At six o’clock in the evening, Dr. Drown stepped from his train coach onto the station platform and sniffed the air pompously. The nose with which he accomplished this had a steep and graceful slope that instantly marked him as a foreigner.
Dr. Drown hailed from the north. For much of the twelve-hour journey he was made to endure the tuneless drinking songs of students who’d just won an engineering competition in his city of birth, a metropolis revered for its grand white domes and modern roadways. The quiet of this southern seaside town was welcome, if eerie. Across the street from the station, waves lapped timidly against the pier, and indistinct apartment blocks gazed into fog. Drown had never visited this country.
A taxi puttered into view. The driver stopped but other than that took no notice of Dr. Drown, who opened the trunk and heaved his suitcases inside, mentally halving the tip—though tipping was not the custom here. Neither was speaking aloud one’s destination: The doctor twice asked if the driver knew St. Isidore’s and got no answer.
What was said about the south was that its people had little use for articulation. They spoke in grunts or hums or nods or complete and baffling silence. Some posited that their ears were completely vestigial. According to Dr. Wellstring, the chief physician at St. Isidore’s and a mentor from Drown’s schooldays, the southerners had developed a novel form of communication. In their last telephone conversation, after wishing Drown a safe journey, Wellstring had signed off with the enigmatic whisper: “They sing the music of the spheres.” A pretty theory, but how did one communicate with spheres?
Drown reached out and pulled his door closed, noticing too late that he’d shut it on his expensive trenchcoat. Worse, this had some effect on the locking mechanism, so that he could not reopen the door and free himself.
“Wait,” he told the driver. “I’m stuck.”
The driver cocked his head and, as if receiving the directions the doctor had failed to impart before, took off squealing. Small flat-roofed houses and the odd spiny palm tree flew by in the dusted windows.
“No!” barked the passenger. “I said stop!”
There was no response, and the doctor gave up. Then something flashed at him from the road: a cluster of translucent, bluish figures, standing motionless before a boarded-up oyster shack. He swiveled in his seat for confirmation. Yes, they were here—despite his staunchly enforced sobriety of thirteen years.
“The Bunch,” his most patient mistress had called them, quite convinced that he raved the natural truth; Nora his ex-wife had meanwhile referred to the “Taxpayers,” which is to say a group unreal and totally lacking recourse. Most simply, they were phantom children, children he had met before they could even be named as such. He had seen them often from his studded leather armchair, his favorite place to reel in analgesic glories. They would present themselves like petitioners to a mad king while he struggled to keep head poised atop his final vertebra.
He heard something internally, a response from the driver perhaps. But unlike the doctor’s thoughts, which took shape like sentences, this was a pulse that electrified the base of his neck and plucked him out of reverie. There was no way to transcribe or decode it, and Dr. Drown at once began to nervously polish his rimless glasses. Again he wondered: what use was the diagnostician to systems he could not understand?
Drown winced as the passenger-side wheels tore through a swampy ditch, muddying his fine gabardine. He remembered the tailor’s fine fingers dancing along invisible seams, exhilaration at the feel of true fit. Wellstring owned a coat just like this; had, in fact, recommended the same exacting tailor upon the occasion of Drown’s assignment to St. Isidore’s. Wellstring appreciated technical precision to a patriotic limit surely not reflected by the elusive southerners.
Nine weeks Drown awaited the coat’s readiness, during which time he jumped the flaming hoops of performative democracy. In pursuit of a visa it was once quite easy to get, he was made to submit indistinguishable forms to an endless list of minor clerks and functionaries. None seemed capable of relaying these forms from one department to another. The visa and coat came to fruition all at once on an icy Tuesday in March, the same day a charter bus full of visiting dignitaries vaporized and reappeared six hours later, emptied, in the pounding froth of a famous waterfall.
The northern government had considered this a gross insult by their southern neighbors. The press fueled the hinterlands’ growing xenophobia and concocted a few choice slurs that caught on with hapless speed. Relations between the two nations strained. Had Dr. Drown applied for his visa just days later, he could scarcely have doubted its swift denial.
This morning he’d noted a preponderance of impressive but ornamental weaponry at customs—which in serene eras was patrolled by a sleepy fellow called Prance and two sniffer dogs, also somnambulant. Whispers of espionage, stealth strikes, unprecedented war. Although the northerners were often involved in skirmishes with their neighbors to the east and west, and most frequently amongst themselves, the southerners had long stayed safe within their borders, too intangible to pin down in either conflict or alliance.
There was, too, a certain northern general’s mortal embarrassment by the repeated apparitions of a rather shapely southern home office secretary while he believed himself to be alone, on the toilet. The secretary insisted she had no control over where or when she appeared, and was swiftly sacked besides, but the northerners interpreted these occurrences as a pattern of malicious intent, theorized that the secretary was acting under orders from her high-ranking superiors. No ruling class can maintain its dignity and sovereign secrets when its great leaders are so frequently caught with their trousers down.
