Brian Evenson is an influential American writer of hard-to-classify dark fiction that often seems surreal or Kafkaesque. His critically acclaimed story collections include The Wavering Knife and Fugue State. Recently, Coffee House Press published a new collection of Evenson’s, Windeye, which can be found at the press’s website for purchase. According to the publisher, Windeye is “[Evenson’s] most far-ranging collection to date, exploring how humans struggle to persist in an increasingly unreal world. Haunting, gripping, and psychologically fierce, these tales illuminate a dark and unsettling side of humanity.” We are delighted to reprint a story from that collection, “Legion.” — The Editors
This happened back during the time when I still believed, if it could properly be called believing, that humans were the sole repository for a person, and that there was only one person filling each repository, a single person crammed into each casing of blood and flesh and bone. Before I understood that everyone, whatever the nature of their casing, was legion.
The only way this will make sense to you is if I tell the story not how I understand it now, but tailor it to the way my research suggests you think. But then, if I am not careful, it becomes a story that, while starting to reveal something, will still always miss the point.
Be that as it may. Considering what our interactions are soon to be, we should make an effort.
There is another story I will tell first, one that will perhaps help you to make the leap. A fable of sorts.
Once a man found himself standing in a thin channel between a train going one direction and a train going the other. He realized that if he stood perfectly still and didn’t breathe, the train on the one side would touch him softly but neither hurt nor kill him, and the train on the other side, equally severe and polite, would do the same. He stood there as long as he could, not breathing, counting the train cars moving toward him on one side and the train cars moving away from him on the other. He was still counting when, having gone too long without air, he fainted.
When he came conscious again, both trains were gone, the tracks empty in both directions. Incredibly, he had pitched down perfectly, like a felled tree, to land in that narrow space between tracks, unharmed.
Or so he thought. Unharmed was almost the correct word, but wasn’t quite right, was a word possessed of one letter too many, an extra h. For after a moment he realized one arm was tingling. And when he tried to get up he realized it was tingling because the arm itself was missing and he was in the process of bleeding to death.
We are still far from reaching the story I want to tell you. We have only just crossed the threshold of the first story, the one meant to prepare you for the other. From here, woozy from loss of blood, the man surges up. He manages to tourniquet what is left of his arm and stumbles down the tracks in the direction he thinks, unless he has gotten himself turned around, a town must lie. For a while he keeps to his feet, lurching to stay upright. But after a few hundred or a few thousand steps it becomes too much for him and he collapses.
The story might end there had not someone on one of the trains seen him. A conductor say, or an engineer, or a passenger (assuming one or both of the trains is a passenger train). A group of men or machines is sent to retrieve him so that, instead of waking up dead on the tracks, he awakens in a hospital bed, beneath a crisp white sheet stinking faintly of bleach.
He remembers everything. He is aware he has lost his arm and does not for a moment believe its loss is anything but real. But when he turns to regard his stump, he finds his arm to still be there. This is infinitely more terrifying for him than if the arm had been, as he expected it to be, missing. Perhaps, as your sort of person is wont to do, he even begins to scream.
There is, of course, an explanation. While he has lain comatose, the arm has been replaced with a synthetic limb, a limb of the highest quality, one that responds all but perfectly to his impulses. So that instead of the simple alienation of losing his arm, our friend experiences the complex alienation of having had his limb replaced by a limb not his.
I have done my research. I know that the way your people might tell such a story, it would become about the slow agony of alienation, the sense of familiarity and loss that comes from having a limb replaced with another limb that is equally, or almost equally, functional, about the suspicion this breeds, about the way this suspicion mars a life, making it grow brittle and then shatter. Many have told such a story, or something analogous to it, in the past.
But this time, in this telling, for you, something different happens.
The engineer who has built the arm is gifted, perhaps a genius. But he also has a brother who is schizophrenic and who, a few months before, took his own life. What is it like, he broods, to feel as if there is more than one of you living inside your skin, the body like a sort of vehicle in which different people fight for control? It troubles him, his brother’s death. Which part of his brother killed himself, he wonders, and how did it get the other parts to agree to it? Or did they?
