Once But Not Now
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Sometimes, when he closed his withered eyelids, the old man could see the prairies of his youth, the moonlight grasses, feel and hear the gentle whiskers of the wind against his flesh. But that had been long ago, hadn't it? Sometimes when he dreamed, he would forget that he was old and leap through those fields, shrieking with the elemental joy of existence. There were others there, young, like he was in the dream, their faces blurry but so heartbreakingly familiar. It felt wrong to have forgotten them.

Then he would wake again, and see the corroded metal walls of his prison. Technically, he was not bound in this cell; he could leave at any time - he just had to get up and walk out. But beyond, the world had changed into something lunatic, too bright, too complex, as though it had been designed to confuse and daze him. Burning white lights, random surfaces at dizzying intervals, so that the air seemed to drown or choke him. It had not been this bad when they had first brought him to this dismal place - or perhaps it was he who had changed, his faculties dispersing themselves into the suffocating walls.

So here he stayed. He would try to take refuge in fantasy, losing the present as he had lost so much of the past, but those open prairies were becoming harder and harder to call up of his own volition. Instead, he found himself walking endless, twisted corridors, doors sagging with decay and dark, damp mould dripping from the ceiling. He wondered whether it was the ruin of his own mind he was imagining.

He had been young once, he thought. He remembered his mother, and siblings, though in his mind they had become mixed with his children, and how they had played amongst the trees and in the open prairies. He had been taught how to hunt - in those days prey had been plentiful (no, not plentiful, he thought, but easier to catch). His mother had brought him an old, tattered one alive to show him how to hunt, and he and his brothers and sisters batted and clawed at it until it shuddered and expired. Did it think, he wondered - did it feel? Did it understand it was old and could no longer defend itself? Even then his tribe had not been large - never more than twenty.

In those days the prey were different - their bones were long and thick, they had ridges over their eyes and they wore the skins of other animals. Their teeth and claws were barely a threat to the long arms of his tribe, but sometimes they had other teeth made of stone they could hold in their hands, sharp glittering things that tore your flesh.

Then the prey had changed. A smaller, scrawnier sort of prey, with more stone teeth than the others, so that at first the tribe still hunted the bone-heads. The thinner prey hunted the bone-heads too, though not for food, and between them the supply dried up. This new sort of prey was harder to hunt and catch, even back then - they sealed themselves away in burrows which gave way to hives, with the horrible criss-crossing branches exactly perpendicular to each other that made his tribe's eyes water and their stomachs heave when they looked at them. And they had the burning light, like lightning but contained in a bundle of sticks. Still, they had prospered; he had found a mate - he found that if he tried hard he could recall the curves of her body as they lay together - and had children who ran wildly over the plains like he had.

But the prey had grown ever further entrenched, and it seemed the more the prey swarmed together the harder it was to get inside, to skip over into the twilight world that let them move through the walls and floors of their hives. They ringed their hives with running water; the first time he had burrowed into that he remembered the mind-consuming movement; a taste of what the whole world would become.

How had he been captured? He thought for a moment that he could not longer remember, until the outlines of a narrative suggested themselves to his mind. Was it true? Who could tell?

He had been alone - perhaps for decades. The last member of his tribe - he could no longer recall whether it had been his mate or one of his offspring - had vanished one day like all the rest. He sometimes entertained himself with the thought that she was still alive, then wondered what that meant. He would not wish this - this disintegration, this incomprehensible confinement - on her, or any member of his tribe.

He thought he could remember waking one day and feeling hungry - more hungry than he had ever felt in his whole existence. He had roused himself from near-hibernation in the tree where he lived and descended. The prey's hive nestled in the shadow of a hill on the far side of the lake the old man remembered being far larger in his childhood. The prey drank it, he had realised one day long ago, and in their teeming thousands depleted it. When it was dry, the prey would be gone, and then what would he do? He had approached, moving over and through earth they had pockmarked with their tall gold seed, leeching the life out of it.

