The private reading room is small, most of its space is taken up by the reading desk. Usually there is one chair, perhaps two if the book is fragile or needs to have a curator on hand while you read it. The book, or books, will be stacked on the desk, and there will be a form in the centre-front of the desk that needs to be signed to acknowledge receipt of the books. This time, there are no books on the desk, no form, and three chairs. One of which is occupied by a man I last saw over a year ago. Leif Raininen.
He turns as I enter, lifting his head from his hands, and I see immediately that his nose is gone, pink scar tissue healed over bumpy cartilage, and his ears are gone as well. His eyes are still there, pale blue and watery, and they narrow slightly when he sees me. He stands now, turning fully, and I see that his left arm is hanging by his side, at least partly useless. He’s older than I remember, and his hair is greyer. There’s something slightly feral in his face and I wonder what he had to do to escape from the Ilmatu city.
“Damian,” he says, his voice gravelly and wavering. “I hoped... I thought you might have escaped.”
“I took Guldtronen out, they got more than his eyes.” My voice trails away, and I stare at the man who led the expedition, the man I thought was dead, killed by the Ilmatu. “How...?”
Four of expedition had managed to stick together, and the Ilmatu had picked them off, one at a time. By the time there was only him left, Raininen thought he was starting to understand the Ilmatu. They detected movement until they stole senses from other people, then they could use those senses too. So when Raininen encountered an Ilmatu he froze in place. If the Ilmatu skittered around, skating over the walls and ceiling like daddy-long-legs, arms and legs sweeping in curves human limbs couldn’t manage, then he was safe to wait until they left. If they stopped moving too, turning their smooth, egg-shaped heads about like dogs scenting for prey, then they had senses and Raininen would run on. The worst ones, he said, were the ones that had stolen eyes. They’d lift their hands in front of the heads and the eyes in their palms would move around like real eyes.
Raininen had found the cells as well, and later on he’d stayed there because they were guarded by the senseless Ilmatu, the animals as he’d come to think of them. They were easier to avoid. And, he reluctantly admitted, when the prisoners died he ate them. He talked to some of the prisoners, those who hadn’t already lost their tongues or their minds. Most of them were glad to hear another human speaking, very few of them had any idea what had captured them. Slowly, keeping out of sight and living like a hyena, Raininen began to piece the Ilmatu sociology together. Consuming and integrating senses took time, he said, he’d never seen an Ilmatu take more than one sense at a time for itself. Once they’d stolen a sense they tried to incapacitate their victim, and take them to the cells. There were fights that had broken out over prisoners; the more senses an Ilmatu had taken from the same the prisoner the more possessive they were of them. But they would steal senses from as many victims as they could; Raininen thought that it might be to maximise their chances of stealing all five from a single victim.
There was a hierarchy, he said. The animals were the lowest of the Ilmatu, the senseless ones, the ones that hunted new prey and guarded the cells. An Ilmatu who had drained all five senses from a single person was far more intelligent and focused. They had a language, some kind of sign language. There were never many of them around, but he’d not found out where they went.
“Can they share senses?” Bark was taking notes, but he lifted his head up and looked at Leif when he asked his question.
“They can take senses from one another,” he said. “I’ve seen them wait for a weaker one to steal a sense, then it’s pounced on by the stronger ones. The ones that are fading seem to be most at risk, it’s like you can renew the stolen senses somehow by transferring them again. I wondered if the Ilmatu body somehow rejects the senses after a while.”
I shivered. “One of them visited me last night.”
Leif stared at me as if I’d gone mad. “It’s too warm here,” he said. “That’s the only reason we’re safe, they need the cold to live. If we’d never gone that far north....”
“I kind of brought it with me. Well, both of them. One’s dead, I think.”
“I’d leave it then,” said Leif. “It’ll be dead inside a couple of days; we’re past winter already.”
“It knocked on my door last night.”
Leif stayed silent, confused, and Bark finally spoke. “I think you’d better tell him all of it,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder if this Ilmatu might not want to talk to you.”