Dr. Drown was not much given to politics—in his eyes, nothing more than a hogpit on marble columns—but the current crisis begged his attention. According to Dr. Wellstring’s letters, it was a plague of appalling new dimensions. As the cab crawled up to the stone hotel where the men had arranged to meet, Wellstring himself leapt into view. The egg-shaped man with a bad goatee jerked Dr. Drown’s door open, threw the driver a ball of pink banknotes before Drown could offer his unchanged currency, then dragged his comrade across the street’s hot final rays of sunset toward the hotel entrance, its lobby less humid by half than the open atmosphere.
“Dear brute!” cried Dr. Wellstring as they came through an arch gripped by tawny creeping vines. “You absolute butcher! I trust your trip was insufferable. No way of getting here that does not tax the soul to penury. Hell! And I shan’t have you in the special ward after that ordeal, no way, it’s a joke—don’t even joke about it! Have your bath and rest and a nice long leisurely shave, yes, but what’s wrong with you, hmm? I’ve never seen you in glasses, I’m sure. I don’t recall… not at the academy. One can barely credit that mug!”
“You recall, sir,” said Dr. Drown, in what he now sensed was a very false voice, “that you focused more on cadavers than the eyewear of your pupils.”
“True enough, you brute,” said Dr. Wellstring, who had never called him this until a few seconds prior. An oddity Dr. Drown had no opportunity to analyze, as some employee of the place had materialized at the reception desk and set to scouring the list of reservations, Drown surely not among their number.
“That’s Vassily,” said Dr. Wellspring. “The concierge.”
“Forgive me,” Dr. Drown whispered, feeling foolishly conspicuous. “But how did you come to know its—his name? I was unaware they could tell us, and if so how, or whether they actually had any.”
“Dear me, they don’t!” Dr. Wellstring guffawed. “But you have to keep them straight somehow, and doesn’t he remind you of a Vassily? Silver pocket watch, all that? Anyway, I’ve sorted the booking mix-up, he’ll have your key.”
“You haven’t said a word,” Dr. Drown protested.
“They won’t understand if you think at them directly,” Dr. Wellstring harrumphed, poking Dr. Drown in the ribs with two stiff fingers. This pedagogical tone had filled the north’s oldest medical theaters. “That’s entirely too concrete. Distract your mind with something else and they’ll pick up the rest.”
Dr. Drown glanced down at the soiled hem of his lovely coat. Dr. Wellstring pressed two orange pills into his palm and said they would help him sleep, then scurried out like a spider with fresh web to oversee.
A demon-eyed bellhop appeared and took Dr. Drown’s suitcases shortly after Vassily surrendered the room key, and Drown followed this alarming young man to a bronze elevator where, by wondering if he were hungry or not, he requested the eleventh floor. Inside the small but well-appointed suite, he inwardly wished the bellhop goodnight, forgetting Wellstring’s instructions, though it seemed no offense was taken at this.
He decided against going out for food, fished some silk pajamas from his bags, and strove to make out the conversation of people next door—a wife and husband, he gathered, the husband a sort of diplomat, the wife demanding they leave at once, both of them peppering their talk with the quick malice and admissions of fear that had lately seized this corner of the world. The wife was afraid, Dr. Drown deduced, that she might contract the local disease.
Which wasn’t possible, as far as Dr. Wellstring had found. It was likely congenital. Or, if environmental in cause, then borne of a long-term exposure. Impatient to study the symptoms himself, turn them inside-out and describe, in a manner of speaking, the motives of this pathology, Drown swallowed Wellstring’s mysterious pills with a glass of hard water from the bathroom sink.
For ten minutes he lay awake and anxious. For another ten he hallucinated—the furniture melted away, replaced by flowing black animals—and were it not for the pair of fists that beat at his door, one rapid and curt, the second heavy and bruising, he would soon have started from the terror that he was trapped underwater.
With not an inkling of who he was, or what hideous time it might be, he realized what was rousing him from bed: Another patient had been admitted. At the door, a pair of buzzing indeterminacies—neither Wellstring. One of them seemed to be female. Dr. Drown closed his fist on a fold of air and noted with surprise that it had the same consistency as yogurt. He swayed slightly and attempted to introduce himself, but the sounds chalked in his mouth. One of his visitors spoke, and the words appeared on a banner unscrolling from the vicinity of its forehead.
“Wellstring’s done you good, has he?” the other of them said. “You’ll sober up when you see what we’ve got in store.”
Moving at the speed of light. Cocooned in naugahyde, he squinted, gathering further information about his blurry consorts. The female was small, with lubricated movements about the wrists and neck. Her squareish opposite hosted a perplexing congregation of bristly hairs along his upper lip.
Dr. Drown fancied himself party to the complete rainbow of narcotic and anesthetic effects, having leaned heavily on his clinic’s pharmaceutical supply to scale the hump of a messy divorce, but the effects of this drug were entirely alien. It was as though he was dissolving around the edges, or that he was gradually being accepted, on the molecular level, by his surroundings. He struggled mightily to hold his core intact and comprehend the exchange in the front seats.
“What I’m saying is, you can’t ask what symptoms the patient is presenting, the nature of the disease means he’s not presenting at all. It calls for a complete shift in standard terminology. That would have to be approved and disseminated by the medical oversight board… two, three years before we could even start discussing export options with the drug companies.”
