In the centre of the ruins, Primer stood with his boots against the snow powdered concrete, staring up towards the pitch black sky; seen through a hole created by a shift in the tin roof. “We are all gearwheels of time,” Primer said in awe of the dome above him, visualising how the spherical galaxies swirled like machinery. Rotating, slowly approaching each other. Linked together like clock-work. Planets in their orbits; objects working in unison. “Nothing is random,” Primer continued, and looked over at Frank who was strapped to a vertical gearwheel on the brick wall. “Everything is time. People are living on borrowed time, count time, plan everything according to time ever since ancient times. We meet other people supposedly at random but everything has a purpose. Everything has a time frame. There is a reason that you say something to someone, there is a reason why one dies and it all has to do with the gearwheels. Everything is linked, everything but you,” Primer said.
Frank looked around. Heaps of steel laid on the floor in front of him, gearwheels in all sizes, hastily sorted. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“It is not by mere accident that you are here tonight Frank, and I would like to take this opportunity to prove it.” Primer glanced over by the far end of the building where an old silent generator was bolted down with rusty spikes. Thick wires spread across the hall from the generator’s end and towards the wall in front of him.
“Do I have a choice?” Frank said and tried to break free, but his wrists were too sore from the cold chains around his limbs.
“That’s what I am trying to explain, there are no choices. There are no accidents, no probability. I would appreciate if you could pay a little more attention from now on. I won’t have time to explain this again.”
Frank glanced at the wall he was strapped to. Methodically, gearwheels had been arranged in a complex structure, each one linked to another.
“Don’t you see the simplicity of it all,” Primer said, and moved towards the small gearwheel on the wall to his left. “Here is where it all begins, with this one. This piece,” he said, “this is me.” Primer moved along the wall, his hands stroked their surface. “And this wheel represents my actions that night. It will start the motions of all the other gearwheels.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I didn’t have anything to do with your wife’s coma,” Frank said, “I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“But you did, one life for another, isn’t that so? But she’s not dead yet.” Primer moved up to a large gearwheel only a few pieces away from the first. “This one is you Frank. This one is you waking up, and we both know what happened then. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning.” Primer looked over at the leading wheel.
The first snow of the season had fallen upon the landscape, the brambles had welcomed their white robes, and the evening glimmer had made the scenery as tranquil as a snow globe setting. Another year had come to its end, and the world was ready to celebrate.
Confined inside his study, Primer looked up like a boy caught with an indecent magazine as the door flung open.
“What are you doing in here?” Alma said with an agitated voice as she stood in the doorway. Her dark hair pulled up in a knot, the straps of her black satin gown loosely hanging upon her shoulders.
Primer rose to his feet, Alma turned around, and he zipped her up. “I’m just going to-”
“Finish the chapter?” she broke in, and as Primer sat down again she glanced down at his outfit made out of a worn t-shirt and jeans. “You’re not coming, are you?”
“I thought Victor was taking you?”
“He’s my boss, not my date. Why did you even go down here?”
“I’m sorry,” Primer heard himself say. It may not have been an honest answer, but an answer nonetheless and should count for something, he thought as the door slammed shut. I should go with her. I should open that door, kiss her and put on my dinner suit, Primer reflected. But he didn’t. Instead he could hear Alma picking up the phone.
Frank squirmed in a futile attempt to loosen his bondage, as Primer moved over to a stack of wheels and sat down.
“One hour later, Victor’s car pulled up in front of the house,” Primer said with a hint of remorse in his eyes. “He was never supposed to attend that party, but he did, and he met someone. Someone he hadn’t spoken to for a long time. They met and due to my actions that evening, the first gearwheel was set in motion. And one year later your dead body was taken out from its container.”
“It had been three decades,” Frank said, “there was no way anyone could have predicted this. It wasn’t my fault. All I wanted was to live again, is that so wrong?” The cold draught swept through the open hall and scratched Frank’s throat, and as he began to cough, his memory took him once again to that room; his first memory in his new life.
“It’s the fluid remaining in your stomach,” Victor explained with a sort of pride over his achievement.
The intense fluorescent light stung Frank’s eyes as he opened them and made it difficult to focus, but he could feel the bare steel bed beneath him.
As Alma fell to the floor in her office, Frank took his first breath.
Like a mummy he couldn’t move as the frost still stuck to his naked skin. The inserted needles were pulled out and the liquid that had passed through the tubes, dripped down on the floor. Gradually his body thawed.
Victor placed his warm hand on Frank’s arm. “Welcome back,” he said. The fact that the first snow of the season arrived the same day the initial awakening had begun wasn’t only ironic, but a factor Victor thought relieved their return from the frozen imprisonment.
“You wanted nothing but happiness for yourselves,” Primer said, and Frank reopened his eyes. “When will you sick people become civilised,” Primer continued as he stood up and walked over to Frank by the wall. “You took everything from me.”
“A good theory at the most, but you don’t have any proof.”
Primer pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket. “I found your name in the computer files. A digital time is the link between you and my wife’s fate.
