Apfazd was painfully aware that he stood out. He tried not to look around, took another step,felt another twinge. Three steps feeling as if one leg was too short, and then the next, always the fourth, sent a spiral wrench of agony up his left side. He leant on a street corner, sucked in air, lop-sided.
He so wanted to go home. Not to the little apartment under the town wall, that wasn’t home. He would have cried, but he’d sobbed himself dry years before.
Halfway to the temple he shifted his carapace with a shrug. That gave no relief. Millstone hard, it felt like it wasn’t his, it was punishing him for its having been broken, although he hadn’t broken it. He’d cried out, screamed as it was pierced and pried.
The desert had entered into him, its grit was inside, creeping against his soft flesh. Sometimes he pushed open the small round window that looked out over the shimmering dunes, he wanted to feel moving air, even if it was the baking air of the wastes. In came the dust and sand and found its way under his cracked carapace, scouring him as it might a naked shell-less thing. Something from aeons past.
He turned at the whisper. For once no-one was looking at him. Pain was his only companion. Even intact he didn’t look like the locals, but he’d stayed too long to be a visitor; carried the look of an exile about him. He was visited by the kind of strangers who came outside of office hours; who came in pairs.
He limped.No-one ever helped him. If he fell to his knees, no hand went out to lift him. Only Oblotz had ever approached him in the street, and he didn’t want to see him again. No, Apfazd was friendless and untouchable.
Untouchable since the last time he’d been broken, picked up, limp and begging, full of regret and sworn to penitence, to abandon the delusions he’d once said were the truth.
The only contact now was at the temple door.
“Apfazd, you are welcome. Blessings of this place upon you.”
“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he replied, and bowed to the briefest of touches on hand and head. Breathing in deeply, he smelled the priest and lingered, tried to draw strength from the touch, but the benediction was over.
Another few struggled paces and Apfazd was inside the calming cool of the temple. There were the usual rapid embarrassed glances as he clambered noisily into place. The bench was always empty but for him.
He prayed for faith. He always prayed for faith, for some sign that he was being heard. He didn’t need anything dramatic, nothing external. Just some feeling or answering voice in his head, even the subtlest reassurance. He longed for faith to fill the gaping void.
Maybe the others here had access to something that he didn’t; maybe they’d paid attention to something that he’d missed or were more virtuous than he had ever been. He felt exposed at the back, as if the priest was always looking over the others and directly at him. He shuffled rigidly to one side, towards the fluted column that ran up to the roof.
He prayed to be able to go home. Really home.
“Look inside yourselves,” the priest clicked. Apfazd did, into a shattered landscape that made no sense. He blamed himself and wanted to believe. Somewhere out of reach, before the pain, it had all gone wrong. He mustn’t have been paying attention. It was his fault. He had dreamed of ages long gone by, and in his dreams very different beings walked the Earth. “Find the inner light,” but inside Apfazd Apfazd found only a battlefield on which every corpse had his face, and where every torn and broken limb had once been part of his wrecked body.
His eyes snapped open although he hadn’t noticed that he’d closed them. Every face in the row in front was turned towards him. He was leaning against the column.
“Quiet,” one of them said as if Apfazd had been talking or moaning to himself.
“I’m sorry,” Apfazd mumbled scratchily, but they’d all turned away.
At the end he waited. If he went first he’d hold everyone up; the whispers would all be behind him, pushing at his senses. So he sat and waited. He let the cold stone column numb his whole left side, and he stared at the dusty floor beneath the bench in front.
“Thank you, Wise Guardian,” he said on his slow way through the door.
“Patience and fortitude, Apfazd,” the priest said, and he touched him again in reluctant benediction. Apfazd stopped under his hands.
“I try,” he said, “I try, but…”
“That is all that we can ask,” the priest said hastily, casting his eyes left and right; withdrawing his hands. A moment later he’d gone back inside and the door was shut.
Apfazd took ragged deep breaths and began his walk to the small apartment in the street by the town wall. He counted the inflamed places where the desert had entered his body, and he watched the pain move. At times he could distance himself, as if none of this was real, as if he was watching someone else.
They talked as he passed. They watched him and they talked. He walked through the pain, a street at a time, reacquainting himself with each corner as he leant to rest. His legs cracked and his carapace grated. He thought about which parts of him felt all right. His right arm was pain free, it felt empty, and his right eye was clear. If only he could be all there, if only he could take away the rest of him.
“Dirty stranger,” hissed at him. “Dirty heretic.”
He turned the corner into the shady street that followed the town wall, a gust of shell-husk dry air picked up sand and threw it in his face.