“They’d make an exception for catastrophe.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Sassafras is gunning for full-scale invasion, and the MMC wants nothing to do with them while sabers are rattling.”
Dr. Drown navigated the back seat’s mallowy landscape with his fingers. It seemed to him that the car was filled with jelly-like creatures in spinning skirts. He reached to touch one and found his hand had become tangled in the woman’s hair. She looked around at his drooling.
“Georges, he’s in la-la land. Is there anything we can do?”
“Should be a hypodermic in my bag beneath the seat there. Twenty cc’s to bring him back to the real world.”
“Is it that?”
A beautiful clear stinging sensation. Dr. Drown felt his bones splinter, shuffle, and slot back together in the space of an instant. He looked around at the newly comprehensible automobile. His companions were monitoring him in the rearview mirror with familiar post-op scrutiny.
The woman was stunning in a tousled sylvan way, out of place at the wheel of the stale sedan—he got the sense that she’d rather be gathering herbs alone on remote mountain peaks. Her companion certainly was glum, and the oddness of his mustache was hypnotic—it was like he’d tweezered each individual hair in place with strong glue. Dr. Drown adopted a strong feeling of dislike for this man, which, he acknowledged, had been growing even through his intoxication. There was something crude in his gestures, intimations of butchery that cast evil light on their shared profession.
To fend off nausea, Drown gazed out the window at a succession of gimcrack office buildings, their cornices and awnings painted the pukey salmon that served as the city’s official color of prosperity. In his own country the wealthy sealed themselves within black-tinted steel skyscrapers, embracing their peculiar illusion of privacy. Having suffered intimate blows to his reputation there, he had to admire almost any culture that did away with this flimsy veneer.
St. Isidore’s loomed in the dirty windshield. Its pale gray bulk shimmered wetly from the moonlight. Weak clouds shredded themselves on its protuberant dome. The iron gates were closed and guards were stationed at each post. As they drew nearer, the unlikable man rummaged around in his jacket and found a plastic pass that he slapped down on the dashboard.
“Bloody formality. Can’t they simply frisk our thoughts?”
“They’re trying to help, Georges.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Drown interjected, “could you remind me who you are?”
“By Jove, he’s one of ours,” came the sarcastic reply. “I am the lesser Specialist Lesser, first name Georges. From the consulate. She’s—”
“Doctor Vinh, psychic surgeon. You aren’t qualified to know my first name, and anyway, it’s immaterial.”
The wings of the storied hospital unfurled before them like a dragon’s. Inhuman strides in surgery had been made here, though few in the past three hundred years. Principally it was remembered as the locus of savvy, pre-modern intuition, nothing all that scientific—brilliant guesses about what anatomies might require or withstand on the operating surface. When research revealed the underlying factors of what being an organism entailed (not that the veil had been completely stripped as yet), the southerners’ academia had crumbled.
About halfway up the main marble steps behind Dr. Vinh and Specialist Lesser, Dr. Drown deduced that his extremities were functioning again. Higher cognition, he noticed, was lollygagging somewhat behind. The interior halls were illuminated by squat candles set in sconces designed to cradle electric bulbs, while tree shadows foamed against the pall these cast on a floor scuffed by the kicking insane.
“Don’t suppose you’ve anything to eat,” Drown mumbled.
“Afraid not,” Lesser said. “You know how strange they are about food.”
It was true. Dr. Drown had unwrapped a sandwich of meat and pickles and mustard on the train, tucking in only to find a southerner at the opposite window shooting glances of troubled curiosity his way. Abnormal for them to combine two ingredients, let alone four or five; they took no immediate pleasure from culinary art. Hardly snacked, never feasted, and viewed digestion as a chore.
Fluorescence of the special ward mentioned by Dr. Wellstring—the part of the building where an active current was necessary and perpetual—stabbed his vision and sizzled through frayed synapses. The twenty-odd residents were well used to this post-amniotic glare; not a few were peaceably snoring.
At the end of the western row of beds sat a wide-awake child of eight or nine, parents close by, tangled in a bodily business that Drown was tempted to read as telepathic argument. None of the full-body furor that language traded upon, but an aggressive looking beyond each other, pained exhalations, and the canny shift of feet preceding a murderous clash.
“Not everyone trusts our methods,” Dr. Vinh said with contempt. “I’ll draw them out, you boys examine the girl.” When she and the couple had left, loaded with wordless antipathy, Specialist Lesser coughed.
“Right,” said Dr. Drown, regarding his little patient, who wore a formal puffy dress that she clearly longed to burn on a pyre. The parents, too, were well-attired. Had they come from some aristocratic gala?
He resisted the urge to ask what hurt, or what exactly was bothering the girl, instead calling up a childhood reminiscence: the evening he had secretly ridden his father’s favorite horse, a black stallion with a white rhombus on its handsome snout, through a neighbor’s olive orchard. The jubilation had hollowed the sound of hooves on dirt, put more particles into the night. He and the horse were airborne, a headlong velvet tempest.
