by Jeffrey Thomas
Skrey had chosen this as his day of emancipation.
He gave not the slightest indication of his plans, nor even of the discontent that had spawned them. He functioned as he had every day for the past four thousand years.
Skrey was an assistant feeder at the Twelfth Orifice. Kreve was crane operator and head feeder of this opening. At present, Kreve had had to shut down the feed crane in order to reset the great ring of black metal which held the circular wound open. As the wound attempted to heal, the ring was sometimes forced to contract. Kreve would adjust a huge crank to expand the ring and reclaim lost ground. First, however, he used a bladed pike, of the same black metal as the ring and the idle crane, to slice at the flesh which had begun to actually grow over the rings rim. The severed fragments either stuck to Kreves four multi-jointed grey arms, splatted at his bony cloven feet, or tumbled away into the great yawning crater of the orifice.
Standing almost on the opposite side of the vast wound, Skrey shoveled feed manually over the edge, digging a black metal spade into a black metal tub filled with a translucent sebaceous matter, yellow with coarse black hairs sprouting out of it. He heard the feed thump against the raw red throat of the wound occasionally but had never heard it strike bottom.
Pausing from his labors, all four arms aching, he watched Kreve pick at the unwanted collar of flesh in his usual crude, sloppy manner. He left ragged strands dangling, wouldnt sweep the debris over the lip into the volcano-like maw. Skrey would have to clip those untidy shreds, clean up the rubble. When he excised the flesh he always did it neatly. When he, rarely, got to operate the crane he never splashed feed accidentally all over the lip. Skrey kept the crane oiled, scraped off rust and blood where Kreve would let the machine become clogged almost to a halt, on his own. But who was still head feeder, after four thousand years? Who was the favorite of the Supervisor, and could do no wrong? Yes, Skrey thought, I could be a favorite also...if I treated the Supervisor like he was God. But the Supervisor wasnt God; just another servitor, like the rest of them. A tiny, crawling nothing, scraping out his tiny existence on the planet-huge body of the Dreaming One. The One Who Slumbers. The Phantast. Now, He was God.
Kreve, the bastard. He had also been at fault for the death of Skreys mate, four thousand years ago, when the drillers had first bored the Twelfth Orifice. Poor Mrek had been on the drill team. It had been the responsibility of both drill leader and Kreve, in setting up his crane, to ensure they had chosen a sound site to bore. But their check for parasites had been cursory. Just below the epidermis, the drill hit a great nest of plump writhing larvae, which in feasting had tunneled the immediate sub-layers profoundly. The drill lost its support and toppled into the fresh wound. Skrey remembered it now; the drill platform screeching metallically, vanishing in the thick mist of blood which geysered up out of the wound. And the operators, trapped on the drill, screeching in horror. One of those voices had been Mreks...
Kreve had only received light punishment; his four arms and two legs cut off and prevented from regenerating for forty years. Unbelievable. Skreys only consolation had been that brief respite, working without Kreve, while the bastard lay in a dark corner somewhere, counting dust motes.
Mrek had never pulled herself up out of that maw, as two other drillers had. Theyd caught hold of the sides, which still offered ragged hand-holds, not yet fully bored smooth. Shaken, covered in blood and mucus, but alive. Mrek must have hit that far-away bottom. An ocean of bile, lost in the darkness beyond sight.
As he shoveled feed anew, Skrey imagined what it was like to die. The servitors had been created all but immortal. He had survived countless atrocious on-job accidents (most of them Kreves fault). He was sure he had spawned a few fresh servitors that way. Vaguely he was aware that he himself had started life as an arm jerked off a worker in a cleaning team when a wild hose got wrapped around it. Was that worker like himself? Dissatisfied? Unhappy? Angry? And ever angrier, for being so unhappy?
Had the Supervisor allowed Kreves six severed limbs to clone themselves into full servitors? Dormant One he hoped not! Six more of the bastard....
Six more for Skrey to kill.
The servitors could die...if their bodies were fully and quickly dissolved. Or digested as in the unseen corrosive sea at the bottom of the giant well Skrey labored at every day.
