PLEASE NOTE: This story deals with very dark and disturbing themes. Do not read it if you're squeamish, or easily offended.
It didn’t matter where he came from, nor where he was going, since he never got there. It didn’t even matter who he was because of course he wasn’t really the person he thought he was. All that mattered was that at that moment, in that tiny slice of time, that moving instant, he was a warm body on an airline, just like seventy or so other warm bodies, on a crappy, uncomfortable redeye flight from somewhere to elsewhere. It was a rough, buffeting flight, hours of air pockets and fasten-seatbelts signs and spilled coffee. It had gotten worse. The smell of spilled coffee gave way to the smell of spilled vodka in tiny plastic bottles, and then the smell of vomit and urine and the intangible aura of panic. His wife, in the window seat, held his hand, white knuckled and on the edge of panic.
There was nothing outside the windows, nothing recognizable, just darkness and clouds.
After what seemed like hours - and really was - the pilot came on and said their destination was shut down for inclement weather, and rather than ride this paint-shaker any longer than they had to for no damn reason whatsoever, they’d be making an emergency landing and layover at the nearest available airport.
So they did.
They landed at a nondescript airport in the early golden light of dawn. Where the hell were they? “At the closest airport.” Closest to what? No one knew. Or maybe they did - who can tell? - but the crew was oddly tense. They taxied up to a terminal. There was a low cloud cover cutting out most of the sunlight, though slanty light from the sunrise was coming in over the dank horizon. Mercury vapor lamps on the ground were casting their sickly light over the ground, reflecting off of it, and coloring the clouds themselves. Nothing moved, except their plane.
Closer to the terminal, things looked odd. There were several planes docked to the buildings by those enclosed gangways, but something subliminal about them was wrong. He couldn’t think of what it was, but they gave an impression of permanence that one doesn’t usually get out of commercial airlines. He didn’t know why. A flight attendant came by before he really had a chance to dwell on his misgivings, and asked him to gather up his things and disembark. He thanked her, and didn’t notice that she wouldn’t meet his eyes. She handed him a paper voucher that she said was good for a night in the hotel, free meals, and a flight to his destination. Before he even had a chance to stand, she’d moved on to the next person.
“No sir, I’m not sure where we are,” she was saying to the man in the seat behind his, “but if you’ll take this voucher…”
His wife knocked back the last dregs of her tiny vodka bottle while awkwardly encumbered himself with his carry on crap, and moved to the exit. He again failed to notice the crew wouldn’t meet his eyes when he disembarked. The cockpit door was open, but he also failed to notice the white face on the pilot, or the borderline hysterical expression on the face of the flight engineer. The co-pilot was actually restrained and sedated in one of the bathrooms.
His wife and he didn’t notice or wonder this when he got off the plane, part of a semi-organized queue of fellow travelers. Overjoyed to be on the ground and safe again, they held hands. They made their way down the elevated, enclosed gangway, which twisted and turned before it entered the terminal, and it was only there, after he’d passed the final threshold, that he knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.
It was, in it’s prime, a nice 1970s kind of airport, all pre-stressed concrete and ceiling-to-floor windows, brown not-quite-wood trim on the walls, and a low earth tone carpet, but it was not in it’s prime. It was filthy, the bench-chairs were broken, the ceiling tiles were yellow with a lifetime of cigarette smoke, there was the smell of human feces in the air, and worse smells. There were no lights on, no light at all save the dim, sickly purgatorial light that filtered through the windows.
“What the hell?” he thought, “This can’t be right.” The other ex-passengers showed the same kind of shock and confusion. Some of them started casting about for a ticket agent or airline representative to complain to.
“We must have come to the wrong terminal,” she said to him, “this must be under construction or something, there‘s no one here.”
“Scheduled for demolition, more likely,” He said. She chuckled at that, despite being frazzled from the flight and bewildered by their surroundings, and he remembered for the zillionth time why he loved her.
“Tell you what,” he said, “I’m going to walk back to the plane and talk to the crew, maybe they can…I dunno…take us to the right terminal, or call for someone to take us to wherever we’re supposed to be.” He set down his large duffel bag.
“Don’t do that!” she said, “It’s filthy in here!” She picked up the bag, which reluctantly came away from the floor with a sucking sound and a thin coating of a sticky clear goo.
“Sorry,” he quickly cringed. She glared at him.
“Anyway, maybe you look around for anyone official in here while I do that, don’t go too far, though, it’ll only be a minute.”
“Ok,” she said, looking mournfully at the ruined bottom of the bag.
“I love you,” he said as he went back into the boarding gangway.
“Uh-huh, me too,” she said, absently.
Back at the plane, the flight attendant met him.
“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t go back on the plane.”
“I don’t want to, I just wanted to tell you something…uhm…odd.” he said. “Can I speak to the pilot?”
“Is there a problem?” asked the flight attendant, who knew damn well that there was. She was on the edge of panic, and would eventually commit suicide as a result of her complicity in all this, but of course he couldn’t know that. She struggled to remain calm.
“Problem?” he said, absently.
“Yes sir,” she said with fake cheefulness, “just follow this hallway to the terminal, and everything will be fine.”
“Terminal - you know, it’s the damndest thing, I was…I was just gonna’ tell you something, but I forgot what it is,” he said.
“Must not have been very important then,” she said.
“Oh, now I remember: I’m radioactive.”
“What,” the attendant said, startled.
“It’s an old Steve Martin joke,” he said, then stared at her blankly for a bit. She stared blankly at him for a bit, until she realized it was safe.
“Thank you for flying Periculum Air,” she said, “We know you have choices in air traffic, and we thank you for making us your first one. We hope you had a pleasant flight, and invite you to fly us again in the future.”
“Oh, yes, very pleasant,” he said, “I must have fallen asleep.”
The attendant motioned him down the hall, and he went back through in to the devastated terminal. He saw a woman sitting there in a half-destroyed bank of bolted-together chairs, staring intently at the bottom of a duffel bag for some reason. He didn’t recognize her, but he thought she was pretty, so he went over and said “Hi.”
“Hi,” she returned, “Who are you?”
He thought about that for a bit, before answering, “You know, it’s the damndest thing, but I have no idea.”