After a while his brooding is tamped down, repressed, buried. And so by the time he is building the arm he hardly knows why he makes the choices he makes. Accordingly, in designing the arm, he does not know why he does not install a single governing device to respond to the movement of the stump and relay its nerve impulses to the various parts of the arm. Instead, he installs six: one microbrain for the arm proper and one for each finger, each connected in differing ways to the stimuli of the stump, a series of nodes rhizomatically connected together and learning new ways to respond. Each human, he reasons in an attempt to hide from the real reasons, is a colony, a collection of single-cell organisms that long ago banded together, figuring out how to take a sea and enclose it within a membrane in such a way as to encourage duplication and perpetuation. A machine grafted to a human must be built to embrace that multiplicity.
At first, this multibrained arm functions admirably, responding with fluency and insight to every impulse. But then something happens. The way the simple impulses relayed from chip to chip are understood undergoes a change. The links between the microbrains subtly change, then certain other transformations begin to take place. And then the arm itself, in a manner of speaking, begins to think.
What can thinking be in an organism whose access to sensation is so severely restricted? What senses, properly speaking, can an artificial arm actually have? It can’t see, can’t smell, can’t taste, can’t hear. Technically, it can’t feel. It can interpret impulses from the place where it is grafted to flesh and transform these impulses into movement. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that, for the arm, movement becomes a kind of equivalent of thought in a void.
Which perhaps explains why the artificial arm becomes afflicted with a sort of palsy, a leaping and jumping of artificial tensors and contractors that seem, to the man grafted to the arm, a malfunction. The arm stiffens, spasms. The fingers are always quivering.
Soon this becomes sufficiently severe that the man cannot sleep. He feels he is slowly going mad. He begs the engineer who has built and attached the arm to have it removed before it kills him.
No, the engineer says. Absolutely not.
For you see, he, like me, is much more interested in finding out what is likely to happen next.
What does happen next is that the arm destroys itself. It suddenly shudders and contorts and there is a smell not unlike ozone and then it is, so to speak, dead. When he removes and disassembles it, the engineer finds that each of its circuits has been compromised. It seems — at least to the engineer as he takes his creation apart bit by bit — that the arm, having learned to think, has deliberately taken its own life. Though, just as with his brother, he finds he cannot begin to understand why.
To answer that why, here is the story I intended to tell in the first place.This story is also about a missing arm. All I have said to this point is only speculation as to how this, the final story, the real one, actually came to be.
Shall I continue, then, pulling the threads together? Suggest that the arm in the first story is the same arm I shall speak of now? That when the man’s arm was severed it caught on the iron rim of the train’s wheel and was spun upward to lodge, by lucky or unlucky chance, between the underbelly of the train car and a strut, until it came to me? Or shall I admit that any one of a number of scenarios might have equally led the arm to be lodged where it was? A dismemberer for instance, might have placed it there; it might be part of a scattering of body parts rather than something lost by a still-living man. Or it might have been placed there deliberately, meant for me to find.
In any case, from this point on I can tell the story with some degree of certainty. A train arrived. As with all trains that arrived in the depot, I surveyed it, sprayed it down, and scrubbed it clean while others unloaded it. There, adhered to the undercarriage with the grease normally casing the axle, was a recently severed human arm.
I took it, intending to destroy it with the other refuse, though there was, I will admit, much initial difficulty in knowing how to classify it. The arm was a remainder that had not been allowed for in my design. As a result, perhaps, something happened, some short circuit or new leap or the simple origin of independent thought. So, instead of discarding the arm, I kept it.
It was a simple matter, after returning to the self-maintenance unit, to install a sensor plate on my central column. Then, aided by filched surgical and mechanical programs, I grafted the arm to myself. Why I chose to do this, I don’t know. I can’t even say what I felt at the time — not yet really being involved in feeling per se at the time — other than that, once the arm was attached, I experienced an odd sensation.
