rating: +463+x

by qntm

If Adam Wheeler gave it some thought, or if someone were to prompt him with the right questions, he could put words around the fact that his existence doesn't bring him any satisfaction. He would discover, on introspection, that he's nowhere close, actually, to "happy", and that there is something vast and significant missing from his life. But he doesn't give it any thought. There's a void between him and those questions. Objectively, academically, his life is great. As a professional violinist, he does what he loves the most for a living. He has talent, recognition, challenge, variety, applause, a moderate wealth. What is there to question? Why shouldn't he love it?

During slower moments, there's a grey worry in the back of his mind. It's there in the minutes right after he wakes up in the morning, before he makes it to the shower; it's there in the dead times backstage when he can't use his phone and there's nothing to do but wait to go on. It perturbs him, from time to time, that he seems to exist in a kind of long shadow, cast by a vast class of thoughts which he is unable to think. But the rest of the time, on a day to day basis, his calendar is as busy as he and his manager can make it. He performs, solo and in orchestras, he records, he composes and teaches. Every week is a different challenge. He keeps busy, and the feeling goes away if he's busy.

On the morning of the day that వ arrives, while he is brushing his teeth, a tiny black slug falls out of the corner of his eye into the hotel sink.


He scratches that eye, while drooling foam from his toothbrush. He takes a close look at himself in the mirror. Yup: there's another, fatter one growing in there, its tail protruding from his tear duct.

"I can do without this," he mutters to himself. He spits, rinses, and then takes a pair of tweezers out of his wash kit. Carefully, he nips the tiny, waving end of the slug, and tugs it out. It's no more painful than extracting a nostril hair. He drops it in the sink with its friend and washes them both away, along with the froth of toothpaste.

He stares at the plug hole for a long moment. It's like he's forgetting something. He can't bring it to mind. He shakes his head, and goes to get dressed.


Wheeler has been on tour with the New England Symphony Orchestra for nearly a month. They're at their final venue, and it's their final night, and Wheeler has mixed feelings. Touring, for him, is an opportunity to explore a kind of liminal lifestyle, where he can suspend a lot of worldly concerns and just exist as a being who wakes, travels, performs and sleeps. But as novel as the experience is on paper, four weeks of it is gruelling. By this stage in the tour, even the most naturally cheerful members of the orchestra have begun to show frayed nerves, and the programme has become stale and repetitious. It's long past time for something else.

Last night, his manager left messages about plans for upcoming weeks. It's probably time he paid attention to those.

Morning rehearsal starts at eleven. Wheeler takes a taxi from the hotel to the venue, bringing his tuxedo and his violin with him. His violin is an heirloom, more than a hundred years old, and while he's touring it never leaves his sight. (His tuxedo is just a tuxedo.) The concert hall is as close to the centre of the city as it gets, at the heart of a rat's nest of busy roads, which means the taxi journey is a slog, even setting out after rush hour.

At the stage door, the place is in chaos, but it's only the typical pre-show chaos which Wheeler has spent much of his professional life navigating. He finishes a quick cigarette outside before joining the bustling flow of technicians, performers and administrative staff. He finds his way to his dressing room, changes, unpacks his violin and tunes it. He flicks through tonight's music, more out of boredom than a need to refresh his memory. He has the whole programme memorised.

With some minutes to kill, he checks the headlines on his phone. Yet again, something dreadful and new which he doesn't understand is going viral. Today's fad is, you paint a black vertical rectangle on the wall, or on a mirror, or over the top of a picture. And then you chant something. Wheeler can't quite pick out the words of the chant. They're in a language he's not familiar with. He's no singer, but he's performed pieces with lyrics in Latin, German, Greek, French… whereas this language has a bizarre manufactured sense to it, as if it were simply English with the vowels and consonants all switched around.

Rehearsal goes reasonably. Wheeler long ago swore that he would never coast through a performance, and he plays decently well. But it seems to him as if a lot of the orchestra is distracted. Some cues get missed. He makes meaningful eye contact with the conductor a couple of times, and they share a frustrated look. When they break for dinner, late in the afternoon, the conductor, whose name is Luján, privately remarks to him, "Their eyes need fixing."