They heard some noises behind them. The plane pulled away from the terminal, the enclosed gangway folded back against the building.
“Huh,” she said.
“I feel…I feel like watching that plane leave should mean something to me, but I can’t think what,” he said.
“Huh,” she said. He turned to look at her. The terminal was mostly devoid of people, a few passengers were wandering around aimlessly, and some ratty-looking toughs were kicking the crap out of someone curled up on the ground. Neither he nor she thought to do anything about that.
“This is going to sound stupid, but I think…I can’t seem to remember who I am or what I’m doing here. I can’t even seem to remember my name.”
“Are you feeling allright?” she asked.
“Yeah, I feel fine, just…uhm…blank.”
“Check your wallet,” his forgotten wife told him. He did. He read his name off the driver’s license out loud, but then one of the toughs noticed him, and ran by, snatching it out of his hand and pushing him over in the process, then tore off down another hallway.
“Are you ok?” she said as she helped him up.
“Yeah. Damn! He couldn’t have waited ten seconds to rob me? I didn’t even get a chance to read my own ID”
“Maybe you’ve had a stroke?” she said, “I’ve heard that stroke victims can have memory loss.”
“Oh, God, you’re right!” he said. The blood left his face in panic, and his knees went weak. He sat down on the sticky, disgusting ground.
“We should find you a doctor,” she said, “They must have one around here somewhere.” She helped him up again. They walked toward what looked like the main concourse out of the terminal.
“Thank you,” he said, meekly, “What’s your name?”
“It’s….” she trailed off, presently came to a halt, “Huh.” she said. “Where are we going?”
“Uhm…” his stomach growled, “Food, I think. We were going to go get something to eat.”
“I don’t know how I feel about that, going off with a strange man. I don’t even know your name.”
“You’re married,” he said, noticing the ring he’d bought for her but couldn’t remember or recognize.
“Yes?” she said looking at the same ring as though it was for the first time.
“We could have one of those strangers-who-go-bump-in-the-night kind of trysts,” he said, giving her a rakish smile.
“No, that doesn’t seem right,” she said, “I’m flattered, of course, but, no. I love my husband” she said with the robotic reflex of an attractive married woman who gets hit on a lot.
“Well, nice meeting you,” he said.
“Likewise, “ she said, and then she said his name, dredged out of some rapidly-eroding associative memory. He didn’t recognize it, of course, and didn’t remember it a moment later. Neither did she.
He turned and went down the hall, she stayed in the terminal. They never saw, nor remembered each other ever again.
The concourse from that terminal to the main section of the airport was wide, dark, and a thousand years long. He would later have no memory of how long it took him to get through it - fifteen minutes at a brisk pace? A day? A month? A lifetime? - nor, indeed, would he have any memory of ever having been in it at all. In this new world without memory, every time was a first time for everything, no matter how rote it had been. How many times did he stop, forgetting his purpose in the hallway, and just stand around until some new, conflicting thought formed in his head? How many nights did he sleep in the filth against the wall? Where did his food come from? How many times was he beaten and raped by the people he met on the way? He would not and could not have any recollection of any of this, and in that one regard, his captivity was oddly kind.
All that could be said for sure - though not by him of course - was that at some point after that he awoke after a violent three-day illness that he had no memory of. He had been thirsty and drank some standing water he found in an old storage room that had filled up several feet deep with runoff from an ancient fire sprinkler system. He had drank his fill, but unbeknownst to him, the place had originally been a storage space for dead car batteries from the airport’s fleet of golf carts. These had grown groady and corroded during their long submersion, resulting in him poisoning himself. This had happened to him three times so far, but of course he had no memory of it.
He awoke thirsty and famished in a bathroom stall, with very little strength, and encased in a living crust of cockroaches. As he started to move about, they scrambled off of him, but he grabbed several and munched on them vacantly. Several more he pinched the heads off of, and stuck them in his pocket for later. To his surprise he found a small, dead rat in there. A bonus!
Scratched in the wall of the stall was a line from a song. He read it. He didn’t remember it, but reading it last night was the thing that made him choose this stall to sleep in.
“We are living in an age
When sex and horror
Are our new gods”
He could still read. Curiously some of the other people lost this ability when they came to this place, others didn’t. Neither he nor the instigators of this awful place knew why that was. There was lots of graffiti around, most of it nonsensical, most of it quite old, the overwhelming majority comedicaly half-finished when the vandal forgot what he or she was writing in mid-sentence, and trailed off.
He didn’t know why, but the words made him feel calm and safe, as though, “as though, as though there’s something I’ve forgotten here, but I can’t quite recognize it.” Ignoring his hunger - the ones who survived learned to ignore their hunger for long periods of time - he picked up a broken metal door stopper out of his pther pocket, and scratched the phrase “I do not like this age” in the rusted stall side next to the Frankie Goes To Hollywood lyrics, then put the stopper back in his grimy pocket and looked at his work.
“I have done something,” he thought, but while reading the wall he forgot entirely what it was, noticed he was hungry, and went out looking for food. He shuffled his way out to the main hallway, then followed the light to the main concourse.
It was a massive atrium five stories tall, with blackened skylights letting in a sulfuric light, terraces of stained, prestressed concrete connected by banks of long-dead escalators. There were lots of people - perhaps hundreds - in there. On the big atrium walls there were a few examples of large framed artwork left , generally high enough and far enough from outcroppings to prevent them from being torn down. They were all vague abstracts., whether by intention or simply the passage of time. Whatever they had been intended to be - a cubistic representation of the glories of flight, or a mural of a cow - they‘d ended up abstracts now. The walls were stained with blood, grime, soot, dust, dirt, every bit as bad as the floors in the terminal had been. Small objects thrown against them would stick. Larger objects thrown against them would gradually pull away with an intestinal “Schlopping” kind of nose before they fell to the floor. The ground floor was covered yards-deep in human feces, refuse, and dead bodies. It had been so long that this was gradually turning to compost and soil, after a fashion. It was covered with a small forest of mushrooms and chives. There was a perpetual cloud of cooking fire smoke at the top of the atrium. What they were cooking is best unasked.