What the staring girl thought back at Dr. Drown tightened around his larynx until he was short of air. When he was sure he would not survive, the invisible force released him. Stumbling for balance, he landed on the impression of Nora. Happy to indulge his lust, she frequently slid a hand to his throat to tease a choking. He adored the hint of the lethal in their love but feared this grace note of brutal panic had forever spoiled that thrill.
“That was rude,” said Lesser.
“The brat!” gasped Dr. Drown. “I nearly passed out.”
“I meant you,” Lesser said. “You can’t compare your youth to hers, it simply isn’t done. She’s in hers. Yours is refracted. You told her a cruel and tacky joke.”
“You… heard me?” Dr. Drown inquired.
Lesser blushed faintly. “I got the gist,” he replied, mercifully failing to mention the sexual aspect of Drown’s airless panic.
“Then maybe you can tell me why she’s here.”
“He can’t,” Dr. Vinh’s voice cut in. Dr. Drown hadn’t heard her return—both she and Lesser were beginning to exhibit the sneaky, wraithlike qualities of their hosts. “And neither could mom and dad, despite my prying their heads open and mucking about inside. What you have here is a decently healthy young girl in some form of distress we’ve repeatedly failed to describe.”
“Hypochondria by proxy,” Drown said.
“Hardly,” snapped Vinh. “Why do you think we brought you down? No one who arrives in this state lasts more than five days.”
“So there’s autopsy data.”
“The pathologists,” Lesser said, “were some of the first to die.”
“Then it’s contagious.”
“We’ve been treating it that way, yes,” sniffed Dr. Vinh. “It’s not a hermetic quarantine, but considering—shit!”
Lesser and Drown recoiled at the oath and pinpointed its origin: the slight depression on the mattress where their hostile young patient had, mere seconds ago, sat firmly planted. Drown was struck by how similar this sensation was to that of a missing stair, foot rudely awakened to the vacuum. Animal sense told him that this occurrence was not merely another of the southern race’s perversions of reality. The girl was gone for good.
Doctor Vinh’s face remained impassive, but Drown detected a crushing melancholy in the slope of her shoulders, the way she smoothed the bedclothes to erase the girl’s trace. Seconds passed before anyone spoke. A weak moan rose up from behind a curtained bed at the end of the ward. The absence of orderlies and nurses was extreme. Drown estimated that such an institution should be operating with a staff of nearly five hundred; by the looks of the bare hallways and nurse’s stations, they were down to a quarter of that.
Vinh and Lesser were soon bickering over who would tell the girl’s parents. An unenviable job. Without words, how to trust oneself to be tactful and maintain a bedside manner? The girl’s family was of course important. He heard the term lordship parried about. There would be a fuss, perhaps even withdrawals of funding.
Lesser was dispatched to deliver the sad news. He would botch the delicate maneuver, Drown was sure of it. As the unfortunate specialist left, he stopped at a glass cabinet to collect two antique digestif flutes and a decanter of leaf-green liquid.
“A tonic,” explained Doctor Vinh. “Bitter herbs. Has the effect of stabilizing their forms, if only momentarily. Otherwise we’d be pumping it down their throats, day in, day out. Our post-exposure prophylaxis is a joke. Some researchers exploring folk remedies, waving herbs, incantations, that sort of witchery. Does wonders for their nerves, but I can’t say as much for the patients. I’m of a more unorthodox school. Come along, I’ll show you where I work.”
They left the unpresent girl to oscillate in the quiet ward. The beautiful surgeon looked straight ahead, determined, it seemed, to project an air of control over the frankly implausible proceedings. Drown slipped into an old anxious routine, cataloguing the circulatory system’s weak points from the toes up.
His track record as a physician was not entirely clean. In his early days he’d worked as an abortionist, and a wealthy woman had died. Punctured uterus. She bled to death on the operating table, entirely conscious until the end. Protracted legal battles, a settlement, the closing of his practice. He dropped underground for several years, surfacing as internist in a different province. To circumvent further malpractice suits, he’d registered the new license under his wife’s name. It was this name he carried now. This name had been awarded the Hermann Fumble Prize and the Addison-Cromp Traveling Fellowship.
It was also this name which had divorced him. He’d paid Nora a ghastly sum to afford continued professional use of it. After the split she’d quickly married and left him its sole proprietor. He often felt as though the name was all he really had to offer; the days he wasn’t on call he drew all the curtains of his home, arranged himself comfortably, and swallowed enough phenobarbital to erase all proprioceptive input. That’s when he’d met the Bunch, and a filmic stew of other angels to which he’d introduced himself.
“Hello! Lovely to see you. I’m the good Dr. Drown.”
A rush of wind went strangely through the hospital. Drown had the sensation of being passed through, confirmed by transparent figures, two wide nurses gliding down the hall before them. Unruffled, Vinh unfolded a pair of rimless glasses not dissimilar to Drown’s own and placed them on the straight bridge of her nose.
“You must be wondering what use we have for you,” she said. They drew up short at an unmarked theater. “An incurable, even unnameable plague. Loose vectors of transmission. Patients dropping like flies, like the ghosts of flies, and nothing to be done. Well,” she said, shouldering open the left-hand door to reveal cavernous space with a high, arched ceiling and tiered rows of wooden observation benches arranged in the round, “as I mentioned, my specialty is psychic surgery. My technique has a very strong chance of efficacy in specific cases. I’ve not yet had the chance to practice on patients—though I’m confident of future success.”
