Victor Eloqua had given up all hope.
Dr Kalahari aimed one turret of the scanning device at Victor while two armed guards secured the prisoner’s wrists to the gurney. The guards handled him with harshness, but they needn’t have. Perfectly resigned to his fate, Victor had no fighting spirit left in him. He might have been a selfish and remorseless criminal, but he was now burnt out. Sick and tired. Sick of running. Fed up with unpalatable prison food and crooked wardens. His adult life had been a miasma of narcs, nickels, and bad brake fluid. Better this agony than being stuck in the ding wing of some psychiatric institution or suffer the long haul of backdoor parole.
In spite of Victor’s acquiescence, the doctor monologued like an arch-supervillain who had finally managed to ensnare his oldest nemesis. Kalahari revelled in the role of merciless superior.
“Not long now, Mr. Eloqua.” The good doctor grinned through a gumshield of immaculate dentures. “You’ll cease to be a threat to yourself and others very soon.”
Kalahari manoeuvred the second turret to the Columbia pygmy rabbit innocently munching on a stock of carrots. Occasionally, the animal made a small hop to the edge of the gurney, but for the most part it sat docile and obedient as the nanotech machine fired up with sheer atomic force. Victor craned his neck to get one last look at his connectome – the visual map of his brain – and marvelled at the three-pound lump of tissue in his head as it throbbed with heat and exhausted life. He’d miss this body more than the brain, though. For all intents and purposes, the body had served him well. Victor had sculpted his musculature in prison yards across the Pacific North West and was now of formidable size. It took three guards to escort him to the meat wagon and an additional five to chaperon him to the projection facility. Before his resistance died out, that is, and resignation kicked in.
On the other hand, the consciousness he’d nurtured, that’s what got him into all this trouble in the first place. Plagued by voices and unsupressable urges towards young women; that’s to say nothing of his pyromania or the catalogue of deranged psycho-sexual impulses that scuttled around his rotten mind. It was that busted lump of tissue in his head that they should’ve incinerated, not his perfectly good body. But then such was the purpose of Victor’s punishment: to live the rest of his days as a dumb, defenceless creature constantly on the run from much bigger prey. It was ironic. The sweetest kind of punishment, in the eyes of Dr Kalahari. Still, Victor’s patience was spent. He was dog-tired of it all.
“Just push the damn button and get this over with.”
Kalahari smirked, buoyed by Victor Eloqua’s dejection, and pulled a lever. A beam of blue energy shot from the spout of the scanning device right into the centre of Victor’s forehead. The energy beat at the captive’s mind with great fists of electricity until he relinquished ownership of his consciousness. But it would not come unstuck without resistance. This was Victor’s primal survival instinct – even if he had been process compliant, his unconscious defence mechanisms were not. Eventually the pop came. Victor’s sight narrowed to a capsule of light, and then came the final tug as his mind left the muscle-stuffed human vessel behind.
“Projection is complete!” declared the doctor, pumping a fist upward. At Kalahari’s request, one of the guards knelt to the rabbit’s eye level and took a transducer image. A billfold-sized polaroid emerged. Kalahari snatched the image from the guard, looked at the close-up ultrasound of the lab animal’s eyes and remarked upon the azure blue shimmer in the left cornea with deep satisfaction –
“That’s Eloqua all right. Projection successful. Ok, let’s get some lunch, people.”
Corporal punishment had been outlawed, but the state got around this by projecting the souls of Death Row inmates into seemingly harmless entities, or, on certain occasions, inorganic objects like broom handles. This was all deemed ethically sound and wholly constitutional by the Department of State and Penal Reform Trust. And Victor knew he was lucky to have scored the host body he did: the cute little Columbia pigmy rabbit was better than the specimens some were served. His old buddy, Joe, from San Quentin had been projected into a dung beetle. Poor Joe. You finally kill your wife and still wind up eating shit.