How long had he been there? A moment just coming out of the concourse, or had he been living there for years? For him there was no substantial difference, everything was in the now.
In the now, with no memory of how he got there, he stood looking around in the purgatorial half-light that could have been a cloudy day or a bright cloudless night. He saw the abstracts, and for the hundredth time he couldn’t make sense of them.
A live body fell past his balcony on the second floor of the atrium, and hit the fungus and feces and chives with a loud slapping, splattering sound. He hadn’t seen where the body came from - if he fell from the third or fourth floors, he had a fair chance to survive, since there was a good six feet of squishy filth to cushion the blow. He, himself, had once been thrown off the fourth floor after loosing a rumble, and survived, though it took him two days to dig his way out of the suffocating filth. Again, fortunately, he didn’t remember it.
There was a general migration from day to day from the bottom of the atrium to the top. People began down below in the filth, and wandered upstairs gradually, rediscovering themselves time and time again in some new-to-them surrounding with no memory of getting there, no sense of who they were, and they attempted to survive by instinct. The top two floors were the most crowded and violent, the place where everyone wanted to be, though no one knew why. From thence, people went back down again, one way or another: Perhaps forced out by stronger people working their ways up from the lower floors, perhaps thrown over the side. Even in this there were a couple ways one could go: either as a person, or as the digested remains of a person shat over a high banister in to the emptiness below. What goes up must come down, he had thought several times/for the first time, and chucked to himself, then forgotten his own cleverness before he’d even finished laughing.
A gaggle of people came by, several of them carrying food. He wanted food. He jumped in to the small throng and attacked one of the people carrying a mercifully-unidentifiable shank of meat. The others piled on him and started wailing on him, and he clawed back at them. At first focused, the fight went much longer than it should have since everyone involved was on the edge of starvation. As the fight progressed, their focus was lost, and the sides of the competitors began to drift, but the fight itself remained. They must have been fighting for a reason, right? So keep on going!
By the end, he was part of the small throng, and the rest of its members had attacked and killed two of the food-carriers, assuming them to be thieves. The third, with two broken legs, was chucked over the railing in to the muck below. They feasted on the meat - if that’s what it was - and he discovered a dead rat in his other pocket, which he shared with a pretty-but-malnourished lady, which resulted in the two of them excusing themselves from the throng to go into a concourse and have sex in the shadows. This they then did, but half way through she suddenly found herself in dilecto flagrante with a total stranger, and no memory of how she got there, and ran off screaming ‘rape.’ This attracted the attention of several other people lurking in the shadows who then beat the hell out of him and raped him themselves, then they all went off looking for food. By the time the rape-gang got back to/discovered the main atrium, he was their leader, though no one was quite sure how this had happened, not that it really mattered. They heard noise on the floor above them and decided to go up and check it out.
This resulted in a rumble with another gaggle of people, which degenerated in to a bloodbath, and he ran away, down the broken, frightening escalators that slipped back and forth under his feet, and just ahead of an angry mob who pretty clearly wanted to eat him. They would have, too, but the combined weight of the gang was several thousand pounds, far more than the stripped old gears and belts of the escalators could handle, and the steps ripped free, just as he got off at the landing. The group behind him ended up sliding fifteen feet or so to the ground, and ending up in a bloody heap, ass-over-teakettle, with no idea how they got there. They quickly began fighting amongst each other.
A glob of human excrement which had previously itself been a human fell on him. He scraped off as much of the filth as he could, then ducked in to a bathroom that was occupied by several women who were startled to see him. Before they had the chance to attack, he stabbed one of them in the abdomen with his metal doorstopper, and pulled it swiftly up gutting her like a trout. Huge gouts of blood sprayed out, adding another layer of stains to the already-mephitic walls, and to his already-filthy skin and tattered clothing. The others ran off in fear. Overcome by adrenaline, he punched one of the old stalls doors, long since off its hinges, and leaning against the cracked, tiled wall. He punched it again and again until his knuckles were sore and bloody, and covered in mildew from the door itself. Then he calmed down, and wondered how he came to be in this place. He was tired, and decided to go look for a safe spot for the night, but on his way out he found one of the stalls still had a working door.
Was it safe? Not really. A good swift kick could easily break it in, but just as he was about to leave for a more secure spot, he noticed writing on the wall. Someone had scratched
We are living in an age
When sex and horror
Are our new gods
I do not like this age
It was all in the same handwriting. For some reason he couldn’t understand, this made him feel secure and even happy, so he settled in and went to sleep.
By the time he awoke buried up to his neck in the huge, mephitic swamp of excrement and other remains on the ground floor, he was guilty of every sin imaginable, and a victim of them as well. He had no idea how he’d come to be there, of course, no memory of who he was, but in situations like this such things don’t matter. A subconscious, sub vocal instinct sounded in his head over and over again, ‘just survive, just survive, just survive.’ It had been there since shortly after he arrived in the airport, since this new order of life had claimed him, but it was louder in situations like this. It was The First Law, after all, though he lacked the capacity to think of it in those abstract terms.
After quite some time, he managed to work one of his arms partially free of the filth - interesting how memory plays such little part in coordinating life-or-death situations - and reached out for anything solid to pull himself forward. There was a half-buried chair just in reach. He managed to get his fingers around that and pulled. It came loose from the muck and slapped him in the head. Already on the edge of panic, he gave in to it and went hysterical for such a long time that he got bored with it and then tried to rescue himself again. He found an unidentifiable bit of tubing sticking up with a reasonably intact person impaled upon it. He reached out and grabbed for it, but his disgustingly engreased fingers slipped off several times. Finally he grabbed the hand of the dead woman, and was able to pull himself forward somewhat. A few hours later he had his other arm mostly free, and he had the woman as a source of food.
In two days, he was able to commando-crawl to the edge of the dung-heap where the density of the material was less, and he clawed his way through on hands and knees. His hand struck something. It was solid, and fairly large. He became interested in it, and wrestled it out of the muck. A briefcase? Small suitcase? Something like it, anyway. For no particular reason, he took it with him when he finally reached the lowest bank of the broken escalators. After forgetting he had it in his hand and rediscovering it several times, he smashed it repeatedly against the wall and broke it open.
