X by Brian Evenson

What is a person?

AN INTRODUCTION BY ANN VANDERMEER

I’ve known Brian Evenson for a long time and I’ve been a fan of his fiction for even longer. When I heard that he was working on a novella, I immediately contacted him and asked him to send it to me when he was done. My first read of The Warren was a revelation. And yet…each subsequent reading provided me with an even deeper and more meaningful experience.

Click to purchase the novella.
I tend to lean towards the dark side when it comes to fiction, especially science fiction, so this novella couldn’t be more perfect for me. Brian has a way of sending chills up my spine with just a few short sentences that on their own don’t seem that eerie. But the darkness is all there, quietly concealed, working on your psyche. He is a master of gently getting under your skin and ensuring that you come away thinking about his fiction for a long time.

Although perhaps not apparent on the surface, Evenson’s fiction is deeply spiritual. His characters must grapple with who they are, and whether or not there is a higher power. And, if one does exist, what does that mean? What does it look like? As humans, we all have these personal questions about life and the universe. Evenson brings those questions to the surface for us to examine more closely.

The Warren tells the story of a person named X — or maybe not a person, because what is a person, anyway? When X queries the monitor about any other people in his party, the monitor asks him “What do you mean by a person?” X discovers he is alone in the warren, on a distant planet after a failed space expedition, and the quest for survival begins.

But the darkness is all there, quietly concealed, working on your psyche.

This story moves beyond mere survival, and explores the desire to propagate; to replicate and live on after death. It is a kind of immortality in which X becomes stuck as a repository for souls without bodies. (I am reminded of the novel The Tenant by Roland Topor, in which the main character wonders after a decapitation, “Is it me and my body or me and my head?”) X is at once annoyed by all of the others and yet at the same time, he can’t stand the quiet without them. And who is suffering the most? Those that went before, or the one that remains?

And as X struggles with his identity, realizing he’s a version of so many others, he fights against the idea of being a copy of a copy of a copy. As you know, the more copies you make, the more diluted the last copy becomes. And X considers himself an individual. There are warnings here, as I find in many of Evenson’s stories. But the warnings usually go unheeded. And therein lies the horror.

Ann VanderMeer
Editor, Tor.com Publishing

X by Brian Evenson

I shall begin this written record by reporting the substance of our last conversation — which was not only the last conversation I had with Horak, but the last I had with anyone, or ever expect to have. Perhaps the last conversation that any two humans will have, if he and I can be said to both qualify as human. There is apparently some debate on that score. Or would be if he had not abandoned me. Was some debate, I should say.

I did not know how to make the machine function properly, and did not know either how to shut it off — it was not me who suspended him within the machine in the first place. The instructions for the operation of the machine were to be found in a sector that proved to be decayed, the data irretrievable. Nor did I know the sequence or the code, and my slow muddlings got me nowhere. In the end, seeing my own time ticking away with nothing resolved, I decided drastic measures were justified.

How long has it been since a person left the warren and how long did he survive? I had asked the monitor earlier, before all this. I knew the answer to this question: the last of us to leave the warren had left 140 days ago — I wanted to see if the monitor knew this fact or if this portion of the data was also corrupted. The last of us to leave was named Wollem, a name chosen for him by the pair who had come before him, Vigus and Vagus. When they neared the end of their lives they had themselves imprinted within the monitor and then set about constructing Wollem. They had hoped to make a pair, as had always been done before, but there was so little material that out of prudence they opted to make only one, so that he in turn could make another one, so there might be at least a little more time given to us before a final end. 140 days ago, Wollem left in search of more material, knowing he would die in the process. But, with luck, he would die only after returning with sufficient material for others to be formed and for us to persist a while longer.

He did not return.

To my question, the monitor responded: Query, what do you mean by person?

I thought about this a long time and then asked, “What do you mean by person?”

It responded, Bipedal, an individual thought process enmeshed in a body, procreated through the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm and its subsequent development in a womb.

“Only the first criterion is relevant.”

With this definitional clarification, it said, this sort of “person” left 140 days ago. He did not return. It is not known how long he survived. This is not a question for which there is sufficient data to provide an answer.

“Is it likely he survived?”

It is not likely.

“And if all three criteria are considered relevant?” I asked.

By these criteria it has been seventy-one years, eleven months, six days, and twenty one hours since a person left the warren. He still survives and has been carefully preserved.