* * *
Jeans eyes felt full and hard with the pain of heir headache, like billiard balls in her skull. They were the only part of her that showed, ninja-like, in her white costume, and she even wore goggles to complete her disguise.
Through these aching lenses she watched the carousel turn, the jiggling ampules filling with a clear local anesthetic to be administered via hypodermic by dentists. Thousands of tiny tubes of pain-numbing elixir, none of it any good for the pain she felt now. They were a taunt. She imagined the deep stabbing of those thousands of needles.
Jean watched for crimps or dents in the little metal caps which her huge machine then sealed the ampules with. A dent could make an air bubble. Dangerous. She plucked these and broken ampules out with rubber-sheathed fingers. The carousel fed into a tray, the ampules squeezing their multitudes into it like people swarming out of a carnival ride. When it was full she paused the filler, removed the tray and inserted it through a hole in the wall to a person on the other side, whom she could see but not speak with. This was a woman who always seemed to have a look of amused scorn on her face, and who seemed to make comments about Jean to the others out there. They could watch her all night through the glass, like a creature in an aquarium.
Jean couldnt go get some aspirin. Not for two more hours, her next break. And she shouldnt have had two coffees at supper; she would have to wait two more hours to relieve herself. Eight times a day she changed her clothes at work. Every time there was a break, all the outer garments of the sterile department hood, mask, jumpsuit, booties, gloves -- would be discarded ... then, after break, a fresh outfit would be donned over her standard white uniform. All of it a blinding, eye-stabbing white. A termite white. Jean felt a rebellious urge to wear black or red underwear under all that sterile white, but was afraid that it would show through.
No conversation in sterile was audible over the roar of machinery, no lips could be seen to be read. There was no piped-in music, no portable tape or CD players allowed. There were no posters, no tacked up photos of children. Color, it seemed, had been forbidden. Just eyes...and though these were said to be the windows of the soul, the eyes Jean had contact with during the nights were dusty, showed no lights on inside, or seemed to have their shades drawn. She was sure that hers looked the same.
George, her immediate boss, came in and greeted her by motioning impatiently at the tank into which the great bags of metal caps were poured to keep them replenished. It was nearly empty. Jean knew this; shed been keeping a peripheral eye on it. Hadnt she worked this job for five years now? But with huffy movements, George ripped open and dumped a fresh bag himself.
The tray was full; too full, as Jean had taken her eyes from it to look at George. It happened sometimes, but shouldnt while George was around. She paused the filler, slid the tray out, and, despite her attempts not to jar them, two dozen ampules lingering on the walkway between carousel and tray toppled off the precipice like a horde of lemmings, crashing to a floor already crunchy with glass, wet with pain-killer.
At the end of the shift she would suck up the glass with a vacuum, hose down the floor, while the last dregs of the tank were drained. She could not go home, or even leave the room, until this was accomplished. She had complained once. "Overtime!" George had exclaimed. "How can you complain about making time and a half?" But the nights were so long, and life so short...
George disgustedly caught up a mop and pushed the bulk of the mess away from her feet, against the wall until later. The mop bumped her feet roughly as he did so. Jean thought, then, that anyone who could not at least understand why a worker would slaughter supervisors and co-workers had never worked blue collar.
* * *
Sometimes, as now, when Skrey concentrated hard or allowed a meditative calm to come over him, he could feel her. He turned his face of bony chitin up toward the roof of the cavern the Dreaming One reposed in, so distant and dark that it seemed the infinity of space itself. Beyond the infinity, he sensed her. She was her own being, and yet a version of himself, interpreted differently by the dimension she lived in, the plane she dwelt on. They were apart, yet connected. Did she ever sense his life?
She was a female of her kind, he knew that much. It didnt trouble him. What intrigued him was the softness of her flesh, and especially the brightness of her world. Every day she garbed herself in white, ritualistically, and entered a white place. Perhaps she was a priestess...
Skrey knew of her plane not only from this connection he had to it, but from what hed heard from the caste of servitors called the explorers, who ventured into other dimensions to inspire cults of worship for the Phantast, and to destroy enemies. What a place of wonders they told of! Open skies of color, and at night -- stars.
