(from the F, M or Other anthology)
by Eris Young
Format: Short Story | Genre: Science Fiction
Content warning: violence
“It’s not so much the killing I enjoy, but the fear I get to see in their faces.”
The murderer lights himself a cigarette, and offers the archivist the pack. It’s a friendly gesture that takes the archivist a moment to notice, because they are having trouble processing what this man has just said, though they know the memory of it, viewed later on, will be perfect.
The cigarette is an anachronism in the lowly shining steel and mica and glittering lights of the plant that curls around them like a jungle or the inside of a radio. Standing under the backsides of solar panels, the archivist feels that they are really in the underbelly of something, a word they’d never understood before.
It’s an unnerving feeling, realising their life till then has been spent, largely, on the outside of things, a cautious distance having been preserved between them and the people they’ve documented. The cool desert air they’d come out here to seek no longer feels like blessed solitude after the press of bodies in the waiting area, now it is emptiness, insecurity. It lacks infrastructure.
They shouldn’t have been at the rest stop for more than an hour, waiting for their car to charge. But they’ve been waylaid because a person who knows what their grey smock means wants to have a chat, and they are bound by the tenets of their own belief system not to say no. Here on the outskirts of humanity, at this desert waystation between their home and their destination, a formality of a place to stop, there is something primal in the air that makes the murderer’s presence unsurprising. The archivist tries to keep their breathing under control, feeling sweat begin to collect under their arms and against their back. If they had hair it would be rising on the back of their neck.
Just record him. Then you can go. Keep him talking and then he’ll be done and then you can go.
“They make you shave your head like that?”
The archivist nods, “Yes.”
“You a man or a woman?”
“Neither. Just an archivist.” What they are, also, is obligated to answer all their subject’s questions, in the spirit of mutual exchange. The archivist adds hurriedly, forestalling any argument,
“You said fear?”
“Yeah.” He deliberates, running a hand down the front of his beard, another anachronism. The archivist can hear the coarseness of the hair. It reminds them of pubic hair, a texture they haven’t felt in a long time. They remember in acute detail the last time they felt that texture, they had been fifteen and it had been in an entirely different context to here, now.
It was their first time, before their hormones had evened out, and it had nearly cost them their place at the monastery. The memory rises uncalled-for as they sometimes do, with unexpected force that makes the fact of them standing on the gangway with a murderer seem insubstantial and inconsequential.
They had been interviewing one of the last speakers of Icelandic. She had beautiful golden hair all over her body and she hadn’t shaved any of it. The archivist had been drawn to this about her, not just the rarity of the colour even in Northern Europe, but her very untrimmedness. The subject, Freyja, ran her hands all over the archivist’s smooth skin. This is all preserved in perfect detail in the archivist’s modified brain – the honey of the sunlight and the dust in the air, the smell of their bodies, the joy the archivist felt to think that their smell was at that moment the same as Freyja’s. They haven’t had sex with an outsider in years. They shake off the memory, the temptation to retreat into it.
The murderer is grinding out his cigarette on the rail. He flicks it down into the glittering darkness. What is below them? Concrete? The sand of the desert? The only light here comes from the rest stop itself and they are at its back, low-pressure sodium lights giving everything a dusky, utilitarian quality. He has said something they didn’t catch over the sound of the wind.
“Could you repeat that?”
They have to hear something in order to form a memory of it. They’re falling back on textbook phrasing. They are uncomfortable and it probably shows.
“In the old days a man could just go at someone, you know?”
His tone is conversational and he speaks without confrontation, staring out into the black desert as if he’s watching for something. He looks at the monitor on his wrist and brushes ash off his brown uniform. It’s a quarter past. His break must be over.
He starts walking at a leisurely pace back down the gangway towards the charging stations and glass-fronted waiting area that the archivist knows they will no longer feel comfortable in. He continues,
“You’d read about a woman leaving a place early or with a friend so she didn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. These days everyone is so comfortable. These women have never felt scared in their lives. That’s why I do it.”
