By Stephen Thom
On the first day Ki jerked awake and lay on his side awhile, peering round the room. It was completely empty. No curtains, carpets or furniture. Decrepit, rotten wooden walls stretched down to a dirty floor, and an unmistakably damp smell lingered in the heavy air. In the corner there was a small window set into the wall. Rising hesitantly, Ki stumbled across the room towards it. The little pane was set at an awkward height, and he had to balance on the tips of his toes and crane his neck to peer out. Through its streaked, frosty glass, he saw the ocean stretching off to an unimaginable distance. A small, rocky island sat despondently in the midst of many rolling waves, and an otherwise perfect sprawl of sea stretched out, unblighted. From his vantage point, the water ebbed thick and black, a congealed, spongy mass. Vast, oppressive, grey clouds hung overhead. These billowing, dank rolls were punctuated by the odd flickering shard of clear white light. More immediately, below the window, a short, sharp descent down a twisting hillside littered with stones and tufts of yellow grass led to a thin, wet beach. Black foam licked the edges and large, dark puddles sunk depressions into the grey sand.
His toes struggling under the weight, Ki sunk back to his feet and wandered out of the room. His thin shadow negotiated a short corridor, more derelict wooden walls guiding his path as he shuffled through into what appeared, initially, to be a kitchen area, again nearly empty. A long table, flanked by two chairs, took up most of the space. In one of these chairs sat a hunched man. His long, dirty, straggly hair hid his face from view. He didn't look round as Ki entered, but spoke in acknowledgement.
'You're up, I see.'
'Uh-huh,' Ki replied, hesitantly, a little thrown by the assumed familiarity.
There was a further pause, but no more interaction was forthcoming. Ki decided to go out on a limb.
'Is there anything to eat?'
'Eat?' The man snarled. 'There's nothing to eat. What would you be doing that for? Eat!'
As another silence settled and Ki continued to stand awkwardly filling the door frame, his mind drifted back to a book he had once read.
'Are you a vampire?' He asked.
This time the man's head snapped upright, and he glared round. His skin was pale, greasy and indented with heavy wrinkles. An unkempt, wiry shock of beard covered the lower part of his face. His eyes, set deeply in his skull above dark, sleep deprived lines, burned furiously through his unwashed fringe.
'A vampire? What the hell are you talking about? Why did you ask me that? What nonsense are you spouting?'
'I'm sorry,' Ki stammered, raising his hands in an accompanying apologetic gesture. He cursed himself inside too. At that moment, it genuinely had felt like the most important question. He felt a hot rush of embarrassment welling up.
'I'm sorry I'm here,' he offered, keen not to endure another silent period.
The man ran his fingers slowly down his face and through his beard in an exasperated fashion, before planting them firmly and decisively on the tabletop, as if calming himself. He seemed already exhausted by their short chat.
'It's not your fault.' He sighed deeply, and it seemed to have a comforting effect on his demeanour. 'I haven't spoken to anyone in a very long time. You'll have to excuse me.'
Ki nodded, and took this as a chance to brave moving further into the room. Two much larger windows dominated the wall to the far end of the table, and the rolling, syrupy black sea filled their frames.
'The ocean looks strange,' he noted.
The man glanced round, following his line of vision. 'It's an organism too,' he replied. Then, off Ki's confused look, 'It has more in common with our own bodies than you think.'
Ki felt his head starting to hurt, so he turned away from the window and sat down in the single remaining chair, opposite the man. Scratching the flaky wood surface of the table for a split second to avoid initial eye contact in their new setting directly across from each other, he wondered if there was nothing to drink as well as no food. When he looked back up, the man was still lost in the view out the window, his sunken eyes someplace else.
'How long have you been here for?' Ki ventured.
There was a pause as the man tore his attention away from the sea and concentrated. 'A long time, I'm sure,' he replied. 'Thousands of years, it could be.'
A horrible, sharp convulsion surged through Ki's body.
'Certainly there were civilizations here before, I'm sure I remember, but they came and went. I remember there being more noise, and I could hear more people far away. But I can't move from here, you see.'
'You can't move. From the table?'
'Yes. I can't get up from this chair.'
Ki gave this a thought, and stood up hastily out of his own chair. The man's facial expression didn't change as he observed him. Feeling foolish, Ki shuffled back to the windowsill.
'How do you sleep?' He asked. 'Head down on the table?'