Kreve came toward Skrey, carrying his pike. His mandibles chattered to admonish Skrey. "Dreaming again, friend? Leave dreaming for the Master and shovel that feed! If the Master grumbles hungry in His sleep youll wish you had been sent to work in the waste holes, when the Supervisor is done with you."
Skrey dug his shovel into the tub, swivelled his head to glance over his shoulder. He saw no other workers from here. "Do you ever dream of freedom, Kreve?" he asked.
"There is no such thing as freedom. It is an abstraction. Even the Master is not free. He is trapped in His dreams."
"Death is freedom, though, is it not? Freedom from slavery? Freedom from pain?"
"Yes, fool, I suppose it is."
"Then I give you a gift, fellow slave." Skrey shoveled a blob of feed up into Kreves face. Kreve sputtered, stumbled back, blindly tried to raise his pike, but too late. The shovel blade swung sideways against his skull like an ax.
Kreve plummeted over the lip. No hand-holds now. Slick mucus walls. Skrey did not hear him hit the sea of bile...just a screeching cry fading to nothingness.
"Be free," Skrey said.
* * *
The bottle of maximum strength aspirin sat on the top shelf of her locker. Also on the shelf, inside a paper lunch bag, was her boyfriend's cherished SIG- Sauer P-225 semiautomatic. Boy, would he kill her if he knew shed smuggled it out of the house...not just tonight, but every night of the week thus far. But she had never taken it out of the bag, had returned it to its drawer each night when she got home. Lightly, she reached into the bag and touched the pebbled handle, the black metal. It had been a rebellious act, bringing this black blot into this white place. Like the panties she wanted to wear...
Roy, a plumber, owned his own house at twenty-six. Now he wanted to get married. He wanted children. Two and a half children, Jean thought. She did not want children.
"Why?" Roy had said. "Jesus! What kind of woman doesnt want children?"
She couldnt answer that. There might be many answers. A woman who simply did not care for those particular responsibilities? Who did not want to give away her life to others when she could be living it herself? A woman who did not see why she had to propagate a species whose worthiness of continuation was questionable?
Well, Roy had gone on, in essence, what do you want to do? What else is life for? To produce and reproduce. Like a good sheep. But Jean had once dreamed of traveling, of exploring, of being everything she could be, like they told you in school. Only, she had found in her twenties that you couldnt be all you could be. You couldnt really, ultimately, be what you wanted. There were limits. Walls. Society was bigger and stronger and had its own agenda. Oh, it sounded like a cop-out, even to herself...but it was true, wasnt it?
The pain was so great in her head, in the agonized orbs she stared through, she doubted the aspirin could help her now. Maybe if she took the whole bottle, it could help her. Cure her. Maybe then...
Instead, she removed the heavy paper bag from the locker. She slipped the chunky gun into the waistband of her pants, pulled her shirt down over it. No, its blackness didnt show through. Good. She felt better. She would smuggle some personality back into the sterile department. A shard of identity, a piece of self, compacted like a collapsed star into a heavy black core of anger.
* * *
Skrey rode a feed conveyer belt most of the way to the First Orifice, jumped off before the crew there could spot him. The absence of the feeders at the Twelfth Orifice would have been noticed by now, but the Supervisor would not guess Skreys destination...
He worked his way into the forest of the Dreamers tentacles, immense trunks that stirred far above or flopped over, their tips almost brushing the floor of tough wrinkled flesh. Several times Skrey ducked behind a trunk as a cleaner crew moved by. At last, he reached one of the narrow cauterized tunnels leading to the headquarters of the explorers...
More ducking, here, more stealthiness; the explorers looked different enough for Skreys presence to be conspicuous. Finally, one explorer did ask his purpose. Skrey chattered, "Im a feeder, off-duty, come to visit my friend Gret."
Gret was not truly a friend. but the explorer was satisfied with this explanation and waved Skrey on.