“Yes.” Her voice multiplied in the dome. “I’ve gone so far as to test the technique on myself and a few other willing participants. Painless, we all agree.”
“You’ve brought me aboard to assist with operations? It’s a strange choice. Assumed I’d be working in the morgue, perhaps a smattering of endoscopy and diagnostic observation. It’s been many years since I haunted a surgical wing. And I admit I don’t feel entirely comfortable… ”
The plump spectral nurses affixed leather straps to the ancient operating table as Vinh catapulted into a spiel that Drown assumed she delivered at regular intervals to whomever happened to be in earshot.
“No professors figured the choice to complete my studies here intelligent,” she said. “Not even Wellstring, who like you views this country as a museum of frustrating riddles—as if its ambiguity makes it any less real. How much of yourself can be seen? Do you sense nothing without your senses?”
From a glass box in a chestnut armoire that was sorely out of place, the nurses removed a hunk of steel that unraveled into a squiddish apparatus. Dr. Drown, lightly etherized by Vinh, was stretched on the operating table with wrists and ankles bound. The tentacles of the silver cephalopod, he saw, were tipped with needles of varying gauges—some wide as a pen, others thin as sewing thread, glinting in flamelight. Two snaked up his nostrils, two more into his ears, the two thinnest set in his tear ducts, none of which stung at the intrusion. One wound down his throat without the slightest resistance and pierced a spot between his lungs. The remaining needles, Drown surmised, had found passage into Vinh’s own organs.
Her face looked down into his with vulpine expectation. Just when a spasm for this barbaric intimacy shook his skeleton, Dr. Drown’s reasoning imploded. Whereas Dr. Wellstring’s sedatives had merged pattern into liquid maps of malign intent, he now he read the uncanny spray of his every personal defect—each biscuit he’d poached without paying the baker at age ten; the arcane cruelties he’d flung at Nora in the fury of a jealous fever; his decision to abandon the motherland, slip away to this exotically improbable realm. Vinh performing this lunacy on herself was not be fathomed.
With a near-audible whoosh, he saw himself through prehistoric eyes, a network of inflexible feedback loops and diamond-hard denial. All of it, unfortunately, his own design. His notions abandoned their fastenings, and the sharpness of each cellular cleave struck him like twangy notes from a harpsichord. The theater warped by a nonlinear geometry behind his own failing retinas. If he stopped knowing what was around him, it might well cease to exist, leaving him weightless in a void where fate didn’t hold.
“Ngggh!” he tried to scream around the tube in his throat.
Not necessary, Vinh thought at him.
You think in sentences? Drown thought back.
Regrettably, Vinh thought. But I’m learning. It’s the body we’re forced to get the hang of. It has impulses the brain can’t grasp. The southerners don’t read each others’ minds, but selves. Everything else can dwindle away.
They’re spiritually sick, thought Dr. Drown.
And with a bit more practice, Vinh replied—but swiveled, yanking all the equipment out of poor Dr. Drown. He thrashed on the table, groping to get his moorings back, and the first information he picked from the fractaling hurt was the snap of boots. A horrid cry went over this, congealing into the screech of a southerner attempting the northern language.
“Arrest you’re under!” the soldier said. “Daughter for sedition whereabouts duchess of the questioning and disappearance duke. At our war, countries declare.”
Dr. Drown got the gist.
“This who man? Or else quickly!”
“Doctor Drown is his name,” said Vinh. “Please, do not ask him any questions. He does not speak your language, or mine. He has only just arrived in this country and doesn’t know the duchess. He is no threat.” Drown assumed that Nora had said the same to her lovers. He felt that he had shrunk to microscopic size; he was a fetus, the notion of an egg, a sprout unfurling in a hot wind.
Things began happening with great speed. He supposed some order had been issued, was now being executed with the efficiency seen at the start of war, before burning ditches and barrack desertions. Unseen hands took hold of his gurney and pushed him roughly on. He tried to call to Vinh, but his throat seized from the tube’s removal, and all he managed was a hacking mewl. With no other evident choice, he closed his mouth and tested for telepathic wavelengths.
Help you? Help me, stupid. I’ve done all I can to save your hide.
Where are they taking me?
St. Brinkburghers. It’s cozy enough. Play dumb. I’ve no doubt you’ll be convincing. She transmitted the image of a beige room, thick with shades. A sort of processing center. The burrowing menace of bureaucrats, insectoid scritch of their countless pens. The southern fools think we’ve engineered erasure. We’re nowhere near that advanced, but when war is declared, governments shoot the scientists first. This plague has organic origins, may only be cured by similar means. I won’t say it’s been a pleasure, but I do appreciate you playing the part of my half-willing subject. Whether my technique bears fruit—I hope we live to find out.
I don’t understand what you’ve done to me!
Neither do I.
Will I see you again?
Even you can’t be that dense.
The doctor pinned like a gorgeous butterfly on a black velvet backdrop, restrained by fluid cuffs at her ankles and neck. Her face was a mask of exasperation: Oh, brother.