Inside was something more magical than magic itself: It was cleanliness.
The case had been waterproof, obviously, though he couldn’t comprehend that. Inside it were papers and pens and various office supplies that were as pristine as they day some now-anonymous wretch had brought them to this place. They even still smelled faintly of a mill or office supply store. It was the only clean thing in this entire hellish tiny world, salvaged from the filth.
It struck him as numinous and holy. Taking pains to scrape off as much of the muck from his body as he could, he touched only one sheet, and then tentatively on the edge.
“Paper,” he said, the first word he’d spoken in days. The amnesia was of slightly worse than the standard sixties television plot device variety: they could remember language, skills, things built in to them on a basic level before the more shallow things were wiped by the odd experiment going on here, but any more personal or recent memories were as volatile as the morning dew, and somewhat shorter-lived. Even these memories tended to degrade over time, much to the interest of the observers. It was a cruel miracle that anyone survived here at all, which, of course, was the point of the exercise.
He piled up some smashed furniture on the second floor until he had a pile big enough to climb up and reach the merely-grimy ceiling and rubbed his hands along that until they were relatively clean. Why? What deep instinct put that thought in him? No one would ever know, but one must be careful not to profane holy things. All the while, “Just survive, just survive” beat a rhythm in his head so basic that he had long stopped noticing it, except in emergencies.
He took a pen - it still worked - and wrote ‘I am on the second floor.’ He could see that much from looking over the balcony. Something in his head screamed in triumph, and this too was numinous and perhaps even holy. Sometime later, lugging the case full of blank paper along, but inexplicably covered in blood, he found a large room off to the side that had emergency rations in it - army MREs, probably intended in the event of a blizzard or something similar - it took him a while to realize what they were, and even then it was only an accident when he tried to stab a large snake with his doorstopper and missed, ripping a hole in the reflective mylar wrapping. He greedily wolfed it down. There were freeze-dried strawberries in there! Freeze-dried strawberries! It was as if heaven had descended upon earth for him in the form of dehydrated sweets, the first thing he’d eaten in God knew how long that wasn’t a rat or a person or worse. After such a long time on a starvation diet, he was overwhelmed and when in to something not quite diabetic, but still some kind of hyperglycemic shock.
The paper said “I am on the second floor” and several other random things that had occurred to him since he found it. It had helped him, the paper had, he could keep track of things. He kept it pinned to the inside of a shirt he’d taken off a corpse some time earlier, and continually forgot about it, but whenever it happened to make itself known to him - scratching on his chest, or falling out at inopportune moments, or just feeling odd when he itched - he looked at it, and was reminded of various minor things about his life. This time he scratched out the things that no longer seemed relevant, and drew himself a map to the food cache. It took him a few days to do it, since he kept drifting off, but one of the things he wrote on the page was “Make a map to the food,” it will help you survive. Presently, he had a fairly detailed treasure map that told him how to get to the food from virtually any location adjacent to the atrium, and which was coincidentally a fairly good map of the center of the airport itself. It was simply labeled “Follow this to food.”
Thus, even though he had no memory, he’d managed to work out a system of artificial memory, though he generally forgot he had it with him. The cache became his home base, and he started putting on weight, gradually increasing from the animated skeleton he’d been.
One day he found himself suddenly aware while looking over the balcony at one of the paintings. He began to itch, and when he scratched he rediscovered his map. While puzzling over it, a child - nothing but skin and bones herself - came crawling past. She had long since lost the energy to stand. She was sick and naked, and clearly wouldn’t last much longer. She mumbled “hungry, hungry, hungry” as a barely-recognizable mantra.
‘Just survive, just survive, just survive’ kept repeating in his subconscious, he’d been in flight or fight mode for however long he’d been in this place, but a consistently full belly and some semblance of an external memory had caused it to recede somewhat.
He looked at the map, and at the dying girl.
“You want something to eat?” he said to her, his voice scratchy and unexpectedly loud. He hadn’t spoken in days. She ignored him, mumbling ‘hungry, hungry’ to herself, and kept crawling on. She was far gone, past the point of realizing anything beyond her own misery. She was entirely bestial.
‘just survive’ played in his head, but he looked at that law, recognized how little it was, and told it to shut up. In the course of a millisecond, it was gone.
“Yeah, you are,” he said to no one in particular. He picked her up - she couldn’t weigh thirty pounds even - and put her over his shoulder. She was too weak to squirm or fight or do much of anything. Then he looked on the back of his map, where it said “Write down things here so you don’t forget them” in his handwriting. Underneath that, he wrote:
“You have got to help the girl survive, get her some food, keep her safe.”
“Let’s get you something to eat,” he said as he carried her off to the cache, completely unaware that the fundamental nature of his universe had changed, but feeling good in some way he couldn’t define just the same.
The girl didn’t survive, of course. She was too far gone. She lasted a day or two, or maybe only twelve hours, and he kept forgetting she was there. He was always surprised to see her, took her to be an interloper trying to steal his food. Every time he tried to attack, however, he would notice some post-it notes he’d stuck conspicuously to her: “She is not an enemy,” one said, “She is a friend. Feed her and keep her safe.” So he did, though it did no good.
Or did it? She died peacefully in her sleep with a full belly for the first time in God alone knew how long. She didn’t die alone and cold on the floor, but rather she expired on a cobbled-together bed made of cardboard Civil Defense boxes, and in the end he held her hand, though probably she didn’t know it. They weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination, but at least she wasn’t entirely by herself. A tiny spark of humanity had re-entered the airport.
And from that came a plan, of sorts. He looked at her body after she’d expired, forgetting again who she was until he saw the notes he’d made for himself, though of course he didn‘t realize he was the one who‘d written them. Why had he bothered? What had she meant to whoever wrote the notes? Well, that didn’t matter much, he supposed, but she must have been important to whomever left the instructions for him. She was dead, obviously, so what could ‘keeping her safe’ mean? There were only one or two things a person would want a dead body for - food and sex - so clearly he must be meant to protect her body from that. He found to his surprise that he had paper and a pen, so he wrote himself a note: Get rid of body in some way others won’t get it. Then he wadded it between his wrist and his watch band, and put her over his shoulder. They made their way to the central atrium, with him forgetting several times what he was doing, but the note reminded him of his mission. He made his way to the third floor, and then chucked her body with all of his might over the side. She fell at an angle, splattering in to the center of the swamp of feces and effluvium that made up the first floor, the impact raising slow concentric ripples amongst the chives growing on top. He thought that was oddly pretty.