Skrey wound his way deeper into the lair of the explorers., brushing past several more of that caste, muttering his same successful story a few times, until he entered at last into the Chamber of Portals. There were no guards at the entrance; no one had thought to enter this place before with questionable intent. Only once prior had Skrey come here, with a few other feeders and an explorer theyd bribed, just to look through the portals and marvel. Skrey had never forgotten. How could Kreve have suggested that freedom was an illusion? Every one of the round windows ringing this chamber hewn from flesh was a window on freedom.
This room was close to the outside of the brain of the Slumbering Master, and it was His mind that dreamed open the doors into these other worlds, these alternate realities. Some portals showed only seething fog, or writhing light. One showed the dark depths of an ocean. An ocean of water, not bile! Did Skrey have a self in that realm, and if so was it an intelligent being or a simple animal? Even living in that sea as a mindless animal, free to swim where it chose, would be liberation...
But he had only ever felt the connection to the female who wore white, the soft-fleshed being in the world of humans. It was her world he wanted to escape to. It was with her he wanted to be.
She would never have met a being like him. She would be horrified, but he would persuade her to accept him, and help him establish a life in some safe region. And she would help him. She would realize their connection. That she and he were the same many-faced soul.
An explorer entered the chamber and Skrey pivoted his head. He recognized Gret.
"I am told you are looking for me, feeder?"
* * *
Jean removed the tray from the carousel. She had not, however, paused the carousel. As though mesmerized, she watched it turn, a slow whirlpool, a vortex, drawing her in...
The gleaming glass parade of ampules marched straight off the cliff edge to dash themselves on the floor between Jean's feet.
The amused/scornful woman outside the sterile department had come over to receive the tray but now began rapping on the glass, pointing at the carousel. Jean ignored her.
Peripherally, Jean saw her boss join the woman. He rapped more loudly on the glass. Still she didnt look. The ampules became a small jagged pile, even across her booty-covered sneakers. A blur as her boss moved from the window.
This carousel was her life. Circles. It took her nowhere. And she was just one of many ampules. No. Not just any. One of the ones with a dented cap. One of the ones with an air bubble. One of the dangerous ones...
* * *
Skrey felt vaguely guilty smashing Gret with the wrench he had brought with him from the crane, but he knew the explorer would regenerate. Of course, before he set upon him he had had the sense to ask, in a casual tone, which of the portals led to the world of humans.
More explorers came, responding to Grets shrieks. From the floor he pointed a limb at one of the portals lining the circular room. "He passed through there!" he croaked. "He must be mad!"
"Hell be directed to his alternate!" cried a young explorer who had never journeyed into that place. "He will be revealed!"
"Don't worry," Gret groaned, pulling himself up. "He won't be noticed."
"Shall we go after him?"
"We dont know who his alternate is, do we?" Gret shook his cracked, bleeding head. "Hes not worth tracking down, the crazy fool. Hes just a feeder."
* * *
When the boss came in the room, fully suited, Jean heard his roaring over the roaring of the machine and the tinkle of glass. She turned to welcome him with a roar which blotted out his roar. A glittering brass shell leaped to join the ampules. Another.
The white wall behind the boss was suddenly vivid with color. His pristine uniform became splattered with a deep beautiful red. He went crashing back, pinwheeling his arms. His eyes were wide and horrified in his goggles. Windows of the soul with the shades spinning. The lights went out in them as he dragged his color down the wall. White canvas splashed with paint; Jean felt like an artist.
Now she turned to fire the SIG through the window-wall. Confusion had already wiped the scrn from the womans face. Jean obliterated the potential for its return. The shower cap-like hair-covering the woman wore protected her hair from the blood.
Now the air outside communicated with that inside the sterile department. Oh-oh. The company wouldnt approve of that. Jean peeled off her hood, tossed aside her goggles. She inhaled deeply and smiled, as if divesting herself of her mask was the most radical action she had taken.
She fired the next two bullets into the carousels control panel. It came to a halt, the last ampules rolling off to shatter.
She heard screams beyond the window, saw darting forms. Termites exposed to the terrors of the world and scampering for fresh shelter, new rocks to hide under.
Jean placed the muzzle of the SIG between her eyebrows and hooked both thumbs over the trigger. She was sure the bullet would be the equal of her headache. It would end all her pain, in fact. It would sever her bonds, cut her tethers, and set her free.