Every few seconds the chamber shook with the sound of bombs. The connection with Vinh crashed. Drown hadn’t answered her question. He thought I will as fiercely as he was able at the universe diminishing behind his gurney. They had only progressed some forty yards down the flickering hall when he heard the retort of a machine gun or some heavy riflery, fired upward. Shards rained down on a rarely polished floor.
Gunpowder wasn’t in the southerners’ repertoire; it would have no effect on their supernality. He couldn’t remember seeing a place in Vinh’s trim lab coat to hide a sidearm. The troopers around his gurney hightailed it back to the theater, leaving him alone. With great effort he was able to raise himself over a metal edge and onto his feet. He hobbled quickly down the hallway and turned left along a narrow passage, lined with quietly beeping machines, their scant data gone uncollected.
Vinh’s device resembled nothing so much as one of the apparati in Galvani’s amphibian electrocutions. A mechanism intended to stimulate not dead nerves and muscles, but thoughts. Now he calculated like his younger self. Were the southerners composed of this thought-stuff? How would such creatures replicate? What method of matter-to-thought biopoesis? It struck him as odd that he couldn’t recall any textbooks or articles about their breeding. For if a child of his own race could be canceled through severance prior to birth, a flushing of the womb, perhaps there was some collation between procreative and destructive thought. The plague victims had experienced cancelation too.
If only Vinh were there to be asked.
Dr. Drown ducked into an empty ward and felt the insinuation of a dread chill passing from stem to spine. He took in a pale blue room, shadeless, occupied only by empty beds. He sat heavily on the nearest cot and felt the chill once more, this time accompanied by the reappearance of the Bunch, his ghostly abortions, who flooded the room on his mind’s tide. Then and now they smogged around the room like fish. Some dragged on buds that were not yet hands or feet, but something closer to flippers. For the first time, their bodies cast shadows.
Compelled at the sight to go slack and useless again, a countervailing impulse held Drown tall and rigid, the soles of his feet cramping slightly with readiness. He could not remember the last time he had made a choice—that a choice had even been granted him. Little use in whingeing about it. Plenty strike out from cradle to grave and enjoy no proper version of either.
Drown now shuddered to remember Dr. Wellstring’s “dear brute,” which implied intimate knowledge of the younger doctor’s checkered past, cloaked in innocuous familiarity. That master of personal destiny was surely gone by now, having parsed the writing on the wall and promptly scrubbed it clean. In port Wellstring could’ve bought his way to a neutral state across the sea. He must’ve known from the start that Dr. Drown was doomed, yet had done nothing but ensure that his foolish guest was comfortable for the night. Vinh had bowled the opposite split, yearning for an unlikely breakthrough. Lesser he assumed they had already killed.
Anyway, here were the more-than vaporous children, and as they somehow grasped him warmly by the arm, he had a harrowing glimpse of the truth. The nondescript railway station, the suspiciously luxurious hotel, the disappointing seashore, the inscrutable foreign populace—there was nothing in the south that northerners did not imagine; in imagining, they made the south. It was a nation of mirrors, populated by a trillion rogue fantasies that had acquired presence. They were dying at such a heroic rate because northerners had lately begun to picture them dead—initially vanished, but increasingly blown apart by the rifles and rockets reserved for material threats.
And as this bold mirage failed in the heat of national paranoia, Drown’s Bunch glowed brighter, massed against the onslaught of ill tidings. Each had the face of a pregnant woman he’d helped in his scandalized clinic. They trailed after him, through an emergency exit provided by his desire for such, into a lot where old ambulances rusted. Four didn’t start, but a fifth did, the children frisking in weak headlights. The strain of fictive architecture was uprooting St. Isidore’s by its vaunted foundation stones. Piece after piece of the building hurtling off into a sky they’d doubtless rained from.
Nearby apartments flickered; the palm trees glitched in and out. The moon alone appeared impervious to doubt. An invasion was in full swing, but it did not extend to the shared heavens. Dr. Drown raced south in the rattling ambulance, and he didn’t use the siren. This would be another precious detail to hold in the fore, and it was trouble enough visualizing gas and brake pedals, the white rescue boat with wrought-iron railings at the pier, unobstructed dirt road unscrolling before them.
In the rear mirror, the ground they’d covered was peeling off into blackest night. This image, Drown was amazed to see, matched in both pigment and texture an abstract painting that hung in the main rotunda of the north’s most celebrated museum. We invented their history, he reflected, by foreseeing their disintegration, raising a sandcastle just for the pleasure of stomping it flat.
He skirted a streetlamp that gasped at actuality, and the ambulance turned over, skidding another fifty yards. Drown swung to as it ground to a halt.
Through webbed glass he made out lit nodules of a marina, metal buoys cast on the water. His providential ferry held fast in the center, a blue gangplank stretching up to its deck. Dr. Drown kicked splinters of windshield loose and broke into a limping trot toward his last, worst chance for another chance.
Stepping onto the dock, Drown dared to have faith in his heroism. The Taxpayers swarming at his ankles and elbows, it dawned on him that evacuations were not so easy. Air lacked structure anymore, collapsing into pockets of nil.
