Xenodu

 

E. G. Fabricant

 

Dystopia Americana, anyone? Xenodu s my dark look–redrawn November 7, 2013–at our Nation’s future, near mid-century. Fear, ignorance, greed, and a broken system of self-governance all have consequences.
Adult language, situations.

 

Toilet?

Swirling liquid, pushed into a downward vortex around his pectorals, was his second sensation. Reflexively, he inhaled; a torrent of briny fluid burst from his lungs. Bracing himself against the lukewarm Plexiglas, he retched and gasped until he was exhaling only air. Hissing, the ducts above his head forced atmosphere around him until his glassine prison was dry.

A fleeting shadow caught his attention. He strained to see in its direction, but the distortion in the tube’s curvature against the opaline dimness of the space beyond thwarted him. He heard a subdued mechanical whine and his enclosure whispered upward; simultaneously, hand rails and steps materialized. He staggered momentarily and caught his balance. The rush of cool air raised gooseflesh on his extremities. Three halting steps and he stood, wavering, on the dank, rubberized floor. He took in his surroundings. He stood to one side at the end of a long, corridor-like room. Against the faint luminescence from the other end, he made out a jumbled silhouette of abandoned equipment and counted 16 pods, including his. Only two others had been vacated and, judging by the state of their neglect, some time ago. The rest were sealed and pristine.

A distant click. Bluish fluorescence marched down the center of the ceiling toward him. Startled, he shielded his eyes with his hands until his adjusting eyes brought them into focus. Slowly, laughter came until he arched his back and shrieked. He spied a large stainless steel refrigeration unit, doddered to it and shoved its double doors closed. In its brushed surface he could make out the fun-house contours of his naked physique. He stared until his amazement was consumed by a giddiness that made him punch at his reflection.

I’m Adonis! Thank you, God – and glycerol, and liquid nitrogen!

He broke into a makeshift jig that carried him deeper into the room, where he found against the wall what would have been a lab lavatory, with a sink and mirror. After reveling some more at the fine details of his smooth, muscled upper torso, he leaned in and traced with his fingers a barely discolored junction where his neck met the well between his shoulders.

No scarring – must’ve used something besides sutures or staples.

Something bumped his hip. He jerked his head around to see a small, wheeled cart, driven by – what? They both jumped away from the vehicle. What he saw was a slight, emaciated figure in a nondescript, hooded jumpsuit. His – Hers? Its? – skin was sallow and, through a pair of buglike, polarized wraparounds, the eyes were deeply recessed and appeared weak.

“Hey,” the unclothed one started, extending his right hand. The jumpsuit stumbled backward two paces.

“Okay.” He raised both arms, palms up, then slowly pointed at himself. “Name’s David – David Heller.”

No response.

“Don’t ask; biblical – Jewish. I prefer ‘Dave.’” Holding the point, he eased the other hand outward. “You got a name?”

The cart driver struck a wan fist to his sternum. “Rehab!”

“’S’cuse me – ‘Rehab?’”

Again, with the fist. “Rehab!”

“Right. ‘Rehab.’” David gestured. “What is this place? Where are we?”

Rehab jabbed a finger at the cart’s top tray. On it were a pile of clothing and what looked like a rucksack.

“For me?”

No response. David motioned between the goods and himself, and opened his mouth slightly.

Rehab stared.

David picked up the largest article, a seamless off-white bodysuit that showed a metallic, aquamarine sheen when reflecting light. He slid it on, wiggled his fingers into the melded handpieces, and zipped it up. He half-pirouetted for Rehab and grinned.

“Think you could take it out a little in the crotch?”

No response.

David shrugged and picked up the hard-soled booties with uppers made of the same, Kevlar-like material. He leaned against the cart and slipped his feet into them diffidently.

“So, Rehab – did Walt and Ted make it, too?”

Rehab eyed him suspiciously.

“Disney and Williams. See, that’s a little neuro-vitrification humor, right there…”

No response.

He zipped the footwear to the suit’s ankle shanks, stood up, and touched Rehab’s forearm gently. He recoiled.

“N’Awsm!”

David chopped the air with his hands. “Look – help a dude out here, will you? Christ – I’ve been a frozen entrée for God knows how long – well, was – and I have a million questions.”

Diffident, Rehab gathered a helmet and the pack into a hand and jerked the thumb of the other behind him.

“Moo Forr’d!”

“Huh? Uh – “

Seeing no percentage in throttling his only contact, David took the gear and shuffled in the direction given. He turned a corner and found a thin concrete staircase. He looked backward.

Rehab pointed toward the cantilevered door set in at an angle at the top of the shaft.

