there? They seem very different from us, you know. Now, I never learned much about the world, but Elizabeth, she was a bright woman, and she was convinced we were somewhere far out in space.’
The idea brought up a natural reaction in me, one of profound skepticism. At some very deep level, I seemed to want to reject this notion, but my situation was so strange I could think of no rational reason to do so. It seemed I knew the Earth, I knew everything about it; and I knew it was nothing like this place. My mind seemed able to conjure up images of Trudie’s childhood farm as she had described it: how could this be possible unless somewhere deep inside I had had my own personal experiences of such things?
I stood in front of a full-length mirror and regarded my reflection – now clothed in jeans and a tight-fitting sweater, it seemed like I was regarding a complete stranger. My physical form seemed to trigger no memories of my identity at all, reminding me of my invisibility in the nightmare I had been having before I had woken up in this place. That nightmare, it seemed, I had no trouble at all remembering. I saw that I was a young man, though not terribly young; late twenties, perhaps. I had very close-cropped, dark hair and quite a tough, rugged-looking face that seemed to suggest a no-nonsense approach to life. I was tall and slender of build, with a sparse, wiry frame. Why did I only know my name? I wondered. Why could my mind conjure up images of a farm or a field or a mountain, but no personal experiences relating to such things? It was all extremely disorientating. For a moment, thinking about these things, I lost my balance and stumbled back against the back wall of the voluminous wardrobe. I sank to the floor with my head in my hands.
‘So who are “they”?’ I asked again, my voice muffled and taut with stress.
‘You’ll see them soon enough,’’ Trudie assured me mysteriously, ‘though perhaps not as soon as you’d like.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘Well, there is a certain rhythm to their comings and goings. It’s a lot slower than our own daily routines, that’s for sure. They’ll appear in, oh...maybe a hundred sleeps or so. As to who they are, I have absolutely no clue. Giant creatures...you can’t see much of them from in here, usually just a big, distended eye. Don’t be afraid,’ she added quickly, seeming to sense my growing alarm. ‘They’ve never hurt me, not once in all these years. They provide food and some entertainment. Like I said, it’s a cage.’
As soon as Trudie mentioned food, I realised that I was ravenously hungry. I sighed, stood up, and tried to push the enormity of my situation to the back of my mind. ‘I’m really hungry,’ I told the old woman. ‘Can you show me what the food situation is around here?’
Trudie sighed. ‘Ah, young Quin. It may have escaped your notice, but I’m a very old girl now. I tire easily and often.’ She cast about feebly with her canes. ‘I’ve barely even sat down.’
I felt my cheeks flush. ‘I’m sorry, Trudie,’ I said immediately. ‘Would you like me to carry you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she retorted, squinting at me suspiciously. ‘Are you likely to drop me?’
‘I don’t think so. You don’t look that heavy to me.’
‘Oh well, it will be a quick end if you do. I’ll probably shatter into a million pieces. Or maybe I’ll crumble into a little pile of dust. All right then, we can give it a go.’
I scooped her up into my arms as carefully as I could and she directed me out of the room and down some winding stairs moulded into the opaque white walls of the ‘cage’, as she liked to call it. At the bottom of the stairs was another long corridor with several doors on either side. Trudie pointed at one and I set her down carefully and opened the door.
The room inside was again large, spacious and high-ceilinged. One wall was dominated by an enormous exercise wheel, some four metres in diameter. To one side of the wheel, a large nozzle protruded from the ceiling into a transparent tank half-filled with water. On the other side of the wheel, there was a chute situated above a wide trough which contained a packet of breakfast cereal, several potatoes, a couple of onions and a bottle of olive oil.
I looked long and hard at the food on the trough, and then at the exercise wheel. Then I turned to Trudie. ‘Please tell me this isn’t what it looks like it is.’
The ancient woman met my gaze. ‘Why do you think I call this the cage?’ she answered gravely. ‘It makes sense when you think about it. And it encourages exercise. Probably kept me going on a few occasions.’
I cast about myself furiously, an enormous sense of outrage boiling up from within. Letting out a roar of anger, I yanked hard at the exercise wheel which turned and whirred in a succession of easy, well-oiled clicks until it came to rest once more.
A second or two later, a small carrot rolled out of the chute and into the food trough.
Still roaring, I started to beat my fists onto the featureless, uncaring white wall. ‘They can’t do this to us!’ I yelled. ‘We’re humans, not freaking gerbils!’ It seemed that the man who knew himself as Quin had a temper, a detached part of myself observed almost clinically.
Trudie’s rheumy eyes had grown wide and she took an unsteady step back towards the door, clearly unnerved by my sudden display of rage. ‘Don’t do it,’ she whispered loudly in alarm. ‘Quin, stop it! Control yourself, son. You must. They will gas you!’