In war there could only be the unexpected obstacle, and this epiphany made it so. Standing between them and the boat was the single person—the one tormented entity—it had always been: Dr. Vinh.
Lab coat disposed of, she stood as a pillar of green against the insubstantial harbor. Drown’s eyes had already adjusted to the murk of things, and to see her fully realized gave him a jolt like striding through a shimmering patch of heat on the road that turns out to be a knee-deep creek.
He looked at his hands to reassure himself they were made of stuff. The Taxpayers passed their worried faces over and through his fingers, and he could feel their questions written on skin—
Would they be safe? Will he save them?
Vinh was silent, motionless. It took solemn application to propel himself along the moonlit dock, and he could see the column of solvency pouring sludgelike from his chest to still the frighted molecules beneath him.
Vinh? he ventured. Are you alright?
All he received in reply was white noise, a flat nontone, fuzzed-out afterthoughts. Drawing closer, he could see Vinh’s face was a rigid mask of concentration. A vein bulged prettily at her hairline. She breathed shallowly through her nostrils, afraid of disturbing some delicate suspension.
He raised a hand—what a miracle, the tactile sense—and gently shook her shoulder. Without fanfare, the ferry wiped from existence. The Taxpayers rose to howl mutely into the night while black water etched the shore like acid.
Of all the imbeciles to be saddled with… Can it be that you still do not understand? Vinh was dimming. Not so her distaste.
Drown’s brain was terribly faded. His courage, too. He urgently wished to be saved, that he could preserve—well, what, exactly? Instinct, base and stupid. He wanted to fall to his knees, to explain the Taxpayers and the heartbreak and the pills and the ether, the thousand small negations, the sighs stopped with needles and scalpels, but all he conveyed was:
I’m sorry, I don’t. I truly don’t.
Vinh’s face relaxed almost imperceptibly, lessening the crease between her haughty brows. The pier was cast in shadow. The Taxpayers approached ever-thinner shades of diaphony. Dr. Drown noted the missing pair of sodium floodlights previously mounted at the shoreline.
Now bring them back, she commanded.
What do you mean?
Energy is precious. Can’t explain. The operation, plague agents: a child could make the connection…
Vinh was deathly pale and trembling. A curtain descended behind her pupils as her body released itself.
Drown caught her before she crumpled, thighs warmed by her weight. She murmured nonsense and admonishments. The effort of her escape, or after-effects of octopedal probings. The device’s pincers had penetrated with their uncanny dexterity, given him access to the architecture of collective consciousness, and yet he’d learned that thoughts do not have mass—he was apprised of new research alleging they were bursts of neuroelectric current, brief sparks in a copper bowl, slippery eels no gar could transfix. And the noise of them could envelop any one voice, like Vinh’s.
The clumsiness of his spirit appalled him, its impulses slow and inelastic, towing his whole sad experience, dull as oft-whipped horses. He wanted to shake his own shoulders, demand of himself, What are you for, if not this?
Vinh drifted in and out while the beach fluttered accordingly. The effect was disproportionate to its catalyst—a vortex swirling on the head of a pin. The Taxpayers gathered around them and whispered their concern. Drown suspected that Vinh’s ingenious machine was for magnification. She had shifted responsibilities, brought the unconscious to the table. The squid made transponders of idle minds, so northern dreamers might issue or split this carelessly woven world.
A high, wild scream cracked the night. Drown snapped from his reverie to find himself adrift in white, Vinh’s prone form the only shape in range. The scream came again, genderless, desperate as a cornered fox. Another unfortunate soul imprisoned in this dreamed country. Drown surged to his feet and hoisted Vinh onto his back. Her arms folded awkwardly around his throat.
He would test his theory in flame. He focused on his right foot in its tattered brogue, the soft teeth of leather scratched from its toe, the fraying lace, the crushed heel where he never bothered to angle his foot correctly—and saw the ground beneath it, firm and granular. He had no setting to his left or right, and a great sucking hole had replaced the sky, but so long as he manifested the square of surface ahead, he found he could keep moving, however ponderously. And as two magnets find each other in a frictionless field, he was drawn to the signal of distress.
After minutes or weeks or eons had passed, Vinh began to wriggle against Drown’s back. He caught the world in the corner of his eye: An upturned cart, a single squash spinning above the rear axle. Half a horse whinnying and wide-eyed in a pool of disembodied light. Two walls of a school free-standing in mist, disassembled playground sprouting tumorously from its side. Tree canopies without trunks. And once, a diminutive figure scampered past in what had to be the puffy dress worn by the royal girl who had disappeared from under his nose.
He felt Vinh raise her head and observe his method. The visualization was easier the longer he was at it, and he followed some path he hadn’t known he knew; soon enough the dirt beneath his feet hardened into track, then cobblestone, then pavement. They stood before a small outbuilding—a cleaning facility or outdoor shower for a stable. Three wooden doors, blue as a shout.
Vinh had somewhat regained her composure. Sliding off his shoulder, the ground flowered to meet her. She straightened her spine and suit, then ordered him inside. The knob materialized as Drown reached for it, his flesh coming into contact with newly joined matter, cool from isolation.