But I intended to start differently. I allowed myself to get distracted. Since I learned most things in a way that I have come to feel would not be considered normal for those who might read this record, my sense of balance and order is sometimes far from perfect. At times I become confused about the order in which things should be told. Parts of me know things that other parts do not, and sometimes I both know a thing and do not know it, or part of me knows something is true and another part knows it is not true and there is nothing to allow me to negotiate between the two. The monitor can help if I ask the right questions, but in many circumstances it just adds another layer of confusion so that whatever is being choked or stifled is even more so.

“He still survives?” I asked.

Yes, said the monitor.

“Does he have a name?”

Yes. Horak.

“He has been preserved?” I asked. “On an impression?”

Not on an impression. Being preserved on an impression is not the same thing as being alive. His body has been physically stored and his mind along with it.

“Show me where.”

It showed me a schematic. Horak was, in fact, quite close. Perhaps through some of the tunnels of the warren that had been filled he could be reached, I thought at first, but then another self within me stirred, opened its pale eye and said, No, on the surface.

“Is he outside?” I asked myself.

He is in a facility. Don’t you remember?

“No,” I said.

I do, it said. I said.

“Is the facility at — ” eye after eye opened within me as I groped for a word, finally found it, “ — ground level?”

Yes.

“And he’s still alive?” I asked, amazed.

Some of the sectors pertaining to the proper use of a suit had been corrupted, but not all of them. As a result, I had some information and some noise, and needed only to determine what was information and what was noise, and then determine which parts of me I should ignore and which I should listen to. Could I survive at ground level? Yes, it was clear, but not for long. Longer if I was wearing a suit, but even then not long. How long was not long? The answer to this question was unclear, and querying the monitor did little good. No sensors currently accessible at ground level, it indicated, and then seemed to consider the matter closed.

After Wollem had formed me and made it possible for me to communicate, and then imbued me with the further quickening that made me a receptacle for the selves that had come before me, he told me: My purpose is complete. Now I go in search of help. I am almost certain that I remember him saying this. And that after saying it he drew a suit up around his body, sealed it, and left the warren.

After he departed, I lay there on my tablature, for how long I do not know. I was trying to translate the vast amount of damaged and partial information that had been poured into my mind into some sort of rational order, into something useful. I could see, in vivid detail, the means by which a finger could be made to flex and move — I understood the electrical impulse that would best bring this about, but seemed unable to manifest it. I do not know how long I lay spread on the tablature, trying to move a single finger. And then, suddenly, I did manage a pulse of electricity and the finger moved. But when I examined what I had in my head again I saw the simple movement of a finger had burnt a line there, a minuscule thread, hardly noticeable, unless you happened to be looking for it, unless you happened to be looking very closely because you needed something very specific and saw the way that the line split that thing in two and even obliterated the slightest portion of it. And then I understood that everything I said, everything I did, would do damage to whatever was already contained within me, that there was hardly enough space in my head for all the various selves, let alone their memories, let alone my own.

What did I do? For a long time I did not move, waiting to see if what I held within my head would congeal in some way, become resistant or formalized or…I don’t know. I could see how the information that was there was part of different strata, that what I had thought upon waking was just one being was in fact many layered one atop the other, that I was the partial record of all those who had come before me. These I began to peel off, divide up, and put to sleep, so that I could keep them straight and, if possible, safe.

But in the end I could only do so much of this. In the end, I had no choice but to move another finger.

Wollem came back into the room wearing a suit, prepared to leave, to go to ground level. Or rather, no, that was not what it felt like at the time. I am not sure this is my true memory or instead the memory of an earlier self. At the time, whether my memory or another’s, what it felt like was this: Wollem left the room. He was gone for a time. I struggled to move a finger and began to rearrange the architecture of my mind. And then a figure, bipedal but featureless, made of vulcanized cloth, with a head made of a bulb of steel and tempered glass, entered the room and spoke in a tinny voice. The figure waved once and then was gone. It was only later that I stumbled upon a sector on the monitor that told me this was a man wearing a suit. This man must have been, so I deduced since there was nobody else, Wollem.

I rummaged through the warren until I found a suit that reminded me of that suit I had seen, and then I forced my body into it. There were cracks and splits in it, a rent in the stomach, the fabric stained around it by what looked like rust. Doesn’t matter if there are holes, part of me that was still awake thought, you’re dead anyway if you go outside.

But I opened up each pale eye within me and inquired until I found enough to tell me to rummage some more, and then I tried to close all the eyes again at once, to seal each back — for their own good, for their safety. Each is already crisscrossed with darkness and scars and damage, and awakening them seems only to damage them worse, so better to keep them asleep.