I paused in the act of pounding uselessly on the wall. ‘I thought you said they wouldn’t hurt me,’ I said through clenched teeth.
‘They won’t,’ she reassured me soothingly. ‘Unless you go crazy. We had another companion once, a young man like you. In the early years of Elizabeth. He didn’t take kindly to his situation either. He shouted and banged at the walls for a few sleeps. Then he started throwing things and screaming. Not long after that, a...a...thing...a kind of living bubble, it looked like, came into the cage and sprayed this gas into his face. He collapsed and died in moments. Then the ground sort of oozed around his body and swallowed it, then it went solid again. We marked the spot, it’s in the nature room...’
The blood had drained from my face on hearing her tale, and with it most of the heat of my rage, leaving a kind of cold resentment which I forced deep down, promising to make use of it whenever the opportunity arose.
‘You can’t use that wheel,’ I said then, reasoning out loud. ‘How do you get your food?’
Trudie visibly relaxed on seeing I had regained control of my emotions. ‘Well, you’re right there,’ she admitted ruefully. ‘But if you look again, you’ll see there are other ways of earning food...’ she nodded in the direction of a far corner, where stood an exercise bike, a rowing machine and a wheelchair attached to a pedal exerciser.
‘I have to spend most of my time in here these days,’ the old woman sighed. ‘It takes me a long time to get my poor, tired old body to earn its food. I try and stock up, on days when I got more energy, but it’s getting real hard.’
‘Well, you won’t have to worry about that while I’m here,’ said with a humourless smile.
‘Can you cook, son?’ Trudie asked me curiously.
‘I have no idea.’
‘Well, that’s something I can still usually manage.’
I snorted. ‘ I don’t suppose potatoes, carrots, onions and cornflakes inspires much in the way of a menu in any case,’ I said glumly.
Trudie cackled her wheezy, breathless laugh at that. ‘Oh no, dear. That just what I haven’t been bothered to store away yet. There’s quite a wide variety of things that come out of the chute. You never really know what you’re gonna get. And I knew how to cook when I got here. I can’t be sure, but I think my momma might have taught me some. I could never quite remember what she looked like though...’ the old woman sighed again. ‘You said you were hungry. Well, I tell you what. I’m done running round the cage for one day. Let me fix you something while you go off and explore with your young legs.’
The first room I found while exploring ‘the cage’ on my own was the bathroom. It was spotlessly clean, and I wondered how this was possible; there seemed to be no way Trudie would have been able to maintain this level of hygiene at her age. Unlike the other rooms I had seen so far, the bathroom was small and functional – a deep bath and shower unit,a water closet, a sink, and a spacious cabinet built into the wall containing half a dozen deep shelves.
Opposite the bathroom was a door which opened out into a small library containing a couple of dozen books in a wide variety of languages, from English to Arabic to Chinese. I discovered that I was only able to properly read and understand English from the languages available, though to my surprise I seemed able to understand bits and pieces of other languages as well, as though I had perhaps studied them at some time in my past.
To my disappointment, there were only three books in English: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Joanna Spyri’s Heidi - both of which seemed familiar to me as stories despite not remembering ever having read them – and a book called Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, which I didn’t seem to know.
Next to the library, and attached to it by an open doorway covered only by a bead curtain, was another small room containing several large chests filled with various games, puzzles and toys. In the centre of this room stood a rather curious ornament; a perfectly smooth, football-sized milky-white sphere set in the centre of a polished wooden coffee table. The sphere seemed to be inviting me to touch it, yet when I did so it was unnaturally cold; so cold, in fact, that I felt I had to snatch it away quickly for fear of my hand freezing onto it. As I stared at the object curiously, I realised it was the first thing I had seen since waking up that I didn’t recognise. Even though I could recall no personal memories before my nightmare prior to waking up here, names of objects just seemed to pop into my head as soon as I saw them. I had even recognised a Rubik’s cube while rummaging among the puzzles and games that filled the chests in this room. How on Earth could I know what a Rubik’s cube was, unless I had experience of such a thing? And how could my memory have been so perfectly expunged of everything relating to personal experience, whilst retaining full knowledge of the multitude of items, even trivial and prosaic, that featured in what I presumed to be everyday life? And yet I had no idea about the name or the purpose of this cold white sphere. Nothing came to my mind when I beheld it. What could that possibly mean?
As I pondered these riddles, the cold white sphere seemed to shimmer slightly. For the briefest of moments, I thought I detected the image of a Rubik’s cube in its blank depths. Then the image faded back into nothingness.
END OF PART I.