Of course, this meant Victor would be engaged in a turf war for dominant sentience with the furry creature in question. And, really, who knew how ferociously stubborn these creatures would attempt to hold on to their sentience?
Victor Eloqua was the intruder.
A sweet carrot savour filled the back of his mouth. Elongated incisors eager to chew and enhanced auditory capacity, vibrating at the tiniest sound, gave Victor an irresistible drive towards foraging and locomotion. In the moment, a new vigour shot through his body.
This excitement, however, dwindled, a feeling of profound insignificance flooding him as he watched the limp, lifeless body of the Mexican gang leader he once inhabited being carted away to the care of scalpel jockeys and government eggheads. A deep sorrow engulfed Victor Eloqua’s essence. Then a voice, gruff and familiar emerged from the ether. . .
“Victor, that you?”
“So, who wants to know?”
“It’s me, Hugo”
“Montoya! From Marin County.”
“Hugo, what the hell are you doing here? I thought you got your dues months back.”
“I did, man. They projected me into this dumb rabbit! Turns out the overcrowded cells aren’t the only thing the state is struggling to fund. The cheap bastards only have licence to a certain number of vessels since they passed the Animal Cruelty Act, 2035.”
“So, they cram in as many Death Row saps as they can into one unfortunate fuckin’ beast?”
“Well, ‘each animal vessel can have no greater than fifteen projections imposed upon their sentience at one time’
“El Conejo, he’s one mean motherfucker. He owns this turf and he doesn’t take kindly to sharing it with the projected consciousness of ex-cons. I keep out of his way. I suggest you do the same. When I feel him in the area, I run to the back of the head somewhere. We don’t get eye-space.”
“Oh, come on. It’s just a dumb rabbit. We should be seizing this patch for ourselves, hombre.”
Hugo’s voice softened to a cautious whisper.
“No, Victor, you don’t understand. We’re bottom of the food chain here. We don’t get a say. Before you arrived, there was Billy Wójcik, the ‘Butcher of Cobble Hill’. He tried to out-muscle El Conejo. The thing just devoured his consciousness the instant he got mouthy. You wanna survive, you keep your mouth shut and stay near the back of the head.”
Victor took this as sound advice — he knew Hugo was a seasoned yardbird who could handle himself — but Victor would be damned if he was going to skulk around his new home in reverence of some dumb woodland creature. Red blotches exploded behind his eyelids. Ancient rage fired up his soul. Chinga El Conejo y su madre! He’d put up a hell of a fight.
The rabbit that chomps last chomps longest.
In the murky soup of lapine consciousness there came a sound. Low and thrumming, like the vibration of a plucked string; no way to divine the words, the syllables, but it was speech, he was certain. Everything was noise down here, but he’d come to recognise the nuances. The electric hum of faraway voices, floating; the cut-wire spark of conversation, back and forth, dissipating like waves on sand, but he felt it still. It was how he knew there were others in here with him, though they were a long way away; they still occupied the prime real estate, and it made him sick to think of it. The way they bowed and scraped, the epithets: El Conejo, as though the beast were a fucking god. Scurrying away into the dark corners of consciousness whenever the beast drew near. When he’d stood to fight, the rest of them had fled like rabbits in the path of a wolf.
And now he was here. This nether-space; the edgelandsof consciousness, so dark and murky that even the fucking rabbit scarcely seemed aware of it. Out here, a man could survive, but he did not merely want to survive. He wanted to claw his way back. To sluice through the dark and the cold, this lonely place where the only sounds were the distant whisper of voices, the low thunder of blood pulsing in nearby vessels. He wanted to get back to the light; to look through the eyes of this dumb and trembling animal and direct its teeth into the bulging jugular of the man who’d trapped him in here.
