This story was first published in print in the Wyrd Stories Anthology.
The man’s face is obscured by a hood.
The hood is part of a coarse brown cloak, giving the him appearance of a monk, but the pair of guards dragging him roughly along the dank corridor rupture the impression of piety.
One guard walks as heavy as a bear, thick brown coils of hair tucked behind his ears, large dark eyes scanning around, observing all. The other guard walks tall and straight, his grey eyes focussed unwaveringly ahead, each step a neatly considered motion.
The corridor is built from large stones, roughly hewn and riddled with moss. The only light comes from open flame torches, set into the walls. The light only reaches so far, so the corridor vanishes into blackness in both directions – leaving the men in a permanent truncated section of corridor, always changing, but always the same.
They never pass a soul, not even a door, to left nor right. Almost the only sounds are those that they make themselves; their feet scuffing the packed earth floor, or arms brushing the walls of the narrow space. Their breathing; which seems loud in this place.
The prisoner lifts his head and the hood falls back onto his shoulders. His head is shaved; stubble just growing out. His face is dark and deeply lined; his age hard to place. He could be a hard worn thirty-year-old, or a youthful sixty. His ears are large and jut out from his head, his eyes are piercing, icy blue.
“Fine strong men, aren’t you?” His voice is almost unbearably loud, disturbing the quiet, but he continues, unperturbed. “You know who you are, nobody could deny that. Waite, that’s you right?” He cocks his head up at the guard to his left, an outlandish angle, giving him the absurd bearing of a curious toddler.
Waite glances at him in surprise. Unusually, he knows nothing of the prisoner; his name nor his crime, and is disturbed to find it’s not mutual. His glance is rewarded with a large white-toothed grin.
“And you,” the man continues, swinging his head to gaze up at the guard on his right, “- are Grabowski. There’s a name that says a great deal about the owner. But that’s hardly your fault. You didn’t choose it, did you?” He grins at Grabowski, who keeps staring resolutely ahead.
They march on down the corridor, the prisoner leaning his weight to one side, then the other, so the guards are forced to compensate or stagger into the walls.
“Fine strong men, yes! Doing your job with pride. Men with principles! Yes! That’s good, that’s good. A man must have principles, otherwise, what is the point of life?”
He chuckles and lets his body go limp, so Waite and Grabowski are forced to haul him along with his feet dragging on the ground, leaving faint trails.
“But then again,” he says suddenly, jerking up and slamming his feet down, nearly unbalancing them, “A flower is alive, but surely has no principles – so does that mean it has no point? And these principles, did you come up with all by yourself? Or did someone else decide them for you? Like your name? Are they even your principles at all?”
Waite shakes his head and grumbles, muttering at the man to stop prattling on.
But the man is chatty, cheerful even. Which seems erroneous, considering the circumstances.
“This is an awfully long corridor, isn’t it? I bet you don’t even remember entering it, and when will it end? It could be sudden – any moment – or it could be a lifetime away.”
Waite begins to hope the end of the corridor will hurry up and appear. He strains to see into the darkness ahead, but his mind starts to create things that aren’t there, ghostly spirits. Eyes staring back. He drops his gaze and focuses on the ground that falls within the light.
“Oh well, rather be me than you.”
Before he can stop himself, Waite glances over again, his attention snagged by such a ridiculous claim. How could it be better to be a haggard, wasted prisoner than a youthful, robust guard?
The prisoner notices the look and seizes on it with glee.
“You say I should explain myself?” he says, even though no word passed Waite’s lips. “I’d be happy to! You see, I am a free man, while you are merely captives.”
Waite grunts. “How do you figure that?”
Grabowski shoots him a warning look that says Don’t encourage him.
But it’s too late. He’s encouraged.
“You do whatever your master tells you,” he explains. “Every day you get up when he tells you to, wear clothes he’s decided on, go where he tells you, sit where he says to. Like a dog. Sit!”
Waite shakes his head and lets out an exasperated sigh. He wishes this prisoner would shut up. The raving is rattling his nerves.
“But, at least a dog knows its master. Has looked him in the eye. I bet you’ve never seen your master, have you? Your orders come trickling down through others. So how do you know he’s worth serving? If you’ve never looked him in the eye? Come to think of it, if you’ve never seen your master, how do you know I’m not he, in disguise? Perhaps this is a test.”
Grabowski stiffens, the first sign that he’s listening after all. The prisoner swings around to gaze closely at the sides of his eyes, their black centres large in the dimness.
“But if I say release me, would doing so prove or break your loyalty? Oh, what a dilemma!” With skeletal fingers, he scratches his head in a caricature of thinking, then slowly opens his mouth as if something incredible has just dawned on him.
“Wait! No, not you Waite, just… wait! If I could be anybody, then who’s to say I’m not the prophet, reborn?”
He nods as they pass under another flickering flame, eyes alight with relish.
“Or the devil, himself! But tell me boys, if I was the prophet returned to renew my message, how would you know?”