At the core of the city, the hospital spread out amongst the tall surrounding buildings, pointing towards the sky like upside-down icicles. The concrete foundation had dried out a long time ago, seeing as settlers were an extinct kind. To restore, to save the old, was the motto of the new world. Outside, compact snowflakes fell hard on the citizens and the streets were covered in a soiled slush. Each time Primer had returned to the hospital ward and Alma was still in her bed, he felt as if the room had become smaller, the noise from the corridor feverishly more unbearable, and the light outside the window so much paler.
The lack of having someone to talk to had made Primer visit a middle-aged man on another floor. The dark rings under the man’s eyes grew for each night the pain was keeping him awake. But he never complained. “When the pain is at its worst, that’s when I feel the most alive,” the man told him.
The sulphur from the New Year’s rockets had long ago evaporated when Primer decided to pay him another visit. But that night he wasn’t alone. Doctors who didn’t belong to the hospital were ready for the standby procedure. They took his savings in order to keep him in an indeterminate state between living and dead.
Primer turned away from Frank and glimpsed through a collapsed wall. Beyond it was the industrial landscape, with its symmetric constructions and narrow chimneys where steam had melted the snow at their base. “If anyone would have told me, that this - this macabre clinginess to life - was the reason why I had lost everything,” Primer said, “if that man in the hospital hadn’t explained the universe to me, I’d never believed them. Before he took his last breath he told me he was set up to be suspended, frozen, to once again wake up and regain his immortal soul.” Past the smokestacks was the slaughter area with its stench of newly arriving cattle; bare and suspended. “That was his way of playing a trick on the gearwheels,” Primer went on. “But he was wrong. What he told me made me understand the reason for Alma’s coma; and that led me to you, Frank.” At the far end of the district, searchlights illuminated the snow covered roof with its massive beams of iron, where independent letters spelled out the name: CryoCare.
Fully dressed, on the living room sofa, Frank opened his eyes. The blanket had slipped down on the floor next to him, and the new outgrowth of hair on his arm rose above the gooseflesh.
“Nightmares again?” Helen said as she came down the stairs. “Remember, Victor telling us that this could happen? It’s your body struggling to adjust, that’s what he said when he brought you back to us.” She sat down next to him on the sofa. “We need to be patient, that’s all.”
Frank took her hand. It was so different from what he remembered. His face still looked the same, but hers had changed. Her hair had gone greyish and the lines on her forehead had become deeper, but she was indeed beautiful.
“Do you still love me?” Helen said in a faint tone, almost as if afraid that Frank might actually hear and answer.
“Now what kind of question is that?” he said, and looked down, moving his hand over the fabric of the sofa.
With a whisper, Helen asked if she could crawl down beside him. “Just for a little while,” she said. How many times had they not shared a bed? How many times had he not hugged her under the covers? But that time was different. He was different.
“Don’t be foolish,” Frank said. He wanted so desperately to blame the age difference, but honestly, he just wasn’t sure he wanted her to. Frank got up from the sofa and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand and gave her a kiss on the forehead. During that brief moment, they shared for the first time an inevitable event. They had always known it had to happen. At Frank’s deathbed, they both considered the consequence of their decision with not letting him go. But now, with Frank reintroduced to his former life that had sustained in his absence, they felt even further apart.
Helen’s livelihood of restoring furniture made the narrow hallway hard to traverse. It was clotted with old desks, lamps and chairs. He managed to squeeze through to the clothes rack and pulled on his jacket and boots with his back against her; afraid to turn and meet her stare.
“I don’t want you to leave,” she said. That was the same words she had spoken the last day of his previous life, and now it haunted him. He had asked her to move on with her life, but she refused. She refused to lose him. How could he deny her that last shred of hope when that was all she had left? Thin flakes of snow landed on his face as he stepped outside, and he looked up at the sky and followed their journey towards him. It was a quiet area, a place where families grew, where children could play on the streets; a good place to live for those, who more than anything, wanted to be normal.
As the old man’s hand had rested in Primer’s, and the dead body was claimed by the men in white robes, he decided to head towards CryoCare in search for Victor: the founder, the reviver, the man responsible. Blindly, Victor followed his visions without first assessing the value of his actions.
Shortly Primer approached the entrance of CryoCare and old factory windows stared at him. The security was close to nothing. They didn’t expect anyone to break into a building where they save people that departed their first life, now frozen for the imminent future.
The elevator door sealed shut and the shiny metal reflected Primer’s silhouette in a slightly distorted form. Had he known then what it would lead to – his future actions – he would have made fun of his own agony in that elevator. Sluggishly the lift began to move. Rusty wires squeaked and unsteady bolts forced Primer to support himself against the wall too minimize the tremble.
The doors slid open and he began to move down the hall towards the office with Victor’s name.
But Frank had beat him to it.
He could hear them talking, Frank’s futile attempts to get the help he needed. But men like Victor bear no sympathies for people like us, Primer thought to himself.