“To make them feel – scared?” The archivist stutters here, and the murderer turns to them with a look that makes their guts clench because it is so sentient, so friendly and so thoughtful.
“Seeing that fear and knowing it’s me they’re frightened of. That I could take anything from them.”
“Easier, I suppose.”
The murderer begins to describe the things he has done to them, his victims, women meant to be passing through here but who are never seen again. The archivist feels fraying the professional distance they’ve maintained these last fifteen years. And they begin to feel again a fear they’ve not felt in more than twenty: clawing and animal and all the stronger because this time around they weren’t prepared for it. This time around they can’t lock the door, no dresser to hide in. A phantom smell of camphor comes to their nose.
They have interviewed takers of life before, soldiers, convicts, doddering remnants of an age long past, but this they were not prepared for, it has caught them off guard. The archivist wants desperately for the murderer to stop talking. The clarity with which they know this experience is being stored in their brain makes them feel dirty. They are sick to think they are obligated to record this conversation in detail, but they want more than anything not to let it show to this man.
The two of them are almost back inside the rest stop, the archivist feels themself quickening their pace. When they were a child the difficulty of their everyday life manifested as something more mundane, more appropriate to their age: a fear of the dark. After using the bathroom at night they would turn out the light and run on tip-toe back down the hall. This is the fear they feel again on the catwalk connecting the lounges to the external generator. The fear urges them, faster.
“And you can’t tell anyone about this, right? The cops?”
The archivist shakes their head, hating that they are telling the truth, that they must. The murderer stays silent but he slows his pace just a fraction.
“Well,” he says, coming to a stop. The archivist’s heart thuds in their chest and they grip the rail behind them.
“Just in case.”
It takes the archivist a second to understand, just a second too long to stop the murderer as he takes hold of the front of their smock and shoves them backwards over the rail.
They wake again in a strange white room. It reminds them of their room in the monastery, but is not it. There’s a person in a white coat here and the archivist’s vision blurs, they close their eyes, feeling sick. They taste blood and the mineral grit of sand, it clogs their mouth and nose and eyes and–
Someone is shaking them gently and now their eyes are open, mouth and nose clear.
“Archivist? How do you feel?”
They croak. What they feel is pain, and an absurd urge to laugh. They are given water but they spew it up over the side of the bed.
Over the course of several weeks they are evaluated, questioned, therapised, scanned, x-rayed. Their body begins to knit itself back into a shape resembling human. They will be able to walk again. They find they are relieved. Despite their training and their understanding of the entropy of all things, they feel safe in their body and would not want to be paralysed. They decide when they return to the monastery they ought to reflect on this: it represents a flaw in the ethic of their devotion. Their body is ultimately, they remind themself, disposable. If their consciousness is uploaded sooner than intended, so be it.
There occur a series of cognitive aptitude and competence tests, spatial awareness, pattern recognition, even hourly mood and political preferences. Their personality and mental facilities have not been compromised by the incident, by what the doctors are calling their ‘fall’, as if to say, it’s the ground and not the hands that pushed you, that has put you in the hospital. It occurs to them the people here don’t know they were pushed.
A brief, desultory effort is made to find the man responsible, more out of the respect the police have for the archival service than anything else. Several hours had passed before anyone spotted the archivist lying on the sand below the catwalk. The sun was up. The murderer has by now fled in one of the thousand cars and hovercycles and greyhounds that left the station between two and ten in the morning. The archivist finds they cannot quite call to mind the image of the murderer’s face.
And so there must now be memory tests. The faces of the doctors grow solemn, their conversations hushed and remote from the archivist’s presence. The archivist notices this but doesn’t ask because they are afraid of what the answers will mean. They begin to fear every person who enters the room with a clipboard and when it comes they know already and tears are falling before the doctor speaks.
It is their memory. The fall will have knocked some part of their cogmods out of alignment. They feel an intense flash of longing for the simple solitude of their room in the monastery and when they realise they will never, ever have this again they break down completely, sobbing so hard they vomit. The doctor seems taken aback, as if she didn’t realise telling the archivist they now have the memory capacity of a normal person would have this effect.
