"The kingdom is in his hands. It feels like mud."
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
“Why would a man want to lose?”
“So he can blame the universe for all his problems.”
James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown
“Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”
Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven
On the nature of INNOCENCE
The first thing he becomes aware of is the screaming. There are two voices. One is a drawn-out shriek of feedback that trills up and down multiple octaves. Then the pulse hits him again like a kick to the base of his spine and he realises the other voice is his own.
There's no heat as the power surges through him, but his skin crisps and blackens. He struggles frantically, but some kind of restraints hold him in place. He screams again, tries to draw breath, but liquid floods his mouth, thick, warm and saline. Choking, he opens his eyes to find himself suspended in a twilight soup of sapphire blue behind broad black vertical bars. Is this a cell? Is he a prisoner? Bubbles rush upwards past his face.
There's a tremendous howl of something metallic under pressure, followed by a groaning crash. The world trembles. Slowly, the bars buckle outwards. His view lurches wildly, the liquid drains downwards, spills out between his legs and he's tipped roughly across a hard, unyielding floor.
Everything is dark. Blue lights flicker intermittently along the ceiling. He lies helpless, sprawled in the middle of a narrow aisle. Along either wall hangs a row of what look like giant mechanical hands, each one held out palm up, the fingers splayed and limp. Was one of these his cell?
It seems more like a womb that just birthed him. The floor is awash in a sea of the warm, sticky fluid he was floating in moments before, and in the centre of each palm lies the ruins of what looks like a giant sac, sagging and split open. If this rested on the palm, the fingers would have been the bars. Cables still run from the sac to the wall, and he can see the empty restraints hanging loose from the wrist where he must have been strapped in.
He's not alone. There are bodies moving all around him. What are they? Were they prisoners too? They hitch and jerk across the floor. Their arms reach out and their feet struggle to find purchase, the motions like nothing natural. They're bipedal, with two arms, but the proportions are all wrong. Their forearms and thighs are packed with too much muscle, their hands are oddly attenuated and their feet are twitching claws. And their heads? Each skull is a tapering cam disc with a swivel mount either side for a compound eye that glitters in the light from overhead.
Their movements grow steadily weaker. It strikes him they're probably dying.
Which is not to say he'll last much longer. The ground shivers, leaps upwards and for a moment before it settles he's floating free in a viscous river streaming down the aisle. One of the giant hands drops to the floor with a crash, tubes flailing behind it. Everything's shaking.
He tries to pull himself together, to form conscious thoughts. The other voice is still shrieking in the background, screaming something incoherent. It's more than formless noise, there are sentences in there, some kind of meaning as the voice slides through the scales, but what? A warning? A cry for help? He tries to understand it, strains for comprehension.
He tries to form questions, to ask what's going on, but he can't find any context with which to frame them. He can't recall a name, a place or anything that's happened to him, but beneath all of that is the growing conviction most of this was never there to begin with.
He knows what prisoner signifies, and cell, but he's sure he's never heard anyone discuss having been locked up in one. The knowledge just exists within him, independent, and none of it relates specifically to him. Womb came to mind earlier, and birth. It's definitely like he's newly born.
Movement catches his attention. He cranes his neck, stares backwards from a supine position and watches the world upside-down. Someone approaches up the aisle, a slight figure wading with difficulty through the muck, stepping across the bodies. There's something odd about the shape, as if it doesn't jibe with the knowledge he can draw on. The new arrival is nothing like the prisoners, though both are equally as alien. Alien as in the concept of the other, but what was he expecting? What would be normal?
He has no idea where this could be, in that he knows the words for town, city, border, kingdom, planet, sun, moon and stars but understands them only at some distant remove. He's like a traveller who knows the names of the countries of the world but never asked anyone else where he lives, much less looked at a map.
The approaching figure stops, then turns back as if to make sure of something. Instinct tells him they're checking for survivors. Everything trembles again and the figure stumbles, lurches into one of the open hands and cries out in pain. It's a high voice that sounds very young, possibly female.
“Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh.” She stops again, weeping raggedly and sinks to her knees with her head in her hands. She babbles the same panicked words over and over through her fingers. “Oh gosh. Please. No, no, no. Please?”
He tries to raise an arm that seems to weigh an incredible amount, pushing upwards. Pain climbs his back again. He screams in agony, arches off the floor and her head snaps up.
“Hey!” She struggles to her feet and splashes towards him. “Oh gosh – hey, hey, hey! Hold on! Please – no, no, no, don't die. Don't you dare!”