Wheeler doesn't wholly follow. He rubs his own eye with a finger, reflexively. The memory of the morning tries to punch through, but fails. "You mean, laser surgery?"

Luján responds with a few incomprehensible syllables and stalks away.


The auditorium opens and the seats fill. As ever, there's a brief, grey dead time while Wheeler waits for all the machinery of the performance to spin up. The anxious feeling is stronger than usual today. It grips him, an uncharacteristic urge to run away. Sure, he thinks. I could just junk my career, right now. Pack it in and make for the stage door. Maybe the taxi'll still be there.

But he pushes through it. It's just a juvenile fantasy. It's been far too long a tour. One more show and it's over.

And finally it's time, and he's out there, under the spot, in his element. The first piece of the night is Shostakovich. Its first movement is a sedate, haunting, almost melodramatic nocturne, but before too long the concerto changes gear and becomes energetic, discordant, feral. It's lengthy, too, a real work-out, and much of it is brutally difficult to execute. He's on form tonight. Close to flawless, and his audience — which he cannot see or hear — seems rapt.

Four-fifths of the way through the piece, a kind of spell breaks. Something changes in the atmosphere of the auditorium. The temperature in the huge room seems to rise by several degrees. More concerningly and noticeably, the music behind Wheeler begins to trail off. The conductor stops too.

Perplexed, Wheeler continues to play for a moment or two, keeping to his own internal time. But after another moment it becomes clear that something is wrong, something which everybody can see but him. He steals a glance up from his instrument, and finds that Luján is staring at him. In fact, every musician in the orchestra is staring at him, all of them wearing the same expression of stony, barely-contained ang—

They've been replaced.

The orchestra is gone. All seventy of them. The things which have replaced them are not human but alien, ill-proportioned pillars of pinkish-brownish flesh. Each has, at its top, a heavy protuberance studded with goopy biological sensors and rubbery openings, and, sprouting from the very cap, lengths of various kinds of vile, off-coloured moss. They are draped in black and white fabrics, weirdly cut to either conceal or highlight their blobby, inconsistent body structures.

Wheeler reels with fright. He almost falls off the front of the stage. His stomach convulses and he wants to vomit, but a frantic fragment of his brain hasn't panicked yet and tells him, Wait. Nothing's changed. That's what humans have always looked like. Right? What's happening? What's wrong?

He glances, petrified, out into the darkness of the audience. The silent energy radiating off them has changed. They've been replaced too, he knows. And they know he hasn't. That's what's wrong.

Clutching his violin to his chest, Wheeler stumbles across the stage, past the conductor, towards the wing. As he does, the musicians rise slowly from their seats, letting their own musical instruments drop to one side or the other. Wheeler trips over a cellist's music stand, recovers. The conductor is following him, with the other musicians close behind.

Wheeler reaches the wing. There's a pair of stage hands there, waiting for him. They have the same placid, angry expressions as everybody else, and the same set jaws. Wheeler stops and turns back. His heart feels like it's going to take off.

Luján, or, rather, the biped which used to be Luján, walks right up to him. He is a little shorter than Wheeler, but much heavier-set. Rooted to the spot, not thinking clearly, Wheeler holds his violin up, as if this will shield him. The conductor takes the instrument from his unresisting hands and breaks its neck underfoot, perfunctorily, as if crushing a box for recycling.

Wheeler backs off, hands raised. He bumps into the disapproving stage hands, who gently and wordlessly try to take hold of his arms. He shakes them off and is just about able to twist past them. He dives into the warren of corridors backstage. And then he runs like hell.


Four floors up, in some remote, poorly-lit corridor which hasn't seen regular use in years, he finds a bathroom. He goes in and throws up. This makes him feel a lot better. He washes his mouth out and then lights a cigarette, quickly filling the tiny space with a haze of smoke. That helps too.

The adrenaline has run out and his knees are still wobbling from climbing too many stairs. But it doesn't sound like anybody is closely pursuing him. So, in this safe moment, he asks himself a serious question: Did I just have a panic attack?

He doesn't know what a panic attack feels like. Having put so much distance between himself and the stage, what happened there feels like a crazed dream, a paranoid hallucination.