They beg the doctor to put it back in but she refuses, the risk of stroke or embolism is too great to reinstall the mods, the risk to the archivist’s life is too great. The archivist doesn’t have the words to convey that the mods are their life, to explain, to convince her. Instead they are struck dumb by a deep, paralysing fear.
Which begins to face. Stability returns with bodily recovery. There is a massive knotted scar on their lower back, a snarl of absent flesh. They will have a permanent limp. But still, none of these things matter – have ever mattered – compared to their memory, though even this loss grows less sharp daily. No longer grounded by the past they begin to imagine the possibility of a future. They have always been adaptable. They have had to be.
When they are able to walk they go to see the overarchivist in their bright, paper-walled office. The overarchivist looks at them with an expression of benevolence and ill-disguised pity, and offers them a place: cleaning, administrative work;
“The service will take care of you.”
And the archivist laughs in their face, so absurd is this idea. They cannot stay among their former siblings, a charity case, an object lesson. They thank the overarchivist and leave with as much dignity as they can muster, to silence, to the step-click-scrape of their crutch and their dragging leg.
Re-entering society is difficult. There are some things they like, like growing their hair out and wearing everyday clothes that show off their figure, eating junk food. But none of this mitigates the gaping hole in their mind. They cannot stop feeling around it as one tongues the space left by a missing tooth. Perhaps they are hoping to notice the hole beginning to close, but they do not, it does not.
So now they go about and try to remember the combination for their bicycle lock, where they put their keys, things they’ve never had to put effort into before, and it is hard and sometimes they cannot do it. They create lists, on scraps of paper and napkins and scribbled in ballpoint on their hand, lists of digital bulleted lists. It’s not the same. They can no longer recall the colour of Freyja’s eyes.
They move to a new place, an apartment the archival service has arranged for them. It feels as though they’ve left a part of themself behind in the monastery, and in the rest stop, and in that hospital room, broken wet red and filmy grey pieces of them left to dry out in bedpans or half-buried in clinging sand.
They still retain a number of memories: interviews, lexicons and storytellings and other, more personal recollections, but those are fading daily, no longer crystalline, and the idea that there is no way to preserve them makes the archivist desperately sad.
They are terrified of losing everything, that their whole past will become a black hole. It’s like going around without their clothes, without their skin, something they never anticipated and could never have prepared for losing.
It is their neighbour, Viv, who brings them back into the world. Viv is a director and (self-titled) avant-garde pornographer. She’s quick to laugh and likes to sit topless on her balcony. She has blonde hair.
The archivist’s own hair is growing out, dry; they don’t know how to care for it. One afternoon a bottle of expensive collagen shampoo appears on their doormat:
Your ends will thank me, it read, Viv @ 302.
Viv shows the archivist too how to apply makeup, how to pick clothes the right colour for their skin tone. How to make tapenade. They go out and Viv buys them a coffee, the next week, a beer. Viv takes the archivist to an independent film screening, not one of her ones but something by a student at MCAD, spare and jarring and projected onto the bottom of a swimming pool. It makes the archivist feel uncomfortable in a way they want to feel again.
They go back to Viv’s apartment, two floors up from the archivist’s. It’s got fewer walls inside than the archivist’s does and everything is painted white. It reminds them sharply, again, of their little room in the monastery, and they feel an intense homesickness that Viv mistakes for shyness.
But this new world they live in has no room for homesickness or shyness so the archivist makes themself make the first move, kissing Viv on the side of her mouth, tentatively, as she turns back from a kitchen cabinet, wine bottle in hand.
Viv’s bed is larger and softer than any the archivist has ever slept in. Viv, perhaps because of her profession, doesn’t show any trepidation as to the nature of the archivist’s genitals; she takes it all in stride. Their coupling is bittersweet because the archivist knows that the memory of it will fade, just like everything else. Just like Freyja.
The archivist is thinking of getting a job, something part-time or freelance to supplement their pension from the service. Viv tells them to enjoy their freedom,
“If you want to save money, just move in with me.”