The hive was bigger than he remembered, and more dazzling - the luminescence the prey produced to light their way through the night that had once belonged to his tribe catching off big, flat, reflective surfaces that seemed profoundly unnatural. Just one, he thought; he just needed one of them, then he could sleep again. He would find one of the caves the prey made under their hives and sleep. He shivered as he passed through cold, yellow light. Here, at the edge of the hive, they still had open areas around each burrow, though they had grazed the grass so thoroughly there was almost nothing left.

He remembered seeing one of them - small, tender in his mind's eye - and the old man drooled. He had watched it for days, waited for a moment when it left the safety of the pack (these days, precious few moments - they guarded their young so fiercely). Then, while it was running near its burrow, he took it; long arms closing around it and fingers searing into its flesh. A twist, practiced many, many times, and it was gone. He could not wait to hide; his hunger was too severe. His remaining teeth were already gnawing at the soft tissues of its nose and ears, even as he hugged the small body to him and shrank into the shadows of the treeline.

Then the light. Then the pain. The prey had found him hours later, eating what was left of the infant, and shone their brilliant light in his eyes. Blows fell on the old man, crushing him. He felt something pop in his arm. Something shining was looped between his wrist and the tree, and they went away. He tried to retreat to the fields in his mind, but the cold iron kept him there. He had found a way to escape it, later, but that was after they had put him in the cell at the centre of the maze.

Then the white coats had come and taken him away, and the lights had grown brighter and the pain more intense. No food, no food. He was dying, he thought, distantly, starving one day at a time. When he had been young he had seen an old man die of starvation - he had killed another member of the tribe and no-one would share their food with him. His limbs had hollowed out and his skin had become like a dried leaf.

For a long time he had hoped that others of his kind would come and find him, save him from this humiliation. But they would not relieve his hunger, he knew. They would not share their food with him. He had become that old man and he had committed sin. He could not remember the reason he had fought the larger male - times had become hard and prey scarce, and the other male had failed the tribe. It had occured to him later that the older male might have been his father.

The old man remembered the onlookers, faces blurred and shifting, watching as he pummelled the larger male to the floor and put his hand in the other's skull and moved his fingers until there was no life in there anymore. But he had done no better, and his people had grown thinner and thinner and left him, one by one, to find richer hunting grounds elsewhere. Now he was alone. And as the years went by in the metal cell, he began to think an awful thought - I am the last.

Once, these bewildering creatures in white coats would not have confused him. His mind would have been clean and sharp and he would have navigated the horrible labyrinth outside his cell.

Once but not now. Now he wandered alone in the crumbling steel darkness, the pain from his stomach overwhelming what was left of him.

I have lost everything, he thought. I have lost everything!

He twitched as he realised that in his distress he had drifted further from his cell than he ever had before - those decayed corridors of mind fell behind him and he found himself in what he thought was the waking world, but nothing like the maze he had perceived before. Here the air was so fresh his old lungs exhaled suddenly as though he had been submerged in ice. He was in a small, tunnel-like space, like the burrows of foxes or badgers but hard-cornered and metal in the fashion of the prey.

Below him were slats of light, and he realised dimly that through them he could see the world of the white coats, clean and clinical. But there was something wrong. Red lights were wheeling back and forth, hypnotically. The white coats were running; rushing away to be replaced by others with blue hard hats and determined expressions.

Then, he smelled it, the scent of injured prey, so rich, so replete in memory but so harrowingly distant that he wondered if he had imagined it, like so much else. But no, there it was again. The old man stirred long black limbs and raised himself up as far as he could, his ragged nostrils sucking in the fresh, cold air. And his ears, dulled as they were, picked up that long-forgotten cry, the gibbering assemblage of syllables, almost human, as the prey called out in pain and fear.

The dribble came thickly down his withered chin, and dry old eyes moistened again as he remembered marrow, and blood soaking into pink, juicy meat, just like it had been in the old days. No doubt the white coats would take this morsel from him as they had taken it away before. He didn't care; there was not enough left of the old man to care. He could only move, down through the slats, towards the light.

The old man came drip, drip, dripping down the wall…

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