Her body was driven fourth-fifths of the way in to the gelatinous mass by the force of impact. ‘Wow,’ he thought, having no memory of just having thrown her in, ‘there’s a lot of meat in that dead body in the middle there,’ he thought, suddenly hungry - but not quite as hungry as he normally was - ‘but no one will ever get to it way out there in the middle.’ He stared until his hunger became worse, then discovered to his surprise that he had a map to a cache of food, so he decided to follow it. Once along the way he noticed a note in his watch band that said “Dump the body in the central swamp where no one can get to it,” but that made no sense whatsoever as he wasn’t carrying a body, so he threw it away.
The plan that emerged from this was simple, so simple in fact that it could only barely be called a plan at all. Of course it would have to be that way, since no one had any memory at all and were all operating on reflex and basest instincts. In fact it operated on a level not unlike a subtle form of behavior modification, over time, with training, and without memory he was able to add one reflex to his normal stable of them: check the paper.
He had access to a large-but-finite supply of food, but also a fair amount of paper, pens, and some minor office supplies. He got lonely. He wanted friends. Catching and training people was a simple matter: he simply jumped people in the hallway when they were alone and looked to be easy pickings. Then he’d haul them back to Civil Defense cache and sit on them until they both forgot what they were doing and calmed down. Then he’d check his notes to find out what he’d intended himself to do with the new person. He’d assign them a totally random name - “Sarah” or “bigass” or whatever seemed appropriate, and then he’d write this down and attach it to them in some conspicuous wise, along with whatever he wanted them to do. Simple instructions - ‘stay here’ or ‘guard door’ or ‘let the boss back in when he returns’ things like that. He’s made himself a “The Boss” nametag by this point, of course.
Catching people was easy enough to begin with, and it got easier still as the ready supply of food improved his health and strength. Initially he only went after women for obvious reasons, but as his harem of minions increased in size they had more needs than he, himself, was able to supply, and they began abducting men and indoctrinating them the same way he’d done his initial captives. All were given names - which of course they couldn’t remember - and maps back to the cache. Their instructions became more involved, their missions more complex, they began more arcane missions driven by curiosity rather than survival, and standing orders gradually evolved.
Standing order number one: Do what the paper says.
Standing order number two: No one is ever to be alone, everyone must always go in twos at least.
Standing order number three: If what the paper says doesn’t make sense, follow the map to home.
And so on. These were written on every paper for every person, regardless of the mission. He was not their leader, though; they didn’t and couldn’t have one since their situation was too unstable for any form of hierarchy to evolve. Instead the written word was their leader, even though they couldn’t remember who gave them instructions just moments after they’d been written. Their society was basic and rough and barely functional, and it certainly couldn’t deal with any kind of prolonged crisis lasting longer than a few minutes, but it was a working solution to an untenable problem.
How long this happy state of affairs continued no one can recall, but eventually they reached a tipover event: Attacks, fighting, rapes, and murders began to decline. More and more people went out to follow their written instructions and came back. First only some of them came back, then they started coming back bloodied and bruised, but they always made it back. Presently the teams started coming back without having any incidents of note at all - neither ones they could remember, nor otherwise. Eventually there were more people in his ad hoc community than out of it, and from that point on things progressed rapidly and safely. The endless violence disappeared, the written word had saved them and the pen had become their sword.
The lions operating entirely on aggression and instinct had been subverted, defeated, by the lambs operating on organization and something akin to compassion. Primate curiosity re-asserted itself: They mapped out the entire airport, they traveled in twos, they had enough to eat, and a basic code of behavior had evolved that prevented most crisis and strife. Anything that couldn’t be handled by the standing orders was resolved by their short attention span and shorter memory. Fights erupted, degenerated in to chaos, the same as before, but when the chaos degenerated in to exhaustion the fights fizzled out, the combatants surrounded by rings of people shouting “Check your paper! Check your paper!”
True, the food was running out, but as it was intended as disaster relief for a town somewhere, and there were less than a thousand of them. It would last a while yet. There was time. When the food ran out, all bets were off, but for the time being they were safe. More than safe, they were curious. ‘we can’t get out of here - WHY can’t we get out of here?’
When the next airliner landed, it was met by him and a group of his minions in the terminal. New people - so clean! - came from the boarding gangway, already looking confused and panicky. His people met them and gave them papers: ‘do what these say at all times’ they said, ‘or else bad things happen.’ They couldn’t remember exactly what the bad things were, but there were enough scars and missing teeth and limbs and gouged out eyes that no one had any real doubts about the existence of the bad things.
He went down the gangway and spoke with a nervous man standing by the door of the plane. The smell of stale coffee and half-cooked airline food washed over him with a sensuality he’d never before experienced.
“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t go back on the plane,” the flight attendant said.
“I don’t want to, I just wanted to tell you something…uhm…odd.” he said.
“Is there a problem?” asked the flight attendant, who had been told simply to keep his passengers from re-boarding. He hadn’t been told what to do about this crusty, half-naked, disgusting, hairy mass of a man who smelled like a sewer.
“Problem?” he said, absently to the flight attendant.
“Yes sir,” the attendant said with fake cheefulness, “just follow this hallway to the terminal, and everything will be fine.”
“Terminal - you know, it’s the damndest thing, I was…I was just gonna’ tell you something, but I forgot what it is,” he said.
“Must not have been very important then,” the attendant said.
He noticed a piece of paper in his hand, “Oh, I must have written it down,” he said to the attendant, “Let’s see: Standing order one, two, three, four, five, ok, this seems to apply: ‘Try to find a way out, and when you’ve found one, come back home and tell the others.’ Uhm…We’d like to leave, please,” he said.