But… No. Luján broke his violin. That part definitely happened; he remembers it with distressing clarity. His relationship with Luján has never been much more than tepidly professional, but the man was a professional. To vandalise a precious instrument like that would be unthinkable for him, or anybody in the orchestra. There is something wrong.

With everybody.

Except him.

He flicks his cigarette butt into the toilet. He grips the sink, and looks at his reflection, and as his eyes slowly force their way back into focus, he realises, with some alarm, that what he is looking at is not his reflection. The mirror above the sink has been sloppily painted over with a tall, black, dripping rectangle. It's giving off heat; staring at it is like staring into an open oven. And he can hear a dull, grumbling, mechanical kind of noise coming from behind it. Like distant, muffled woodchippers.

He exits the bathroom and slams the door and leans against the far wall, watching the door, as if something could very well open it and come after him.

There was another one, he suddenly recalls. Another painted block, this one on the wall in his dressing room, right behind his chair, facing the back of his head. He should have seen it in the mirror whenever he was sitting there, but he didn't. And not only that, there was one in his hotel room. It was painted over the picture hanging over his bed. Did the hotel staff paint it? When, why? Why is he only remembering this now?

The viral video isn't new. Why did he think it was new? It's been circulating for months. For as long as he can remember. Forever. And— in every venue where he's been on tour, in every city, on windows and billboards, and in small rooms and liminal spaces, people have been painting these— doors—

There's a second half to each video. He remembers now. He watched it passively, over and over, and never saw it. Something comes through. It's been leaching into the background of the world this whole time, in plain sight, and he never saw it, and it's here now

He's having a psychotic break.

No. That's not what's happening.

Something is trying to interfere with the way he thinks. The block symbol is jammed into his mind. He can't dislodge it. He can't think about anything else.

He looks back along the narrow corridor down which he just came. The darkness at the far end of it is yet another dark, vertical rectangle. He hears the footsteps of a multitude of people coming from that direction. Not running. Just walking briskly enough to harry him.

He needs to get out of the building. Get help.

The stage door.


He takes a confused zigzag route back down to street level. There's nobody in his way, and the stage door itself is unattended. He cracks it open.

Night has fallen since the performance began. There's a minor road right outside, behind the concert hall building, a yellow-lit cul-de-sac with a loading bay and some unattended trucks. There's a major road adjoining the minor road, rammed with stationary traffic. Some of the vehicles are, indeed, taxis, but all of them are unoccupied, and most have their doors left open. There are colossally tall darkened figures stalking down the streets, so dark and slender that Wheeler actually fails to notice them. There is screaming, a grotesque, awful screaming coming from many human mouths, coming from somewhere down the main road. But that's the only way he can go.

It's everywhere, says his last sane splinter. Not just the concert hall. It's everyone.

As he creeps towards the main road, someone, another occupied former human, pokes their head around the corner, then calls to others in the strange language, pointing him out. Wheeler stops in his tracks. In another moment, ten or eleven non-people are advancing on him from the road. Two of them are carrying something with them, a limp, badly broken human— a normal human, Wheeler realises with some shock, like him. The victim's heavy winter coat is torn open and his inner clothes are saturated scarlet. When the non-people carrying him catch sight of Wheeler, they toss the man violently aside, into the street, where he lands in a pile against a car wheel. He grunts with pain as he lands, face down, and once he comes to rest he takes a deep breath and lets out an inhuman, traumatised cry. But he doesn't try to move again. The non-people ignore him.

Behind him, Wheeler hears the stage door swing open again. He doesn't dare glance back.

This can't happen, says that last splinter. This is possible, yes, real things exist which can do this to the world. But it doesn't happen. There's someone whose job it is to protect us from this. We're supposed to be protected.

Someone stops it from happening. Someone steps in. At the last minute.

But the last minute was a year ago. And she died.


Oh, God.

"Help," he says, to nobody.

A feeling of weightlessness rises up in his stomach. Gravity seems to upend and pitch him forward into the waiting arms of the non-people. They restrain him. They spend some time debating what to correct first, his eyes or his fingers. Right up until it starts, he's thinking, hoping: Maybe it won't be as bad as all that.

Next: Ará Orún

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