“It’s not my concern,” Victor said, and he meant it. In his study, his dearest property was displayed on top of a bookcase. A cat - no longer alive, but still there - stuffed in a silly position, with the head up high. The black nose was covered with dust, the fur wispy and the tail was half suspended. “Being sick doesn’t mean that you are special. It’s not an excuse you can hide behind,” Victor said and patted Frank’s shoulder. “On the contrary, all the more reason to work harder,” Victor continued, convinced that a harsh approach was the best thing when dealing with younger men. Maybe he was right.
Suddenly Primer could hear the elevator move, and he swiftly entered another office, gratefully empty. And like everything else, it seemed to be a random coincidence; the man passing, and telling Victor that the emergency generator had been installed nearby.
“That information didn’t seem important to me at the time, but I know now, that there was a reason for the man telling Victor about the generator stopping by at the exact moment I was hiding only a few feet away,” Primer said as he glimpsed over at the generator. “CryoCare was the wheel that would bring us together.”
“What are you waiting for, if you want to kill me - then just do it,” Frank said, tired of the cold pressing against his face. Tired of being powerless.
Primer had left the office, realizing that Victor was not the man that could provide the right aid. He remembered the hands that blocked the elevator doors from shutting. “You didn’t know who I was when you entered that lift - but I told you,” Primer said, “I explained how my wife ended up in a coma the day you were brought back. That her soul now had returned to you and therefore, locked her in a soulless state of sleep.” He took it quite well, Primer recalled. The feeling of helplessness was not unfamiliar to someone like Frank.
“You can’t hold me responsible. It was, after all, mine to begin with,” Frank said, in a very defensive matter.
That night, Primer had wandered the industrial area in hope to find a solution, to see the structure that had been laid out before him. But the solution was not to be found within, but in the world he had now stumbled on. The worn down gearwheel factory laid before him and when Primer entered, he gladly discovered that the generator was only a few feet away. That night he began to construct a plan himself, and the next morning his work was finished with only one piece missing. Like Frank’s first death had resulted in Alma’s birth, once again would he be the means of her awakening.
Once again, Primer went to the hospital. The bed sheets stretched along her fragile body tightly pressed down around the edges. Watching her, he was as unsure then, that the proof he had found wasn’t just something he had fabricated. The illusion a desperate man clings to in hope to reclaim everything he had lost.
Carefully Primer crawled up on top of the narrow bed and lay down close to her. With his head resting against her breast, like a child hiding in a mother’s lap, he felt safe again. Invincible. Cautiously he placed his hand against her opposite cheek, letting it rest in the palm of his hand. “Please, tell me what you want me to do,” Primer whispered, “say that you will forgive me. Tell me that I’m doing the right thing.” In her silence he got his answer.
Early next morning Primer waited outside Frank’s house. The area was just as depressing as the grey clouds above. Slightly darker than the white landscape beneath, radiating an illusion that the world had been turned upside-down. Identical houses were lined up along the single-file road, houses with families that all lived for the next weekend. Shortly Frank stepped out, pulled up the thick collar way over his chin, buried his hands deep into the pockets, and with raised shoulders began to trudge down the street.
The winter had taken its grip on the city and the summer heat felt increasingly alien as the frost crunched under Primer’s boots, as he closed in behind him.
As they drove towards the factory, Frank secured in the trunk, Primer had a few minutes to reflect over his doings. He longed for the moment when he could stare Frank straight in the face, the moment when Frank realized what was about to happen; when the comprehension of everything he would be denied hit him. Primer wasn’t proud of himself but he was eager to see if his conclusions would be right.
He stopped by a gas station and made a quick call.
It’s said that the soul carries the capacity to sense moral; the ability to discern the difference between good and evil, Primer contemplated as he heard Helen picking up on the other end of the line. Perhaps I am the one who’s soulless, he asked himself.
“You called my wife?” Frank suddenly felt a variety of feelings emerging: panic, relief, but most of all - distrust.
“I called her to tell her the truth about you.” Primer placed a small gearwheel at the end of the construct, next to Frank. “I called her so she could tell the police that you’ve been kidnapped,” Primer said, and connected one of the wires from the generator to the gearwheel.
“Why? They will arrest you.”
“You haven’t been paying attention, have you? When your wife calls the police, they will in their turn ask why you might have been kidnapped, and she will be forced to tell them about whom you really are, what you are. That will lead them to CryoCare, and while the investigations proceed they have to close down the company. And that will force Victor to start the generator so that the other cryo-preserved won’t melt. Now do you see how all the wheels fit together,” Primer said, “the one you’re strapped too is of course this event.”
Frank looks over at the newest gearwheel on his side. “So what’s that one?” he asked.
“That one is you dying,” Primer said and paused. “That one is Alma waking up.”
Then the generator broke its silence and the spikes, holding it against the concrete, rattled as the metal shell throbbed. One at a time the gearwheels began to move. Linked together in symmetry, connected in movement, and finally Frank’s wheel began to turn; moving inch by inch, closer to the last one, its sharp blade reflecting his exposed head.
What wouldn’t one sacrifice for a second chance? Primer thought as he observed his construct serve its purpose. Frank might have been a lot of things, but he was never a coward.
Written by Alex Backstrom
Year of creation: 2010
One of the stories Property of Scavenger developed from.