I rummaged until I found a rusted can of sealant — though the rust on the can was of a somewhat different color than that on the lips of the tear in the suit. Perhaps merely a difference in material. I shook it and sprayed it. When it came out and I positioned it correctly, it bubbled and filled the cracks and splits and sealed the lips of the rent not only to one another but to my skin beneath, so thoroughly that to remove it later I had to take a knife to my belly and separate a strip of skin from my body.

Wollem told me: “I was taught by Vigus and Vagus in a different way than you will be. Some things were imprinted, but only the most basic of things and with gaps between. The ability to chew and swallow, the ability to walk and crawl, the basics of language. Then Vigus and Vagus took turns instructing me. Once they were gone, I learned from the monitor.

“But the monitor is not what it was. Whole sectors are damaged. Vigus’s personality is still preserved, but Vagus’s is so damaged that if he were to be brought back he would be mad. For years we fooled ourselves into thinking we could preserve ourselves in such fashion, and be reconstituted later when someone came to relieve us. But no one is coming. No one ever will come, unless it will be someone who means us harm.”

And yet, even knowing this, even believing this as he did, once he had imprinted me not just with simple gestures and abilities but with the surviving personalities of our expedition, Wollem could not stop himself from going out to look for someone or something to save us.

There are times when I look back at this writing and do not recognize what I have written. There are moments, whole pages even, which are written in my hand, to be sure, but which I have no memory of writing. When I awake I sometimes find myself deep in the warren before the writing desk, with the charcoal grasped tight in my hand and no memory of how I arrived there.

I am writing this on paper even though such writing is a forgotten art. I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that the sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this.

I do not have an earliest memory. All the memories came at once, an overlay of a dozen different personalities and all the memories going along with them. Or at least some of the memories — there is not enough room and each new memory I make, each new thing I do, ends up sacrificing memories that came before. Each moment I live snuffs out a little more of the lives of the others within me.

Wollem meant well. When he discovered what was happening within the monitor, the fact that the majority of personalities imprinted within the monitor had grown corrupt with time, he did not know what else to do. He could have let each recorded personality lapse: could have waited until, one after another, they either grew corrupt or until the monitor or the tablature broke down sufficiently so as to make organic reinscription of these personalities possible. Instead, having one last source of material at his disposal, he formed me, and then, within me, formed everyone who remained.

And yet, Wollem did not inscribe his own personality. He did not reproduce himself either on the monitor or, organically, within my brain, along with the dozen or so others. Why? Was it merely an oversight on his part? Was it because he knew there were already too many within me? Or was it selfishness, a very real desire to let his flesh and self die together, to keep his self to himself?

Suit affixed, heart pounding, I squirreled my way along the edges of the warren and came to the first seal. This was much farther than I had ever gone before. I removed the seal and ignored the warning sirens. I had salvaged a piece of rebar from the failed portion of the warren, the damaged portion, and positioned it to keep the seal open, just in case it was inclined to slide closed while I was gone or in case, despite the damage the warren had undergone, there was some mechanism that would, after a certain amount of time had passed, draw the seal closed.

I climbed the ladder, slowly, putting one foot over the other as I had been taught to do. As I did so, I felt several pairs of eyes within my head flicker open, awakened by a movement that was familiar to them, from their own climbs to the surface many years before. The strangeness of that: the feeling that you, or rather I, are at once dreaming and remembering and simultaneously doing something as if for the first time. That terrible rapid construction of the world around you, but not as a new world: instead, as a world already known, already seen. At the top of the ladder was a second seal. I had not known I would encounter it until my hand reached out in the dim and touched it, but once touched it sprang forth fully formed. A set of eyes within my head opened, but another set opened wider, and I climbed down the ladder and found a second piece of rebar and then climbed back up again.

It was difficult to force open this second seal. I had to pound on it with the piece of rebar and as I did so, flakes of rust sifted slowly down around me and adhered to my faceplate, mottling my vision. At first I thought it was not going to open for me, and then a voice from a self within me directed me how to brace the rebar and use it as a lever and by so doing slowly force the seal open. Even then the seal did not give until, abruptly, it did and I lost my hold and dropped the bar clattering down the shaft and almost tumbled down myself.

Light, the shock of it, more searing and intense than anything I’d ever seen. Then, blind, I was up and through the seal and on the surface, up and running now, all the eyes of the selves I harbor in my head open now and the mouths attached to them counting a measured cadence, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, and on and on, the numbers growing, the heads within my head growing anxious and me myself anxious along with them. How much time, in the suit, did I have before I would be poisoned and die? And then I had scampered across the bare, damaged ground and was at the seal of the facility, wondering with a sinking feeling if I should have brought another piece of rebar. I stumbled into the wall and applied the palm of my glove to the pressure pad and, unexpectedly, the door slid open and I tumbled into a solitary room.