They pass several torches in silence; the guards have no answer for him.
“What would happen if a messenger from God came to earth now and acted as prophets always do? Declaring the establishment evil and all that? Well, he’d probably get hauled off by a couple of guards, wouldn’t he…”
Still the corridor goes on. Waite searches his memory for any sense of how long they’d been going along it. Why weren’t there any doors? Why didn’t they pass anyone?
“I’ve got a question for you!” The prisoner’s voice pierces his thoughts. “Are we going to a dungeon or from it? Is this the beginning of punishment, or the end?”
Waite looks over at Grabowski, but his mouth is set in a firm line, not interested in any discussion. Waite doesn’t want to ask out loud what Grabowski knows. Then the prisoner would know he can’t remember. Instead he picks up his pace, hustling the man more roughly. Perhaps he could shake him into silence. And who is he anyway?
The man’s body just gives way like bag of bones, swinging this way and that. But when he speaks, the jollity has left his voice, and it is edged with menace.
“I wouldn’t be worrying about who I am – when you barely have the first idea who you are.”
“Quiet,” Waite says, gruffly.
The new voice makes Waite’s neck hairs stand on end. Pull yourself together, he tells himself, clenching his jaw.
“Why should I be quiet? Can’t you answer? Well, I suppose you’ve looked in a mirror. So is it your face that’s who you are? The shape of the skin and bones on the front of your head? But what if…”
The man wriggles around until he can reach his hood, then tugs it back over his face, flopping forward.
Waite turns to look at him, wondering what he’s up to. Grabowski doesn’t break stride, but gives the prisoner a quick scan with his grey eyes, then returns his gaze ahead.
As Waite watches, the prisoner flicks his head back, so the hood falls across his shoulders again.
Waite reels back, gasping. He thrusts the prisoner away from him, and crashes into the opposite stone wall with a crunch.
The prisoner is now sprawled on his hands and knees on the floor by Grabowski’s legs, but above the woollen cape is Waite’s own face, staring back at him. His large tawny eyes, his thick brows and tumbles of dark hair. The head looks too big for the body.
“What’s wrong with you?” demands Grabowski, grabbing both shoulders of the prisoner to secure him.
Waite lifts a trembling hand to point at the face.
“Can’t you see?”
Waite looks up at Grabowski, astonished that he hasn’t noticed anything amiss, and screams again. Grabowski also wears his face, in a puzzled expression.
The prisoner smiles, the corners of his lips curling like a scythe, and shrugs.
“Or, if not your face, perhaps where you’re standing?”
Waite blinks and the world changes.
He’s no longer pressed up against the stone, staring at two men against the other wall, with deepening blackness stretching away to left and right.
Now he’s on his knees, his body draped in a scratchy woollen cloak, his hands dark and bony. There are leather boots in front of him, and he can feel stiff legs digging into his back. Slowly, he raises his head, heart thudding in his throat in dread.
Behind him, Grabowski is scowling down angrily. Against the other wall, he sees himself. His uniform, on his body, under his face, his own eyes gazing down at him. As if looking in a mirror – but no mirror. Just another living, breathing being – flesh and bone. But this man is not scrabbling his nails against the wall, he’s standing calmly, observing.
Waite grabs at his partner’s uniform with the emaciated fingers that don’t belong to him; fear prickling the backs of his eyes like hot needles, his throat tightening as if being squeezed by an invisible fist.
“Grabowski, it’s me! He’s done something to me! That’s not me over there – it’s him!”
“Get off me!” growls Grabowski, smacking him so he falls back to the ground.
“But, it’s me!” Panic rises like floodwater.
“Who?” both guards say in perfect unison, leaning down to stare at him with unblinking eyes, flat and glassy. “Who are you?”
Terror-stricken, he lunges for the knife he knows is tucked into the belt of Waite’s – his – uniform. Once his fingers are wrapped around it, he dodges back and scrambles to the balls of his feet, crouching low, brandishing it like a wild animal.
“But who will you kill?” Both guards utter in perfect unison.
Now both of them are copies of him, Grabowski is gone. It’s only the two Waites, and him in the middle in the woollen cloak.
But he’s Waite, not them. Isn’t he?
His head spins.
If he stabs one of them, will he be killing the real him?
But what choice does he have?
He looks down at the strange brown fingers clutching the handle of his knife.
With a wail of anguish, he turns the knife plunges the blade deep into his own chest, gasping as it pierces lungs, then heart. Dark blood gushes out in a fountain.
Waite watches, with his head cocked, then raises his hand and flexes the fingers, watching them bend and unbend with interest. He inhales deeply, as if the old dank air of the corridor is laced with the scent of the most delicious nectar.
Grabowski looks down at the body sprawled between them, confused.
“Why did he do that?”
Waite smiles. “Maybe he couldn’t bear not knowing who he really was.”
Grabowski shrugs. “Whatever. Should we go back?”
“It’s a long way back, Let’s keep moving forward.”
So, on they walk, down the endless corridor.