CONJUNCTIONS:55, Fall 2010

The Oxygen Protocol
Brian Evenson




Later he woke up, not entirely sure at first what had happened, what had been real and what he had dreamed. For a moment the utburd was still there, its bloody, childish face glowing faintly in the dim light and then vanishing. Was it real then?
     But no, he thought, how could it be real? He shook his head and instantly regretted it. His head throbbed, his tongue was so thick and dry in his mouth that it felt almost like he was being forced to swallow a glove.
     Why did I sleep on the floor? he wondered. Where did I go wrong? Pulling himself up against the wall, he slowly made his way to his feet. His vision blurred as he stood, but slowly came back into focus once he was on his feet and remaining still. Good, he thought. In the mirror he saw a face spattered in a black dust, as fine as graphite. He grimaced, saw that his teeth were gray too. More dust was getting in, which meant that the baffles were still clogged, which meant they were still following the oxygen protocol.

*


The screen was flickering; they were waiting for him. He pressed his thumb against its face to unlock it but nothing happened. He licked his thumb clean of the dust, tried again. This time it recognized him.
     The screen offered him a slow swirl of light. If there was a pattern to it, it was not something that he could make out.
     Halle, a flat voice said. You are not essential personnel: Currently we do not require your services. You persist only at great risk to yourself and to your community. We urge you to follow the path your friends and neighbors have chosen and participate in the new oxygen protocol.
      “Thank you, but no,” said Halle. His voice was little more than a whisper.
     This is not a request, the voice said. This is an order.
     Halle did not bother to reply. The voice had been saying the same thing to him for days now.
     Look at yourself, said the flat voice. You are suffering, Halle. By your own admission you are perceiving things that do not exist. The oxygen you are using could be better used by personnel essential to the functioning of the city. We say this for your own good. It is for the good of the city, to prevent the city from dying. You don’t want the city to die, do you?
      “Of course not,” said Halle, “but it hardly matters what I want. It’s too late.”
     It is not too late, Halle, neither for the city nor for you. For the good of the city, we are offering to take care of you. We propose to reduce you to a benignly comatose state and then, when the moment is right, we will awaken you.
      “How do I know you’ll ever awaken me?”
     A community cannot exist unless it is based on trust, Halle. We don’t need to remind you of this. It is something you know. You have no choice but to trust us, Halle.
     Without answering, Halle extinguished the screen.

*


He gathered the metal cup that he had left sitting beneath the open faucet all night to catch the slow drip. A quarter full maybe, the fluid inside opaque. For a long moment, he watched his face ripple on the water’s surface, then swallowed the water down in one gulp.
     Momentarily his tongue felt like a tongue again, human and slick, but this quickly passed. He lifted the cup and pressed it to his forehead. It wasn’t cold exactly, but a little cooler. It helped just a little, just enough.

*


Dragging his hand along the wall, he made his way toward the door. His vision unfolded as he went, the straight angles of the wall and door starting to flex and bow. Not real, he told himself. Lack of oxygen, he told himself, and kept on.
     But even still he couldn’t help but start when the door slid open and he saw there, in the folds and buckles of the street, the face of the utburd. Its infantlike body was knobby and distorted from being stretched over the asphalt. He blinked and it was gone. Then he blinked again and it was back.
      “What do you want of me?” he asked.
     But the utburd said nothing, just smiled its toothless smile. Why was it coming to him? He had done nothing to it, nothing he could remember anyway. He barely knew what an utburd was, barely knew how to distinguish it from other ghosts. Seeing one was a trick of his brain, he knew, a simple hallucination. He could be hallucinating anything, but he was hallucinating an utburd. Why an utburd?
      “I didn’t kill you,” he told it. “I don’t know who did. There’s no reason to haunt me.”
     The utburd opened its mouth and gave a cry like a bird. It had suddenly grown teeth, and they looked sharp. And then Halle’s vision started to fade. He was getting worked up, he mustn’t get worked up. Standing in the doorway, he closed his eyes and watched the creature flit along the insides of his lids, reduced to little more than a shadow. He made an effort to breathe carefully, regularly.
     When he opened his eyes again, he could see clearly. He pushed out of the doorway and moved forward slowly into the street, trying to ignore it, careful not to exhaust himself. If he walked slowly and didn’t get excited, he knew from experience he’d probably get enough oxygen not to pass out.

*


The next door was only a few dozen steps down the street, but to Halle it seemed to take forever. The asphalt and stone shone strange ly in the light, which flickered from time to time. When he looked up, he saw that the simulator from the dome seemed to have a minor short, making the artificial light fluctuate strangely. Unless this too was a hallucination.
     The utburd came and went, though it was there more often than not. Sometimes it was spread along the street itself, sometimes he saw it caught in the angle between street and wall—or even, when he finally reached his neighbor’s house, in the shape his own shadow cast against the door. He knocked on the door once, out of habit, though he knew there would be no response. When none came, he inserted the override key and went in.