Within, it was the same as the warren — the same, rather as the furthest walls of the warren, without the modifications that we had developed over the years. So much so that I became quickly convinced that this was part of the warren or once had been.

The storage unit occupied the center of the room, humming slightly, cables running up into the ceiling. It was as tall as my chest and twice as thick as a man, rooted solidly in the floor. Inside was a figure, human or nearly so. Crystals of ice were in his hair and he was frozen.

“Monitor,” I asked the room at large, “are you here as well?”

There was no answer. I looked for a monitor port but there was no port, so perhaps this had never been part of the warren after all.

The eyes within my head had stopped rolling now, had begun to calm, lids growing heavy, even beginning, in some cases, to drowse. I reached up to remove the helmet from my suit, making the motions exaggerated and definite, and though several stirred within me, when they became cognizant of what I was about to do and where I was, they lulled again. This, coupled with the green light now burning above the door, I took as an indication that it was safe, that I could breath and not die.

As I have said, parts of me are damaged, and so are the records we have that are stored in the monitor. I know more than most who came before me, but they had the advantage of having access to memories recorded outside of themselves, in the monitor. With those systems working, they could in an instant learn things that I cannot and never will. For me, memory is not only at times flawed and corrupted but also overlapped and confused, one personality hiding parts of another, blending too, so that the selves within my head sometimes seem many-headed and monstrous or deformed and impossible to comprehend.

I kept touching parts of the storage machine, thinking that the gestures would reveal something to me, would awaken someone within me, a self that would know what to do.

But nothing happened.

I took my suit off — or would have if I had not fused it to my skin while sealing the rip. I wriggled my arms free and let the suit hang around my waist, tugging at my belly. Hands freed, I touched the controls and the pad of the storage unit with my bare fingers, thinking it might respond to my touch or my heat, but it did not respond at all.

For nearly a day I was there, trying to make something happen. Nothing happened. At last, in frustration, nothing accomplished, I donned the suit again, opened the seal, and made a mad dash back to the warren.

“Monitor,” I asked, immediately upon my return. “When did the last person go out and when did he return?”

Query: what do you mean by person? It asked.

“As before. Bipedal,” I said. “None of the other qualifications.”

The last person to go out went out fourteen hours and forty-six minutes ago. He returned eight minutes ago. You are that person.

“Monitor,” I asked, “is the storage facility that keeps Horak part of the warren?”

Query: What do you mean by warren? it asked.

“This place,” I said. “What you see all around you.”

For a long moment the monitor did not respond, and I thought that it had at last reached its point of exhaustion. Everything is running down, dying. Perhaps the monitor will not outlast you, I thought. Perhaps before you die you will lose even that small consolation.

And then the monitor said, No. It is on the surface. This place is not on the surface.

“The warren,” I said.

If you call it that.

“But were they once connected?” I persisted.

Everything was once connected, responded the monitor. Everything still is.

I called up all the files related to storage. There was nothing that could be seen, nothing that could be read, nothing more than a few bits and pieces of code, a fragmented, damaged hodgepodge that told me nothing.

I could tell you how I tried to awaken him and how it all failed. But I have not even succeeded in telling you what I planned to begin with and there is no point, or little point, in pushing that goal even farther away on the horizon by stacking more and more up in front of it. No, it is enough to say that I, or we if you prefer, failed. We could not start the mechanism to unstore this Horak. It had been done before, I knew it had been done, but there was no record of it anywhere, not even fragments. It was as if this part of our history had been wiped deliberately and mercilessly away.

Is there a reason for this? an awakening part of me wondered. Do I really know what I am getting into?

I knew something of this Horak from my earlier conversation with the monitor. He apparently was not constructed but rather procreated through the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm and its subsequent development in a womb. He was, according to the monitor, an individual thought process enmeshed solitarily within a body. It is thought, at least by some residing within me, that unlike us he could not be hurt by being outside. There were some within me who felt he was not human, though others argued that he was a true human, a first human, whom we all had been set to emulate. Others still thought he had once been human but had, due to circumstances, changed.

What was true and what was rumor it was difficult to say: it is impossible for me to be objective about the opinions of all the selves contained within me, for I hear not only their words but feel along with them the weight of their conviction.

Better to be cautious, to wait and see if I can figure a way to awaken him, and if I cannot, perhaps I can convince myself that it is better not to awaken him at all.

And so, knowing all this, believing all this, I removed the suit and tore my strip of flesh off along with it, then bandaged my belly, ate, and fell asleep, trusting that tomorrow was another day, that tomorrow anything could happen.

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