David slung the pack over his shoulder and climbed, with Rehab right behind him. He pulled and twisted the handle to release the latch bar and pushed with both hands. The door swung open easily, and his momentum launched him into a flailing shoulder roll that left him sprawled and half-embedded in sand. He hoisted himself to an elbow and looked back. Framed by the dimly-lit doorway, Rehab stood rigid. David dropped onto his back to get up. In the low wattage of a waning moon, he was taken by the vast canopy of brilliant stars overhead, the studded belt of the Milky Way at its center. His ears picked up the muffled, rhythmic sigh of surf. He whistled, stood up, and marveled at the dappled brilliance on the liquid ebony before him.

Rehab made a shrill noise like a dolphin’s chirp that brought his charge around. He pointed at the helmet lying at David’ feet and patted his own head emphatically.

“Dae-tyme: on!”

David picked it up and moved his free hand between the helmet and his scalp. “Wear this during the daytime?”

Rehab’s expression changed.

David raised and canted it against the doorway light to examine it. It was like what he remembered as ice hockey headgear, except matte-finished and with no ventilation or chin strap. Molded ear covers were fixed to each side that adjusted inward by depressing buttons above them. Feeling inside, David touched one and felt membranous cells inflate. He detected rigid nodes molded into the cells and there were two metallic discs on the neckpiece that looked like over-sized watch batteries. The fixed visor seemed opaque and the cavity between it and the rim suggested that something was missing. He gathered up the pack.

“So – where to, now?”

The doorway was dark. He retreated a few steps and cupped a hand against his face. The tooth in the material abraded his skin. “Uh – Which way?”

Silence. David lurched, and stopped. He thought he heard a retreating whine beyond the dune at his back.

David shrugged. Time to try out the new wheels. He galloped up the beach, splashing into and out of the surf like a tot. He was enchanted by the near-effortless grace of his new chassis, especially compared against his memories of the last days of his disease. He ripped off an occasional cartwheel or round-off to celebrate, reminiscent of the sometime joy of puberty and high-school gym class. After an hour of sustained effort, he stopped. His heart rate and respiration were unremarkable, and he noticed that his both his limbs and their coverings were dry. This stuff breathes and it’s water-resistant – I love progress!

He strode back and turned his attention to his rucksack. Groping inside, he pulled out an oblong object that buzzed and blinked on, bathing him in a green glow. Amused, he dropped and retrieved it a few times with the same result, then took inventory. Hm. Couple liters of fluid. He flipped the cap off the canvas-like sac, revealing a pull-out plastic tube; extending it, he sniffed and sucked. An odd, neutral flavor ran over his taste buds. He sucked greedily a few more times until his gut went spastic, forcing some of the amber liquid up his esophagus and out his nose and mouth. Whoops. Sorry, new stomach! When it settled, he felt strangely satisfied. A buzz came over him quickly, reminding him of his three-shot espresso addiction; it was just as bracing, but more potent. His senses magnified. He continued, removing a packet of a dozen or so loose foil envelopes. Tearing one, he removed a dense, textureless biscuit. He hefted it in his palm and stuck it deliberately under his nose – reminding himself of the great apes he had enjoyed watching on Animal Planet. He bit down. The sliver on his tongue dissembled and his salivary glands erupted, creating a pungent, chewy cud that took him several moments of concentrated effort to work through and swallow. After a few more small pieces, he lolled back on his heels, having added a drowsy surfeit to his elevated mood. Wow. Please drink and eat responsibly. He sat back against a weed clump and rested; the thinness of the fabric and its surprising pliability allowed him to lace his fingers easily behind his head.

Finally, he felt equalized. He dug down and came out with – he held the glow lamp closer – a battered canvasback book. Its goal leaf legend was barely legible. SOCIETY AND SOLITUDE. Twelve Chapters. By Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1870. David hefted it by its spine and noticed that a musty page was dog-eared. He leafed to it, page 14 in the eponymous first essay, and found a passage highlighted:

Nature delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line. Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other. The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.

A bold yellow Post-It Note stood in high relief to the stained page below, and on it was lettered:

Hide in Plain Sight.

David pulled at an ear and mused. Solitude and Society in 1870. James Caan and Jill Ikenberry in 1980? He stood, found Polaris above him, and turned. To the north he made out curvature in the distant beach and a faint, leftward jut of land. Lights twinkled faintly at its end and he thought he saw faint luminosity defining its horizon. Might have to check that out tomorrow, after I see what’s inland here. David knelt again and, peeling the pack’s flap back, he held the lamp inside for one last look. Bushnell 8×40 binoculars, just like Dad used to bird-watch. No use right now- light’s too poor. He rooted to the bottom. No knife? No weapon? Pretty grim survival package, if you ask me. He zipped and plumped it, lay on his side and drifted off.

 

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