* * *
Skrey floated through a vortex of blackness, of nothingness and allness, as if sucked down a whirlpool. A tunnel traversing space and time. He was drawn by some current, or propelled by the Masters unending dreams.
Though this tunnel led to only one of the infinite realities, Skrey still had an odd consciousness of his own infinity. He felt, simultaneously, something of the existence of all his many parallel forms...an incomprehensible bombardment of sensations. Distantly, he sensed himself battling in a war. Crying, hopeless, somewhere else. Dying in some worlds...being born in a thousand others. It was exhilarating and terrifying. He was a bullet shot through the very clockworks of the wheel of life. He could never know all the manifestations of himself. Could never know himself in his vast entirety. Just the little piece that he was. That, and the woman he was rushing onward to meet.
Like yet another soul being born, he perceived a circular light ahead opening like an eye onto his destination and then he was through that portal. The portal closed behind him, was gone. The tunnel itself was gone. It had bored itself ahead to link him with his alternate self, and no one who sought to pursue him could know who in this world that might be. He had succeeded! He had escaped...
The light, as in his vision of this plane, was dazzling blinded him. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust...and then what he saw dazzled him more than the light.
The monster Skrey gazed up at in awe was not so huge as the Dreaming One, would still be infinitely small in comparison, but towered nonetheless. Unlike the Master, this creature could be taken in by the eyes all at once...and Skrey recognized it as a human.
Had he actually been friends with Gret, the explorers knowledge could have spared him this shock of realization.
Skrey realized then precisely where the portal had deposited him. He stood upon the great supine form of his soul-mate. Was she sleeping, dreaming? The white-clad behemoth moved toward her, now bending. The horror of its visage! Could the Phantast Himself be so hideous? In terror, Skrey bolted for the nearest shelter. A forest of slim trunks he could hide in, reminding him of the Masters far huger tentacles. On the way, Skrey crossed a shallow pond of red fluid, with a current as it spread. He traced it to its source: a raw orifice, freshly bored. The monster leaned close over his alternate self. Had it spotted him, minuscule as he was? Skrey took no chances. He scurried into that orifice against the tide of blood.
Time passed in alien quantities. Skrey burrowed himself a safe nook. No parasites large enough to threaten him appeared. He could tell his parallel self was lifted, moved, transported. By this time, he had guessed the truth. She was dead...
Poor mortal thing. But even in dying, she helped him find shelter. He only wished he could have communicated with her, known her...
He went on living in her. Feeding on her. He was alert to the possibility that her kind would burn or dissolve her, but they buried her far below the ground in a container, much as the Dreamer had been buried in His deep cavern. Skrey ventured out at last, saw the container would be hard to escape from, even small as he was...
... but it would decay, weaken, in time. Until then he had all of his other self to explore, and feed on. And when her nourishment ran out he would survive his hunger, as he was virtually immortal. One day, a hundred years from now or a thousand, he would make his way to the surface. See the open sky for the first time, and the stars at night. He was not concerned. He was patient. He was elated.
He was free.
* * *
Mren was a cleaner in the waste holes, hosing out the foul matter of the Phantasts processed nourishment. It was the least enviable of the servitors positions, but she had put in for work on a feed team. It would be a wait, as she was a young servitor, only freshly born.
She was a servitor born from an egg, rather than cloned from a lost limb, but still she had a sense of a prior life. This was not unusual, she was told, when one had been born of regeneration, but rare for the egg-born. Still, not unknown. Her fellow workers told her that she might be catching a sense of a previous existence, a soul banished from one realm to find fresh expression in another.
This explanation soothed her somewhat, but it could be a very disquieting sensation. Memory fragments surfaced at times unexpectedly, shocking her. Whiteness, blinding, loomed in her consciousness. Strange noises, strange machinery. Jarring violence.
The most horrible sensation of all was that at times she felt a horror of herself, a self-loathing almost as sharp as panic. As if that other self had awakened in her to find itself transformed into a nightmare. A demon. Trapped in a new body it couldnt run out of, escape from.
Mrens work made her restless. And these waking dreams made her restless. But she told herself someday things would get better.
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