The attendant freaked out at this, and ducked back in to the plane, pulling the door shut behind him. There was the sound of screaming and argument from inside - the people on the plane hadn’t wanted any part of this, they’d known it was wrong on a very basic level. They were frightened and overstressed, and it didn’t take much - just a man with a pleasant disposition and written orders - to push them to a breaking point. Their own standing orders didn’t cover such an eventuality.
He wrote his observations down, “We must have come in on the planes,” “We need to get on the planes and leave.” He got as far as “Position people in every terminal in small groups…” when the plane backed away hastily from the gangway, leaving him standing in the air, thirty feet above ground, the generic horizon in the distance, the weather still as pissy and sleeting as it was the day he arrived, not that he could remember it. The hallway didn’t fold back against the building this time. He watched the plane take off, as another of his minions wandered up and stood next to him.
“You shouldn’t be alone” the new one said to him, reading from his paper.
“I feel…I feel like watching that plane leave should mean something to me, but I can’t think what,” he said. Then he checked his note.
“ohhhhh, right!” he said, slapping himself on the forehead with the same filthy had he used to wipe his own ass. Eventually the two of them got confused as to what to do, and went back to the cache.
For the first time in the deliberately murky history of the airport, a plane arrived and discharged its compliment of damned without anyone dying. They were incorporated in to the group safely and quickly. Order prevailed.
Half their supply of food was gone by the time the next plane came. This caught them less by surprise, and so they had orders written down to deal with it. As it happened, the orders weren’t really terribly useful - trial and error was the major factor in the evolution of these things, but if a starfish can exhibit complex organized behavior without a brain, so can a community of humans without memory. They tried to get on this new plane. This resulted in a fight with a hysterical flight attendant - a woman this time - and a heroic (or merely guilty) pilot who came out to rescue her. The somewhat less heroic crew of the plane backed it away while the fight was still going on, and took off, stranding those two. He had hoped to get some information from them, but of course inside of a few minutes they were as vacuous as everyone else. They, and their passengers, were assimilated in to the group, and the standing orders evolved a bit more.
By the time the next plane came, they had decided to just rush it the moment the doors opened, though they had no idea how they’d get the crew to fly, or what they’d do with the people already aboard it. As it docked with one of the boarding gangways, they wandered down it somewhat confusedly, repeatedly checking their notes to see what was going on.
With a loud ‘clunk’ from the moving gangway, the connection was made.
The door opened.
They ran - he ran - blasting past the flight attendant, and suddenly his face erupted in a wall of pain as a man in black police combat gear punched him hard in the nose. He went down, and was dragged out of the way. Thirty or forty more men in SWAT gear filed past him, fighting hand-to-hand with the five or ten people who’d managed to get on the plane. One of them was stabbed in the groin, another fell over and took a knee to the face, Two more ran away. The one who got hit in the face fell awkwardly in the close quarters, sprawling on the man who was holding him down. He was able to wriggle out of the guard’s grasp. He had no idea what was going on, but getting the hell out of there seemed like a fine idea. The guard grabbed for him, but he kicked him square in the throat and the man fell down, sputtering, and didn’t get up again. Getting away from the dying guard, he scrambled to the hall just in time to see the squad with shotguns firing beanbag charges in volley after volley in to the crowd, who, of course, fled in abject horror.
Two of them turned. One shot him in the chest, and he felt pain unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. He went down on all fours. Another guard rushed him and grabbed him by the hair, yanking his head up and punching him again and again in the face, each impact more painful than the last. He felt a searing white heat of pain and heard a snap as his nose broke.
“At least I won’t remember this,” was the last thing he thought before he blacked out.
The first thing he remembered was getting savagely beaten. This was a dull, animal sense-memory, nothing sentient or remarkable in it. In the timeless time he’d been in the terminal, he’d had many an odd bruise or scrape or wound with no memory of how he got it, pain was a constant companion, even in the new order he’d managed to semi-accidentally establish amongst the other residents. This was different somehow, though, since he could see his assailants in his mind’s eye, feel the truncheons and the tasers and the fists, smell the plastic of their SWAT-styled riot gear.
“Dammit,” he thought, “I’d hoped I wouldn’t remember that.” Suddenly, the enormity of it struck him. ’How the hell…?’ he wondered. He could remember things! He could remember things! He quickly ran around inside his own mind. Did he know his name? No. His age? No. Where he was? No. His gender? Yes - which was something of a relief after spending God knew how long waking up in the morning and being surprised by the discovery of his own genitals. He could remember the beating, he could vaguely remember going to meet a plane, though he didn’t remember why. It many ways, it was worse than not being able to remember anything at all. He’d been essentially straight jacketed by his complete lack of knowledge, yearning by the very nature of man’s soul to have some more full existence, which - without knowing it - he’d hoped would set him free. Now, out of the straight jacket, he was still in a very tiny sell that only extended fifteen or twenty minutes in any direction he thought about.
He swam in and out of consciousness, ruminating on this, and in a far off way he noticed a second thing: something clean and cool and yielding beneath his cheek. It had been so long - so far as he knew - since he’d been around anything that wasn’t inherently filthy that it took his mind a long, long time to process it as a kind of pleasant sensation. He was still grimy and encased in filth, of course, and he could feel a pocket full of cockroaches - a midmorning snack - in his pocket. He could vaguely remember putting the roaches in there. He could feel his long, ratty, coarse beard bunched up against his face, and when he moved, it released a sweaty, sour smell.
‘Leather,’ something deep in his mind told him, a deeper memory than any he’d yet excavated since awakening. It was almost like a voice from another mental cell, coming through the wall. Tentatively, he opened his eyes - one was swelled shut from the beatings - but the other worked fine, and he found himself laying on his side on an overstuffed leather couch, a *clean* one!
He looked around. He was in an office. It was clean, comfortable, and entirely too 1970s looking, with lots of dark wood paneling, colored leather, and a big clock made out of a cross-section of a Cyprus tree. The dull far-off memories from somewhere else in his head identified it as looking vaguely like the principle’s office in a private Christian school he’d gone to in his youth, a youth he had no other memories of. Strange, and strangely intoxicating, to be recovering snatches of one’s past when he had no idea who he was. Stranger still to remember a school, but not his own name.
He had no idea how he’d gotten there, but owing to his nearly-doubled powers of retention, he reasoned quickly that he must have been moved here after his beating. But why? And where was ‘here?’