*


The entryway was empty, the floor covered with black dust except for the path his footsteps had rubbed clean in days prior. He followed this path again, shuffling slowly to the back of the room and through a door there. Beyond was a bedroom, an emaciated man within with a tube thrust down his throat and an IV tube taped to the back of his hand. Both tubes ran into a panel in the wall.
     Halle reached out to touch the man and found his flesh startlingly cold. The man didn’t respond. Carefully, Halle placed his ear against the man’s chest and held it there. He could hear the sound of his own blood beating in his ears, but from the man he heard nothing. He waited, and waited, and then there it was at last: a dull thud as the man’s heart beat once before falling silent again. He was still alive.
     When Halle lifted his head and turned, he found the bedroom’s screen to be illuminated, giving off a strange patter of color. Though he had done nothing to enable it, it began to speak at him.
     We know you come here, Halle, the flat voice said. Surely you must realize this is an invasion of your neighbor’s privacy.
      “I just wanted to know if he was still alive,” said Halle. He began to sidle past the screen, moving toward the door.
     And have you satisfied your curiosity, Halle? Can you trust us now? If a community is to function, there must be trust. Where there is no trust, there is no community.
     And then he had left the room, was in the entryway of the house. The screen there flickered suddenly on, assumed the same shifting colors, though as he looked at it this time, he began to believe they formed a face, that he was catching a glimpse of the utburd. It smiled at him, but kept its mouth closed.
      “Why won’t you leave me alone?” he asked.
     Leave you alone? said the voice. But you are alone, it said. You are the only one in this sector not to follow the new oxygen protocol.
      “No,” he said, “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the utburd.”
      There was a moment of silence, the colors on the screen freezing, the utburd hiding itself again.
     The symptoms of oxygen deprivation include, the screen finally said, general dissatisfaction, problems of productivity, impaired sleep quality, breathlessness, headache, nausea, poor judgment, hallucination. Halle, how many of these symptoms do you currently possess?
     But Halle had already turned away, was already leaving the house.

*


The person in the next house was in the same comatose state, and the next, and the next. In the fifth house Halle found a box of crackers, half of them gone, the rest soggy. He ate them. In that same house, when he turned on the tap, out came a real trickle of water, the filter not yet clogged with the black dust. He stayed there for some time, leaning over the sink, his lips tight around the spout, drinking.
     The utburd stayed beside him, scuttling about, and this struck him as a bad sign. There was a moment when his vision faded entirely. He stayed standing there, arm pressed against the rough wall of the house, trying hard to gather his breath. But in the end, he stayed conscious.
     By the time he came out of the fifth house, the light of the dome had started to fade, but whether this was because an entire day had passed or because the dust had infiltrated the electrical system as well, it was impossible to say. He looked farther down the deserted street, which stretched as far as he could see in the pale light from the dome—the street he had been born and raised on now seeming empty and dilapidated and unfamiliar.
     If he turned around, he’d have little difficulty making it back to his room by dark. But when he did turn, he saw the utburd there behind him, between him and the house, its pale face leering at him. It wasn’t real, he knew, there was no reason to be afraid of it. But, for some reason, rather than going back he continued.
     Perhaps, a part of him thought, the utburd is a manifestation of something within me. Perhaps the utburd is a part of my mind trying to tell me something. Meanwhile, another part of his mind examined this reasoning. Symptom of oxygen deprivation, this part thought. Poor judgment.

*


A series of additional houses, perhaps four more in all, each either empty or containing a motionless body hooked to an IV tube, with a feeding tube run down its throat. In each house he was careful to avoid the camera he knew to be there, careful not to respond to a screen if it began speaking, trying to make him admit he was there.
     Halle, the last one said, you have lost the ability to deal rationally with your situation. Halle, return to your home immediately so that we can care for you. Halle, your brain is no longer receiving enough oxygen for your existence to …
     But he had already lost track of what it was saying. The utbird, huddling there with him as he sat with his back against the wall out of sight of the screen, grinned. It looked a little bigger, he thought. Not much but a little. And now that it was here, close to him, he could see that the surface of its skin was covered with tiny, nearly transparent flakes of ice. He reached out and tried to touch it, but, smiling, it deftly avoided him, keeping just out of reach of his fingers. He reached for it again, stretching this time, and suddenly found his body slipping along the wall. There he was, lying sprawled on the floor now, the black dust clinging to one side of his face, and still not having managed to touch the utburd.

*


He lay there, listening to the screen’s voice coming from somewhere up above him. The utburd was both there and not there, insubstantial enough now that there no longer seemed to be any point in trying to grab it.
     He shook his head slightly, felt his eyes beginning to close, forced them open again. Where was he? What was wrong with him? Oh, yes, the new oxygen protocol. His body was slowly starving, he was slowly dying.
     Halle, he heard from somewhere up above him. There, not far from his face, the utburd licked its lips. Where are you, Halle? Why are you hiding from us? The utburd slowly smiled but kept its mouth closed. Teeth or no teeth, he wondered.
     Tell us where you are, the voice said. Please tell us and then stay there. We will come get you.
     The utburd touched its fingers to its lips, made a slight hissing noise. Halle remained silent, watching it. What will it do to me? he wondered. And as he watched it, the world around him slowly began to go dim.
     Halle, he heard vaguely, as if from miles away. Can you hear us, Halle?
     He couldn’t stop his eyes from closing, and yet he was seeing the utburd anyway, its image insubstantial as smoke and smeared on the inside of his eyelid, biding its time, waiting for him to lose consciousness. More doors to knock on, more neighbors to visit, a whole city to see, he thought. Suddenly, he realized he had lost track of the utburd somehow, that he was no longer sure where it was.
     There’s always tomorrow, thought the man, confused, who no longer was certain he was Halle.
     And then he couldn’t manage to think even that.