What did he hope to find beyond? How could they explain to a southern family exactly what they had done? And how could he save his countrymen, knowing who the real plague agents were?
A resident was curled in the left-most stall of a tiled room, unmarked save the punctuation of a small drain in the floor. Vinh and Drown reached mentally but got no response in kind. It rocked slightly, self-soothing.
Clearing his throat, Drown tried talking.
“Are you all right?”
The silhouette uncurled slightly, one arm slung over face as though protecting itself from glare. Drown saw it was wearing a white lab coat and clutching a small leather satchel, the kind surgeons had.
The odious man nodded dumbly. A disbelieving terror had frozen the living flesh of his face as surely as rigor mortis. Drown took some pleasure in seeing this callous rival struck low before him, the jealous primate drinking its fill. How strange to find this pebble in the drain.
Wouldn’t it be easier, Drown dared to suppose, and with a whimper, the dear mentor—all his pomposity and blackslapping and faked accolades—evaporated. The tiled floor was spotless. Vinh moaned without surprise.
I misjudged you. You’re not an imbecile, you’re a rat.
You did that on purpose.
I thought we were immune! I thought...
Not after I modified you. Nothing is immune to us. And nothing exists without us. You made your point. Bring him back.
Because he was not yours to erase.
Who’s to say? Who’s to say we aren’t gods? Drown welled with tremendous elation, the tantrum of omnipotence. He eliminated a truck passing on the not-road, just to see that he could.
Eyes burning with fury, she sent him images of Olympus, Zeus in his crackling throne as pious shepherds in the fields set their meager offerings alight. She sent him the majesty of storms, thunder unseating his temples. Then she sent an image of Atlas carrying their planet, arms roped with patient struggle. The man had his own face, and then it was a woman’s—Vinh’s. It was for them, not the thunder-god, that the incense burned and shepherds continued to burn it.
Rather melodramatic, maybe. I must resort to theatrics to get through to you. Even if we allow the southerners to stop existing, their culture won’t. You and I must think of ourselves as nothing less than war criminals. Massacrists.
I don’t suppose…
We’ll learn to live with it? After all, you’ve lived with so much already. I can see them. I can see you having seen them. The memories are available. I do not presume to preach. Yet, foolishly, I hope you see that we are called to this vocation. Until the tide of opinion reverses, in accordance with its mysterious impulse, you and I play fulcrum.
She closed her eyes and turned away . Wellstring reappeared, twice as baffled as before, crab-crawling back as though beset by wild beasts. Dr. Drown reached for Dr. Vinh’s hand, but she strode to sit in the center stall. After a moment, scenery began to condense around him. He detected the heretofore absent smell of warm grass, a westerly breeze, the feathering of sunrise.
Wellstring sputtered in his corner. He had only seen his two colleagues gazing at one another in a blankness which no longer was. The shock of it would render him mad and babbling, Drown thought hopefully.
The right-hand stall beckoned. Drown had no idea how long Vinh intended to stay in her cell, conjuring whatever needed through sheer force of will. He had no idea how long he intended to.
He entered his area. A single lamp, mounted vertically on the back wall, cast a creamy glow split and emulsified by curved, cool surfaces. The Taxpayers, entering at his heels, watched this dance with avid attention, and soon pressed themselves into the ceiling. They wrapped themselves around droplets of light and warmed their fingers like monkeys drawing near a campfire.
Dr. Drown’s feet pointed at his drain. The canvas of the space did what it had to. He suspected that beside him, Vinh was busily rebuilding highways and hospitals and schools and homes for the aged and the addled, was thinking the buds on the bushes into ecstatic bloom and the birds in their nests and the stars—was imagining wives readying breakfast for their children and ministers meeting in their parliaments and bakers taking out the morning’s loaves.
Drown slid down to the cold, smooth floor. Drown sat on the cold, smooth floor and stared at the drain in it. Drown stared at the drain in the cold, smooth floor and did not think of birds or bread or women or his brogues, which lay perfectly real only inches from his sight, with his real feet crammed and aching inside them. He stared at the drain in the floor, at its absolute inky blackness, thinking only of the slice of light it stole from the room, and which would never be returned.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Madeline Gobbo is the store artist at The Booksmith in San Francisco. Her illustrations have appeared in Full Stop Quarterly, Meridian, and Queen Mob's Tea House, and are forthcoming in the erotic fanfiction anthology Loose Lips. She lives in her grandmother's basement.
Miles Klee is an editor for the web culture site the Daily Dot as well as the author of Ivyland, a novel, and True False, a collection of stories, both from OR Books. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Lapham's Quarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Hobart, and 3:AM. He lives in Los Angeles.
In the riot of bramble squats somebody’s not-quite-finished dream home. It’s illegal to build on protected shoreline, but violators need only pay a small fine. Finding a way out is never easy. In the night, the roads grow over with vines. Pillbox bunkers loom squarely on hills and bar the sky. Experiments were carried out. That vanished battleship might still reappear. And all at once the cottages seem far less near. Then there are those suited to confusion. Rats who stay lost. Stay in thicket, fight the thorns, and pull each stubborn tick from each other’s leg.