There were several large desks in the room, business-man styled and ponderous. The largest was in the center, facing the couch. There were three men sitting behind the one desk, staring at him patiently. He quickly counted his bones to make sure they were all still there, and when he figured they were, he gingerly moved to sit up, and take more stock of the room. The couch was pressed up against one wall, the desk with the three men, square in the middle. Behind them was a window with tacky yellow shades drawn tight, stained by generations of cigarette smoke. Sickly light filtered through them anyway, unearthly, vaguely stomach-churning.
“What is a man but the sum of his memories?” one of the three men at the desk spoke, the one on the left.
“Excuse me?” He said, head still swimming.
“What is a man but the sum of his memories?” the one in middle repeated in a different voice that was eerily the same. This time it registered, and he was able to recognize it as a question.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Neither do we,” agreed the man on the right side of the table. They all stared awkwardly at him.
“I’m not really a morning person,” he said, “maybe we could try this again in a less enigmatic fashion, and you can tell me what it is that’s going on here?” The three nodded.
The one on the left spoke, “Humanity is an interesting development. We are interested in the nature of mankind, as is mankind itself. Mankind has long recognized its fundamental difference from the other animals, it’s isolation from nature; humans have long asked deep questions about who or what they are, yet they have never come to conclusions about any of those.”
“If you say so,” he said. He noticed that he wasn’t having too much difficulty following them, his mental acuity was more or less normal, and he was feeling like his old self again, whomever that was.
The one in the middle continued, “One of the more interesting questions to us is one of identity: Is a person merely the sum of their memories, or are they something more?”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Are memories like a computer program?“ the one on the right said, “If I take your memories, and put them in someone else, do they *become* you, the way any computer can run a program equally well, or is there some deeper code at work here that makes each individual truly unique?” There was another awkward group-stare in the silence that followed.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Neither do we,” said a fourth man - oddly like the others - who sat at a desk in the back left corner of the room. ‘How did I not notice him before?’ he wondered, vaguely startled.
“Thus we decided to find out,” said the man on the left of the main table.
“It is an intriguing question,” said the man in the middle.
“One that begs an answer,” said the man on the right.
There was nothing remarkable about these men. They were neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, insofar as he could tell. Their faces were nondescript, and their eyes smiled at him, though their mouths didn’t. They were obviously human…but were they? He didn’t know, he only knew that when they spoke it raised a slight flight-or-fight response in them. Their mouths were all a little bit too wide. Not wide enough to be outside the realm of human experience, of course, but just enough to be vaguely odd and threatening. He didn’t notice it consciously, of course. Their voices were not the kind of thing that would stand out, and they were all different, yet something about their phrasing and diction was offputting. It was like three separate people all doing an impression of the same famous person. He could easily get up and walk over to the desk, but the thought of doing so turned his bowels to water. There was a kind of dream-logic at play here, and he was afraid of what he might find. He feared that below the desk, they were all connected, three massive finger puppets all on the same hand.
‘…but that’s just crazy talk, isn’t it?’ he thought, but he couldn’t convince himself that it was.
Suddenly there was a fifth man, sitting at the table on the left, who somehow he hadn’t noticed before, saying “you have become part of that experiment.” In the silence that followed, he realized they intended him to speak. It had been so long since he’d had a normal human conversation - assuming these people were human - that he’d lost his feel of the normal ebb and flow of such things. But the rhythms were gradually coming back to him.
“And what have you found out?” he asked.
“our initial conclusion,” said the man on the left of the center desk.
“Was that the concept of identity,” continued the man in the middle
“is based entirely on experiental memory, and” said the man on the right
“that there is no inherent ‘you’ in you,” said the man on the left of the other table
“Aside from some genetic predispositions” said the man in the middle of the other table
“That are immaterial to our experiment” said a new man at the right of the other table who He was certain wasn’t there just an instant before.
“So this is all just an experiment?” he asked, already knowing full well that it was.
“Of course” all six of them - seven now, one at a new table on the other side of the room - said in one voice.
He felt something crawling through his hair, a bug he figured, or a worm. He reached up to grab it, and pulled his fingers away wet and red and sticky. “Could I get a handkerchief or something, please? I’m bleeding here….”
“No,” all eight of them said.
“Fine. So why…why this place? Why an airport?”
“It was cheap,” the nine of them said in unison. This puzzled him.
“Why…how…why me? Why us?”
“Practical air traffic has existed for a century in reliable and safe fashion, yet still there are occasional accidents. Several passenger firms were willing to trade certain technologies that would rule out these accidents, in exchange for the victims of the accidents themselves,” the choir spoke in nine-part harmony.
He puzzled that out for a moment, “So, wait, you gave them some hoobijoob that would save their planes, if they’d give you the people who would have died in the crashes?”
“Yes. We also allow them to retain their crews.”
“Why would they agree to such a thing?”
“Aircraft are expensive. Flight crews require much expensive training. It was cheaper this way.”
“So every plane crash in the last however-long-this-has-been-going-on is a fake?”
“So how long has this experiment been running?”
“A very long time.”
“Our initial observations confirmed,” the one on the left of the room said,
“what we anticipated about the nature” the second one next to him said,
“of identity, however as the experiment” the third one next to him said,
“proceeded we came across an” the one at the left of the main, center table said, “interesting datum that popped up” the one in the middle of the center table said,
“randomly which caused us to review” the one at the right of the center table said,
“our preconceptions. In most cases there” the seventh man, at another table said
“was no difference in the behavior of any” the eighth man next to him said,
“of our subjects when we removed their” the ninth man said
“long term memories, they revered to a” the first man said, starting over again,
“primordial cave-man styled existence, violent,” the man next to him said,
“brutish, animalistic. Occasionally, however,” the third man said,
“there were some who popped up who was” the fourth man said,
“different than the rest, one who was gentler,” the fifth man said,
“able to grasp larger concepts even without memory,” the sixth man said
“somewhat more noble than the rest.” The seventh man concluded.
“A lamb, rather than a lion?” he asked.
“yes,” the nine said in unison, “Though generally they died off before they could statistically affect the outcome of the experiment.”