His neighbour was watching him, a female so ancient that her face was scoured to the colour of the desert. Her antennae moved slowly, suspiciously. She looked towards Apfazd’s door. It was open. “You have visitors, Broodless,” she said.
Apfazd wanted to tell her that he did have a family. Had had a family. Just not here, a long way away. He wanted to tell her how much he wanted to go to them, how little he wanted to stay in the street by the town wall. Instead he stared at the open door. His leg twinged painfully.
“The usual ones, Cripple,” the ancient added. Apfazd looked at her. She was hard, wore her years like armour.
“Thank you,” he said to her, and as if shocked by their sudden unaccustomed neighbourliness, she scuttled away into the deep gloom of her own abode.
He didn’t like the front door. It was heavy and it creaked. When it shut it always slammed and made him wince. He always wondered whether it would open the next time he tried it.
A sunlit shaft of golden dust fell into the middle of the apartment floor. The two agents from The Embrace stood with their backs towards him. They were far too close to the two floorboards that could be lifted. At the scrape of his feet they turned, one emotionless, the other a studied mockery of sympathy and kindness. Apfazd had seen the look before, he associated with a cracking noise, with the shattering of his leg. Pain jabbed at him.
“Apfazd,” the kindly torturer said, “getting around, I see.” Apfazd nodded stiffly. He felt sick. “Don’t look so worried, Apfazd, you’ll make us feel unwelcome. Apfazd looked down directly at the floorboards that could be moved, realised what he was doing and so looked all around, quickly, as if he were quite mad. He rubbed his face and pulled nervously at an antenna.
“We’re just here to make sure that you’re well,” said the one, as the other, who never spoke, walked around behind him. “Just to make sure that none of the unfortunate ideas have returned; the thoughts we helped you to get over when you stayed with us.” He paused and inspected Apfazd. “You are well aren’t you, Apfazd?”
Apfazd nodded or twitched, and then nodded again. “I’d like to go home,” he said. His voice sounded small and his leg was shaking. The one behind him had reached out and put his hand on Apfazd’s back, it moved towards the long jagged crack and the hole.
“Of course you would. We just need to be sure that your disturbing delusions have stopped worrying you, and that they won’t threaten The Collective. You remember them don’t you, Apfazd?”
Apfazd closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Dreams of the ancient past? Dreams of other beings?”
“No. I don’t remember.” He kept his eyes closed in case he looked down at the floorboards again.
“Who do you talk to Apfazd?”
“No-one.” Apfazd convulsed and took half a step forwards. The hand probed into his broken carapace. “No-one, I see no-one. I don’t even recall my, my illness. I just want to go home.”
A raised hand from the talker and the hand withdrew. “The Embrace will consider your request, Apfazd.” The talker looked around not hiding his distaste. “You have such a nice home here though,” he said. “We must be going, Apfazd. Until the next time.”
Apfazd’s thorax expanded and contracted rapidly, his head spun and pain rolled in waves down his body. By the time he’d recovered enough to collapse into his chair, the agents of The Embrace were long gone.
The shaft of light moved across his body, kissing him with gentle warmth even as the evening chilled. At last he stood and went to the floorboards that could be lifted. Anxiously he listened. He was alone. He pulled up the boards shakily and lifted an old case from the darkness below. It had been here empty when he’d first arrived, that and the scratched ramblings of tiny graffiti the only signs of previous occupation.
It hurt his hands to click the case open. Inside, laid out neatly and packed in cloth, were rows of fossils, at least that’s what he’d believed them to be when he’d collected them. That much he could remember.
He didn’t know how Oblotz had found him. “Apfazd, I’ve found you,” he’d said.
“No,” Apfazd had replied, “I don’t know you. You don’t know me, leave me alone.” But Oblotz had insisted, dragged him into a side alley, and made him take him to the apartment. “I’ve brought you some of your finds,” he’d said. “You can keep up your work.”
“What work?” Apfazd had raged. “There is no work. You must go before it’s too late.” He’d pushed Oblotz around and out of the door, finding strength he didn’t know he had. He’d been left though, with the specimens, the last remnants of whatever madness had destroyed his old life and taken him away from his home.
There’d been another civilisation, a long time ago, that’s what he’d once said, written, taught. The creatures still walked in his dreams; they demanded that he believe in them. They were fleshy bipedal nightmares from an imagined ancient history. Why did they visit him? And what were these stony shards that he couldn’t bring himself to throw away?
Apfazd picked up a specimen and turned it over in his one good right hand. These secret things haunted him, proved nothing and only brought fragments of memories tumbling into his mind. “If they let me go home,” he said aloud, “all of this stays here, under the floorboards. All of this madness.”