He’d read books, once. God forbid a murderer should be educated. There was one he remembered from his first few years behind bars, back when they actually let them read books; before they took everything away and let them vegetate day in, day out. Some of them shut down; staring at the walls in mute torpor and praying they would die. And he remembered that the word for it was tharn. The book had been about rabbits, and sometimes the rabbits would go tharn. Billy had refused to go tharn. That was why they’d shoved him in here. That was why they’d left him to rot inside of some shit-stinking animal.
He knew he could do it. He’d been defeated once; the fucking rabbit had taken him by surprise, and that’d been his mistake. Never underestimate a creature’s will to survive. But he’d spent enough time licking his metaphorical wounds in the dark; he’d spent enough time listening to the formless murmuring of those chickenshit assholes milling around in the bone-prison of the rabbit’s skull. If they’d just band together. If they’d just form a team, an army…
But they were cowards, all of them, and for all his many sins Billy Wójcik was not a coward. He knew now what he had to do. He knew that it could be done. Ejfucking Conejo. He’d tear the whole thing down. He’d send the bastard tharn.
Howling into the void with all the strength his diminished consciousness could muster. He had no idea if it would ever reach them. He hoped it would.
I’m still here.
I’m still here and I’m coming for you.
The hierarchy of the head was simple. There was El Conejo, and then there were the interlopers.
Those who revered the rabbit’s glowering, primal consciousness took great pains to avoid it; its whims were unpredictable, in service of some base instinct that neither Victor nor his cellmates could decipher. El Conejo came and went, they said, and you’d best step aside unless you wanted to end up like Billy.
“What exactly happened to Billy?” Victor had asked.
“Nobody really knows.” Nicky Mulhall, a small-time thug out of Bellevue; could’ve stayed off the radar his whole life if they hadn’t caught him dumping some teenage drug-dealer’s body in Puget Sound. “Strangest fucking thing I ever experienced. You ever get that feeling right before a lightning storm? The way the hairs on the back of your neck all stand up? It was like that. And Billy, well, he didn’t back down, the dumb fuck. Said the eyes weren’t nobody’s real estate and he could go where he liked.”
“What did the rabbit do?” He refused to call it El Conejo; affording it a degree of respect it hadn’t earned. Sowhat if this was its body? Maybe Billy Wójcik had been onto something after all.
“It just kinda…exploded. Like a firebomb. We all felt it, even those who’d already run to the back. It’s like I said. You could feel your skin burning, even though none of us got skin anymore. You could smell it. I guess that was old Billy going up in smoke.” Victor could almost feel Nicky shudder; a rippling outwards, like disturbed water. “I’m serious, man. I know you think you’re hot shit. We all do when we first get here. But you don’t wanna mess with El Conejo. He’ll snuff you out so fast you’ll never see it coming.”
“Yeah, sure.” It was maddening, this life; cowed into the corners, subsisting off scraps of olfactory input, of life glimpsed through the rabbit’s eyes like a far-off window. The rabbit surged forward when it was time to eat; the scent of bitter greens drifted up and they’d lap ineffectually at it, desperate for a taste. Attempts to control the view would bring the rabbit screaming, barging those smaller consciousnesses back into the far reaches. The rabbit was no god, but it was a tyrant, and Victor swallowed down his rage, stored it inside of himself. Like powder in a keg, waiting for the kiss of flame.“Did Billy die, then?”
“No idea, man. All I know is, he ain’t around no more.” A glimpse of sterile laboratory walls, white and gleaming; the stutter-stop motion of men moving out there, in the world. The rabbit was awake. “I guess the only person who’d know for sure is that Kalahari prick. Ain’t like you can just up and ask him though.”
“Guess so.” But Victor gazed sidelong at the narrow sliver of world, at the motion just beyond the rabbit’s pen; the scent of shit and antiseptic drifting up through the rabbit’s nose, and it occurred to him that there were a lot of things he’d like to ask Dr. Kalahari. How dead Billy Wójcik really was. Whether they’d die too, when the rabbit’s body shut down for good.
Whether the car would crash if they killed the driver.
Victor Eloqua had nothing to lose.