He weighed this.
“I’m one of these lambs?”
“You are,” They agreed. “You are the only one who has managed to survive and shepherd these people in to something resembling a human society. It is a fascinating and inexpertly noble thing you have done, and we can not abide it.” Awkward silence resumed.
“Soooooooo…you’re explaining this to me, and now you’re going to kill me?”
“We do not kill,” they said as one, with a trace of slow amusement in their voices.
“No, of course not, you twist, you torture, you maim, you rape, but you do not kill.”
“We are scientists,” they said, again with some amusement.
“So what is this all about? Why bring me here?”
“We want you to leave,” they sang, actually sang.
“That seems…unexpectedly decent of you,” he said. “Why not just wipe my memories and throw me back in the rat-maze?”
“It would not work. You were able to organize these people based without memories, acting only on your basic decency.” Despite the increasingly oppressive nature of this conversation, their singing voices were strangely beautiful.
“Decency? Not my intelligence?”
“You’re not all that smart,” they sang, again amused.
“So because I did it once, I could do it again?”
“Yes,” they sang in the tongues of angels, or possibly devils, “It is affecting the outcome of our experiment.”
“How do you know this for sure?” he asked.
“Because you’ve done it before,” they sang. This was not, it turned out, his first trip to The Terminal. He had been here once, years before, just another anonymous passenger on an anonymous lost flight that wasn’t really lost. They gave him back snatches of memory from that time. He was shocked, appalled, horrified, it was like finding a different head inside his own skull, remembering himself as a different person, and yet…and yet….somehow the same. Somehow slightly more than the ones around him, not just reacting but acting, concerned for the ones around him in a way that wasn’t social conditioning and wasn’t genetic, but was something else.
In those days, God alone knew how many years ago, he had managed to rally the people in the terminal. There had been no paper, nor food, so he did it with graffiti, spray painting messages on the walls and working out a system of enlightened cannibalism and rat-farming that kept the people alive, somewhat. In his memories, he recalled areas of filthy wall in the present-day terminal that were no less disgusting than any other wall or space, but which appeared to have a thinner veneer of crud and effluvium on them, as though they’d been scraped or sandblasted at some point in the distant past. At the same time, in his other track of memories, he remembered the younger, but no-less-desecrated walls covered with his own messages.
“No,” he said. “What you’re doing here is evil. If there’s something about me that allows me to help these people, I have to do it. If I’ve organized and led these people - twice - then I have some responsibility to them. I’m going to stay, memories or no, I’m going to liberate them, and then I’m going to come back here and I’m going to kill you.”
The laughter of a choir of scientists, or angels, or devils, or whatever they were, is surprisingly, disconcertingly beautiful.
“There is nothing you can say that will change my mind,” he screamed defiantly.
“Your mind doesn’t enter in to it,” they said, “we have complete control over that obviously. It is your soul that is screwing up our experiments. But be that as it may, we have something that we think will make you reconsider.”
“Nothing could,” he swore.
Then they showed it to him, and they allowed him to remember, and he agreed. He agreed instantly to their terms, without reservation. How could he not? How could any man not?
He was having a bad dream when the plane hit the air pocket. They fell two hundred feet in only a few seconds, and he awoke with a gargled scream and a bit of drool spat up on his shirt. He wasn’t the only one, there were startled shouts and gasps throughout the cabin. The lights flickered. For a moment - just a moment - he didn’t know where he was, then he remembered the family vacation en rout to starting a new life for themselves in Hawaii.
The plane settled out, but his heart was beating a mile a minute. As he mopped the spit off his shirt with a coctail napkin, he realized he was drenched in sweat, but he couldn’t remember why. He caught just the tiniest, thinnest wisp of his dream - something about an airport - and then it was gone forever. ‘How can an airport be frightening?’ he wondered. For no reason he was ever able to figure out, he immediately yanked out his wallet and checked his driver’s license. He didn’t know why it was so important to him to see his name confirmed in writing, but it was. He didn’t know that it wasn’t really his name. All this happened in less than a minute.
He heard a sort of restrained silence to his right, and instantly recognized it as his beloved. He turned to look at her, their eyes met, and they laughed in relief and embarrassment. The sudden drop had been a start for both of them. To her right, on the window, their son hadn’t even woken up.
“That boy can sleep through anything,” his wife said.
“Just as well. Gives me more time with you,” he said. He took her hand in his, and interlaced her chocolate-brown fingers with his own white ones. They looked in to each other’s eyes with very real love, and he kissed her. She kissed him back with the familiarity that comes of decades spent with the one you care for, your soul mate. Neither of them would ever suspect it was the first time they’d ever kissed, or indeed spoken to each other.
They slouched down in their seats, and he rested his head on her shoulder, and buzzed the stewardess for a blanket. Life was wide open ahead of them, happily ever after.
Back in the office, back in the airport, the nine spoke as one.
“That is not his child?” they inquired.
“No,” the same nine spoke, but in nine feminine voices this time, “He never procreated, here or elsewhere, but his paternal instinct was strong. We reasoned that it was the only larger calling we could manipulate to justify his abandoning his responsibilities to this place. His spouse was killed and eaten within two days of arrival in the terminal. The child is likewise not related to either of them.”
“Excellent, A good call,” the same nine bodies spoke, again in men’s voices. “You have arranged for their re-integration in to society?”
“Indeed,” the nine spoke in women’s voices, “They have been given false memories of their lives together, bad memories that will bond them and prevent them from going back to revisit their old homes and discovering the inherent falsehood of their thoughts.”
“We trust,” the male chorus sang in a language unknown to humanity, “That you have arranged false identities for them as well?”
“Of course,” the female chorus replied.
Then eighteen voices coming from nine bodies sang out as one, “Let the second stage of the experiment commence!”
Copyright Republibot 3.0, 2009, 2011
PLEASE NOTE: This story, and several other equally disturbing ones by the same author, have been compiled in an anthology called "Ice Cream and Venom." It is available on Amazon for only 99 cents. If you enjoyed the story, why not support a starving author and give some of the others a chance? You can purchase a copy here http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Cream-Venom-ebook/dp/B004XNLU8Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=... A couple of the other stories are funny, too...