She sinks down beside him, cradling his head, raising it off the floor. What is she? He can see a thin face with the eyes set wide apart on a narrow, elongated skull, a tiny, snub nose, and a small, almost lipless mouth. She glows, almost translucent, and her hair seems to dance like fire.
“Hold on!” Whatever she is, she clings to him as if she can channel the life back into him by sheer force of will. “Please, just hold on!”
“Okay.” He sounds rusty, his voice grates in his chest, but he can speak. Sensation has almost returned to his arms and legs. “Okay. I'm –” He coughs violently. “Okay.”
“Oh gosh.” She breathes out in a long, shuddering rush, bent over him, sobbing. “Thank you. Thank you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry –”
Who is she? She acts like a hysterical child. She clearly wasn't prepared for what she's found, but if that's the case why did she come down here in the first place?
“We.” He pushes weakly at her. The sense of imminent peril builds even higher. If they don't get out of here as soon as possible there won't be time for anything, let alone questions. “We should –”
He's cut off as the screaming soars to an even higher note and catches. The lights go out entirely, then snap back on, eerily bright. There's a deep rumble from beneath them, after which the floor tips sideways crazily and stays there. The other prisoners begin to slide down along the slope, drifting lifelessly in the stream.
“Can you get up?” She has to shout to be heard over the shrieking.
“Okay. Okay, that's it. Okay, I've – I've got you, I've got you, come on –”
A crack yawns open in the floor and the liquid fountains upwards with a wet belching sound. She yelps in terror and suddenly they're both up and moving, stumbling along the aisle. He's much taller than her, and it's hard to tell who's supporting who.
The screaming continues. Panels work loose from the ceiling and plunge into the stream. Another rumble pitches them forward, tottering at speed, yet miraculously neither of them falls. He can still hear her sobbing.
“Here!” They haven't gone that far when she pulls him to the left, through a gap in the cradles, the open hands, and past the wall behind. This is a short corridor that runs across the aisle, through what looks like a maintenance tunnel parallel to that, and up to a barrier that blocks their path. It's nothing grand, but it's solid, a thick bulkhead crossed by dark horizontal stripes with an alcove in the right side of the doorway.
“Keep me –” Dust rains from the ceiling while she faces the alcove and motions with one hand outstretched for him to stop.
The lights go out without warning. The corridor shakes wildly, as liquid as the stream around their ankles. The girl is literally glowing, a vague, shimmering blur in the darkness. He can feel her touch his chest. “Keep me –” Her voice catches.
She swallows audibly. “Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the, the philosophy which does not laugh and –” She coughs. “And the greatness which does not bow before children.”
Nothing happens. He can hear her breathing faster under the creak of straining metal all around them. Some subconscious impulse leads him to take her hand in his. Perhaps it's a futile gesture, but she squeezes back, hard. He can feel her fingers, three of them, long and slender.
Then the screaming stops. The ground is still shaking, but the feedback dies away. Light shows around the edges of the bulkhead as it grinds slowly to one side. She darts forward and squeezes through the gap.
“Come on, come on, come on –” She hammers at the side of the door and screams in frustration. “Come on!”
The gap grows wider as she passes through it and he stoops to hobble forward, still holding her hand. Through the door is a larger chamber, still bathed in dim blue light, that looks to have been blasted out of solid rock. A catwalk leads across the floor and up a gentle slope on the other side.
“Right.” She lets go of his hand, bends over and coughs. “Did it. I did it. Right.” She straightens, turns and waves a hand unsteadily towards the doorway. “You hear me? I got one! I got one!” Her voice rises. “Do you hear me?”
The prisoner kneels at the edge of the catwalk, where water pools underneath them. Ripples across it shimmer as the ground trembles. He stretches out, and a stunted mechanical hand reaches for the surface then hovers there, shaking.
There are four tapered fingers and a thumb, squared off and stubby, each one with only a single joint. There's skin of a sort over the hand but it's pale, almost white. The inside is black, with the tips of his fingers textured with a pattern of tiny raised dots.
He leans out to stare into the water. Two glittering compound eyes gaze back at him, each one a cluster of polished camera lenses, one large and four small. He tilts his head to one side, and the tapering skull reflected beneath him tilts with him.
Another tremor runs through the floor.
“Hey.” She looks at him, her eyes wide. “Are you okay? It's just a little further. Please? We're nearly there.”
“I'll be –” He watches his reflection as jaws open at the base of the skull, slowly spread wide, flex and close again. “I'll be –” The jaws stay closed. The sound comes from somewhere else.
“Come on.” She offers him her hand. “Please?”
“Okay.” He takes her hand and rises. “I'll be okay. Let's go.”