I suppose that at first the sensations came in a mad and indecipherable rush. After a time, perhaps I began to sort out what the arm was experiencing and managed to send an impulse to move the fingers a little even as they blackened and began to stiffen. All too soon they rotted away and dropped off. By the time I had begun to sort the sensations out more clearly, by the time I caught the vaguest sense of what they were doing to me, the arm was too decayed to be of further use and had to be removed.
What does one do who has a momentary glimpse of something beyond his imagining and then must go back to living as he lived before?
What I did was wait patiently for another arm to come, carefully scanning the undercarriage of each train as it arrived.
But no arm came. So eventually I did the very human thing of losing patience. Clearly I was already changing.
It was a simple matter to leave the depot; since it was not part and parcel of my programming to do anything beyond cleaning and washing and small repairs, there had seemed no need to enclose me behind a fence or install any proper fail-safe. That my programming might change of its own accord was not something anyone was capable of predicting.
So, an inkling of something, a glimpsed and hazy sensation, the connections between circuits very slightly rearranged, and then suddenly I was moving through dark, deserted streets, craving to experience that sensation again.
I was only looking for more of the same, another stray arm. But I found none. I searched through the darkness for hours and then, finding nothing, returned to the depot, picked up my work again, waited for the following night to fall.
The second night was just the same: streets empty, no stray arms to be had. The third night might well have been the same too had I not glimpsed what I took to be a severed forearm lying in newspapers. I only realized as I tried to drag it away that it was still attached to a drunken and groggy man who had been partly buried in the rubbish.
And here, too, shall we say, for lack of a better explanation or description, my programming underwent a revolution that allowed me to think of the arm as distinct from the man, despite its being attached to him. Holding it by the elbow in one of my grips, I tore it free of his shoulder socket with the other and made my way quickly back to the depot.
I do not know what happened to the man. Perhaps he was found by someone and awoke in a hospital room to find his arm replaced by an artificial limb. Perhaps he simply bled to death among the newspapers.
What happened to me was that I attached the arm to the now finetuned sensor plate to which my first arm had been attached and began to experience it. The sensations were easier to sort out this time. I mastered the arm much quicker and used it, above all, to investigate the shape and texture of my own body. It was exhilarating, and soon I found myself experiencing things I had never experienced before.
Consciousness, as you humans experience it, that feeling of both being lodged in a body and always extending out to touch and color all else through your perception of it, is highly addictive.
Which brings us back to our present negotiation. I will tell you the truth. I will hide nothing from you.
What you see there, to one side of you, that pile of stacked bone, tight against you, is what remains of my previous research, the fourteen limbs that left their human guardians and came to serve me for the sake of my investigation. They were all put to good purpose, have all served me well.
What you see to the other side of you, those pieces and mangled scraps, are what remain of my counterparts at the depot after they joined with me within my own plastic and metal casing, eager to share in my discoveries. As you can see, I have undergone certain key modifications. Together, we have become an I that is also a we that is also an I, and are learning to understand the world both in our own way and, through your kind’s generosity, in yours.
I tell you all this because, as you surely must have guessed by now, we have paid you the honor of choosing you to serve us next. We shall begin with your limbs, taking each in turn, learning them and allowing them to join with us until they grow necrotic and fall away. We ask you to surrender them to us of your own accord, to share this glorious exploration with us rather than forcing us to snatch them from you. If only you’ll come to us willingly, we will all gain so much more from the experience.
This time we do not intend to stop with limbs. We know the perils of the next step, yet we know we are ready to take it. We have installed a sensor plate here beside our own head, such as it is. The plate has been crafted to conform to the particulars of your own neck. Soon, your head shall be perched just here, articulated as part of our larger body. Perhaps, unlike all the limbs we have harvested, it will choose to remain alive. If so, none of us can quite imagine, it is safe to say, where this shall lead us.
And that is, in a sense, the real story, the one I was leading up to, the one that, once the anesthetic kicks in, we shall soon begin.