They are pleasantly surprised to find no reason to refuse. It is the biggest decision they have ever made on their own, and they are thrilled and terrified.
At the monastery they all drank only water, juice or tea, and though the archivist has drunk rice wine, raki, Chilean chardonnay, Coors lite, on their travels to make their hosts and subjects feel at ease, they have never had more than one or two in a sitting. Now though, drinking is regular and fun and their tolerance is going up. They go out in the evenings with Viv and her artistic friends, and now that they don’t have data to worry about disrupting, they can – they do – black out with impunity.
“Why do you still have this?”
Viv is doing the ironing. She is holding the archivist’s old smock, the only reminder of the monastic life they’ve managed to keep.
“I still wear them sometimes.”
“You shouldn’t. You should let go of the past.”
“Just as pajamas.”
“Even still.” She balls it up and leaves the room with it. The archivist hears the door open and shut and a distant whump. Viv comes back without the smock.
“What did you do with it?”
“I put it in the chute.”
“The garbage chute?”
Viv nods and then speaks, slowly and looking up through her lashes, as if penitent,
“Are you angry with me?”
“No. It’s just a thing.”
“I’ll buy you something to make up for it.”
Refusal to accept a label, male or female – for all the punishment it earned them as a child – was cultivated when the archivist entered the monastery: it was extrapolated from genderlessness out towards selflessness. At the monastery they and their peers were encouraged to give up the things that, now, people are telling them they must have: a name, a past, a favourite ice cream flavour, a gender.
Viv tries to get the archivist to pick a name,
“I don’t know what to call you or how to talk about you when you’re not around.”
The archivist is taken aback,
“I didn’t realise it was a problem.”
“Well it is. It’s embarrassing.”
She starts referring to them as Archie to their friends. The archivist decides it’s easier not to argue. It’s a small sacrifice to placate Viv, and they are accustomed to sacrifice.
One day, Viv brings home a camera, turns it on as they are preparing for bed,
The archivist closes their bathrobe, tying it shut,
“Viv, what is that? I’m–” they stammer, stop, swallow, trying to get the words out and not understanding why it is so difficult. Their heart begins to beat more quickly, a muscle memory of fear, and they bite out the words: “I’m not going to be in one of your films.”
But Viv is very persuasive. She pours them both a glass of wine and while they talk the archivist can feel themself being convinced. They want to agree. It’s easier to go along with it, even though they had thought they’d made up their mind. This is how, the archivist thinks, she talks to clients, to investors. To arts funding bodies. Is it also how she talks to lovers?
After they are finished in the white-draped studio space the archivist feels exposed. Even after they’ve opened up the futon where they insist they will sleep tonight, alone. They wish for the first time in a year that they had kept the lease on their apartment.
They feel as naked as when their memory was stripped away, as times before that, before they entered the service. A very old rawness, almost forgotten, has come back. It makes them want to sink into the floor or hurt themself or at least stay in bed all week.
They ask Viv to delete the footage. Viv stands before them, still naked, holding the camera in one hand, her face unreadable. She doesn’t speak for a very long time, then,
The next month Viv takes the archivist to a screening. There’s a red carpet and they get front row seats, and the archivist buys a dress for the occasion, spending a month’s worth of their pension all at once. It’s backless, and shows off the scar that still has not faded all the way, the scar that Viv likes to run her hands over and over as they make love.
The lights go down and the first shot is of a room that feels familiar, and before the archivist can be annoyed they can’t remember where they saw it they realise it’s the film from that night.
They freeze, humiliation hollowing out their stomach. They are sitting in the front row, watching themself participate in an act they don’t quite remember agreeing to. They have never before been the one on screen, the one recorded, archived, and they are overtaken by a repulsion so strong it makes them feel sick.
They watch themself respond to Viv’s touch under the eye of the camera, analysing without meaning to the bare facts of the encounter. No watcher would believe they were reluctant: on camera they come off as eager. The inaccuracy of this impression offends their archivist’s sense, sets their skin crawling. They try and fail to take refuge in righteous anger.