The man shook his head slowly. 'I don't sleep, not anymore. I used to sleep, a long time ago. But when I sleep, I'm not conscious anymore'
Ki felt another hot rush throbbing at his temples, and a clammy sweat developing in the palms of his hands. He began pacing in front of the window and scratching his forehead. A nauseous sense of vertigo washed over him as he glanced again at the muddy, convalescing ocean. Shards of memories stung his mind.
'You don't look well,' opined the man bluntly. 'If you feel stressed you should have some anaesthetic. There's needles and supplies in a drawer at the end of the table.'
Hands shaking, Ki slid open a small drawer set, as the man had said, in the end of the table....
Slumping down into the empty chair again, Ki looked up at the man opposite him. He thought about asking him something, but was worried about slurring his words.
'You should get some sleep,' said the man. 'You can fill me in on what it was like later.'
Ki rested his face in a crevice in the corner of his arms on the table, and fell into a deep sleep.
On the second day he awoke to the sound of heavy rain. It was pummelling down on the wooden roof. His left eye opened slowly and he could see huge, round, black rain drops smacking violently and incessantly against the canvas of the windows, spreading like oozing blood on impact. In the distance beyond he could make out the ocean churning wildly. Enormous soupy waves rose to unimaginable peaks and crashed back into the mix, black foam frothing and gurgling in channels. Cyclical torrents formed and dispersed, spinning vats of gunk in furious maelstroms. Thunder rumbled threateningly overhead.
For a moment he returned his face to its hiding place in his arms, then gradually pulled himself upright. The man remained sat opposite him, lost in the storm. As Ki sat up he looked back round. His eyes seemed much redder than the previous day.
'So, did you sleep-' he began, and at this point Ki was certain there was a split second flicker, as if someone had paused or rewound a video tape. It seemed for that millisecond that the man's face was replaced by another man's, someone much older, but it was much too quick to register fully. Blinking hard, Ki focused.
'-well?' The man finished, speaking up to be heard above the gargantuan raindrops exploding on the roof and windows around them.
Ki stared down at the wooden table. 'Comfy,' he replied. Then his thoughts returned to the frenzied ocean outside.
'If it's an organism, it's angry,' he wondered.
'You're giving it human qualities. You're looking past what a living organism is in the first place.'
A long silence ensued as Ki considered this. Perhaps unintentionally prompted, he thought again of little snapshots of his past. People, friends, relatives and children tumbled through his thought patterns. His eyes glazed over with wetness.
'Why here?' He blurted out. 'Was there not somewhere else?'
The man looked utterly exhausted at this. His own eyes seemed to sink ever further back into his skull, the tiny pupils belying hundreds of years of similar thought.
'The only threat to ourselves is a loss of self. We have to understand how we lost ourselves. Here, there's a resonant frequency. Listen. You'll hear it.'
Ki strained his ears. After several seconds he felt ready to disregard this, but, sure enough, he steadily became aware of a sharp tone, a single note humming on a steady, continuous loop in the background. Now that he'd heard it, he couldn't believe he'd not been aware of it before.
'And what is this?' He hadn't meant to sound scoffing, but the words tumbled out of his mouth that way.
'That tone resonates in our heads, and converges in the centre of our brains.'
The single note rose in intensity as they listened, vibrating into a peal of sonic noise that bordered on feedback.
On the third day Ki didn't sleep either. Instead they sat and watched the storm subside through the window. When it was over Ki sunk back into his own thoughts. He picked at his fingernails as he pushed pictures of different happy times round his mind. The static drone continued pulsing in their ears, a single note leaking in and out of immediate consciousness, rising and falling in volume.
'Look out there,' the man suddenly said.
Ki lifted his head up. It seemed to take forever. 'What am I looking at?'
'There's someone on the beach.'
A horrible, stifling feeling crept over Ki as each step took him closer to the figure. He stepped around black puddles and intermittently his feet would stick in sludgy grey sand, but he ploughed on regardless. And each step of the way, what had began as a niggling worry in his head grew and grew until it was a full blown panic that spurred him on ever quicker, faster and faster, until he was sprinting over the length of the thin beach.
He slowed down as he realised for certain that it was her. He knew it was, long before her features came into view. She was sitting huddled up on the sand. As he approached her, she looked round at him. Dirty wet sand clung to her dress, and the wind blew her hair in different directions. Tears stained her cheeks, and her eyes were puffed and red. Her voice was cracked and weak when she spoke.
'It took me so long to find you here, and I can't stand it. I can't stand that noise!' She cried, slapping her hand off the wet beach.
Ki sunk down beside her, and wrapped his arms around her. The black tide washed around their feet, and it began to rain again.