They are flayed. Even though their face is blurred in the footage they know everyone knows it is them. Their body shape, and the scar that they in their vanity decided to show off, are too distinctive. The eyes in the room pin them to their hard white plastic chair, strip away the makeup and Mugler gown as the archivist tries to feign nonchalance, tries not to let on that inside they are panicking, that they didn’t know this was going to happen.
They try and succeed at taking refuge in the spumante being poured freely by faceless robotic waiters in every corner of the room. They rejoin Viv and a knot of her fans, fresh glass in hand, swaying on their heels. Viv half-turns, gestures at the archivist,
“–and you can see why I had to do it. Isn’t she beautiful?”
The archivist throws their wine into Viv’s face and walks out of the room. In the silence that follows them like a wake, the dragging scrape-step of their left leg is very loud.
They order a car with the phone Viv convinced them to buy. They cry in the back seat and the driver hands them a box of tissues and turns up the radio.
They go back to the apartment and pack up their things, grateful to the monastery for their upbringing; they have always needed very few possessions.
They have indeed been saving on rent since moving in with Viv and they can afford a hotel for a few days before they have to try and find a new place. They try not to think about the fact that they have no friends in the city who are not Viv’s friends.
They wake up the next morning with a scratchy-eyed vertiginous hangover and weep salty dehydrated tears in the hotel bed because a weight has been lifted; they feel safer and freer than they have in months.
They decide to grow their beard out, to dye their hair, and to get a job. They’re feeling stifled and tense in Boston and don’t like seeing Viv’s friends around the place. One humid evening, as they are sitting in their tiny, considerably cheaper apartment in Dorchester, a job opening appears on their feed, from a service they forgot they’d signed up to. It’s manual archival work, digitising one of the last paper libraries in Northern California.
When, after hundreds of questionnaires and tens of video interviews and even more waiting, they get the job, they begin to cry; they don’t notice until fat drops of tears fall onto the sentence they’ve been reading, distorting the text.
It turns out to be cheaper to rent a car and drive across-country than it is to fly. They scroll through their route, planned to the hour, and with a jolt see that it will take them through North Platte and the rest stop. It is the most direct route, a different route would cost them more than flying. It is smarter to drive.
An hour outside Pittsburgh, their phone begins to ring. It’s Viv. She’s called a few times since the breakup and they’ve had a couple of pained conversations that have come to nothing. The archivist tosses the phone out of the car window.
They drive west through a vast landscape, alternately bright and shaded with shifting clouds. It pours, dries, the car is buffeted by a windstorm and they have to turn on lateral thrusters to keep from crashing or flipping over. The windows are useless in a dust storm and they are forced to switch to instruments. Sand blasts the car in a brown static that ceases, after four hours, as abruptly as it began.
The shapes of former agricultural fields stretch away periodically to their left and right, indefinitely, and the archivist imagines a vast empty brown patchwork covering the whole country. Occasionally they pass a farmhouse, long since abandoned, that has not yet fallen down in a storm. Once, they pass a field in which machines are overturning the earth, treating it with something, and the rich loamy smell of compost fills the car. There are placards at each corner with the governmental seal on them but they are driving too fast to read. The idea of something growing out here makes them feel giddy and lonely.
They check in at the rest stop, long-haired and made-up and unrecognisable, rumpled after their journey and looking forward to a few hours’ rest. A new incarnation of the person who passed through two years ago. They pass between two buildings on an enclosed walkway and catch a glimpse of some piping, the gnarled underside of the polished white station. It all looks more prosaic in the daytime but their heart begins hammering nonetheless. Their hands tighten on the railing and they force themself to look at it, to confront the rust and nickel-plating, and wait for their breathing to slow.
There’s a break in the clouds and the waiting area is filled with golden light and dancing motes of dust. They warm behind the glass and the smell of their body rises; they should really use one of the showers here before they leave. They can smell warm sweat and then it comes to them, the crystal-clear memory of a pair of bodies intertwining, sun catching in downy golden hair, Freyja’s blue eyes open wide with ecstasy.