The Point of the Pit
By Matthew Maldonado
The Pit was huge.
It was a thousand feet long at the least, more than twice as high, and just about half as wide. Its shape was that of a sloping rhombus, one vertically parallel side leading down to another. It was open at both ends, each the mouth of a long and winding hallway that was as equally tall and wide as its entrance. Dark metal rails lined the roof of both the hallways and the Pit itself, leading from maw to maw across the stainless steel ceiling. The wall to the left of the tracks was covered from bottom to top in rust-red circles, perpetually-winking lights flashing in their centers. The opposite wall was blank and shining and void save for a rectangle of clear glass set at the very middle.
Behind this glass lay a room lined with button-laden panels and glowing computer screens. It was dominated by a long, plain table surrounded by even plainer chairs. A sleek, neon-accented vending machine stood next to the room's one and only door like a silent thug plotting ambush. Fluorescent bars washed the room in stark white light, painting the few living occupants in dismal monotone.
These occupants were dressed in loose gray coveralls; an insignia consisting of twin red spheres inside a red circle rested upon the breast of each garment. There were three coveralls and four men; three employees and one guest. Two of the coveralled men were stationed side-by-side at a pair of monitors; the third sat opposite the guest at the long table. A white paper sack lay between this latter pair; next to it were a couple hamburgers, each lying in the center of the crumpled petals of their white wrappers. The two at the table were talking animatedly to one another about sports; the two at the screens remained silent and watchful, eyes locked to the readings.
Their silence was broken by yellow, shining along the rim of both their screens.
"We've got yellow," they muttered in unison, the words caught by their headset mics and sent to places unknown. "Repeat, yellow in the Pit."
"Yellow?" asked the guest, eyes wide, brows up and arching on his forehead.
"Means we've got a delivery in the Pit," said his table-sharing companion. "Nothing to worry about."
"Ohhh." The guest stood. "Does that mean they're coming down?"
"Yes it does," his companion replied, grinning. "Come have a look?"
The grin was returned. "Of course."
Both of them joined the coveralls at their stations. All of them peered through the glass into the brightly-lit Pit, with its shiny steel walls and its multitude of blinking circles. The yellow was still there on the rims of the screens, now accompanied by the muffled sound of some loud and grating horn, echoing against the walls of the Pit and into the ears of the only witnesses to what happened next.
The horn was suddenly silent, as if struck down dead. Another sound quickly took its place: a thick and heavy rumbling, like the growling of some giant's famished stomach, punctuated by high shrieks and faint squeaking. Accompanying this gastric growl was a noise altogether unnamable, a husky, shifty sound, as of the grating of two curtains together, amplified to enormous scale. As the four men watched and waited, the sound grew louder, the rumbling more palpable, the grating-curtains sound rising into a buzzing drone. The room vibrated; the vending machine trembled next to the door, its plastic-wrapped contents at first shaking, then quaking violently as the sounds built further and further up. The coming rumble closed in on the Pit, swelling into a grand, god-like quake, seeming to shake even the Pit itself as it drew ever closer.
"Here it comes," said the standing employee, grinning at the guest, who returned the expression--but not without a certain trepidation. "Just watch."
They all watched--the seated employees, with their blank, uninterested faces; the standing worker, eyes flashing from the Pit to his companion; and the guest, whose nervous eyes were locked on the mouth of the left-hand hallway.
The quaking, shaking rumble, the metallic shrieks and squeaking, and the anonymous, shifting drone reached their peak just as their source sped into view.
A series of massive racks slid down the length of black tracks and into the Pit, greased wheels squeaking tremulously under the weight of their massive cargo. There were at least eight hundred of the racks (each the same rusty red of the circles on the left-hand wall) speeding down the rails, swinging and lurching, metal whining, moaning, groaning, and shrieking in inanimate anguish. Like snakes they writhed in motion, stretching from sloped ceiling to sloped floor, swinging and clanging and hissing, red-brown like long-dried blood.
The cargo of these long, wailing racks shifted noisily. A hundred thousand naked bodies, undeniably human and questionably dead, hung from hooks and clamps and from within blood-caked wire cages latched to the linked shafts of the racks. The heady, shifting drone came from these hanging, bleeding bodies and their near-constant friction. Blood, ripe-red and fresh, dripped down the legs of the hanging, swinging bodies in thin, trickling trails. It was under this grisly cargo that the racks squeaked and squealed like petulant children under the weight of obligation.
"This is a yellow delivery," said the first of the seated coverall employees (whose badge identified him as "Paul"). "Great big racks of dead bodies on meathooks." He casually pressed a button on his panel, bringing the morbid line of racks to a bellowing halt. He turned to the guest, who was opening his mouth to say something, and interrupted him with, "Before you ask: no, I've got no clue why we get daily shipments of corpses down here in the Pit. Normally all they send us are big crates full of fruit or computer equipment or skin mags. But every , right on the hour, they send us these great ruddy racks of dead people." He leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette, and took a couple sips off it. "No one knows why they do it, no one knows where they get the bodies from, and no one knows what they do with 'em, so don't ask."
The guest shut his mouth and stared silently out the window, at the macabre curtain of metal and mutilated flesh hanging before him. After a couple minutes, he looked back down at Paul. "What do you do with them while they're in here?" he said, voice hushed in the wild fear that the ripped and torn cadavers on the racks would hear him.
Paul didn't bother looking up from his panel, where he was deftly adjusting settings. "Count 'em," he said brusquely. "That's what those sensors on the wall are for. They analyze each object and count 'em up. I just keep track of the system, make sure it's not screwing up, and I tend to the rail system, and make sure that that's not screwin' up." He took another cigarette sip. "Frankly, I'm just a watchdog for a trouble that hasn't come in the five years I've been working here. It's easy work. I tend to a delivery every half an hour, press a few buttons, monitor a few systems, and get paid about fifty bucks an hour to do it." He smiled at the guest. "Not bad, eh?"
The guest returned the smile. "Not bad at all..." He rubbed his chin, eyes once again locked on the contents of the racks. "...you sure they're dead?"
At this, the other three men shared a troubled look.
"We don't know," Paul finally said.
The guest stared. "You don't know."
Paul glanced at his coworkers. "Well, some of us aren't so sure about it." He picked at his cigarette. "Me, I'm pretty sure they're as dead as ol’ George, God piss on his wretched old soul." He jerked his thumbs at the other men, who gave the guest nervous grins. "These two jackanapes have a difference in opinion."
The guest turned his attention to them. "And you guys think they're alive?'
The other man sitting at a control panel (his name was Armand) gave a quick, curt nod of his dark head. The third man, the one standing, grinning lips smacking around a wad of obnoxiously pink bubble gum, presented the guest with a jesterly tilt of the head usually reserved for pernicious carnies playing their tricksy games among the tents of the arcade.
"We sure do," the gum-chewer confirmed ("sure" transformed into "shore" through the filter of his masticating mouth). "Old Paul here just thinks the way he does to keep his conscience good and clean." He gave the guest a sleazy wink. "Me 'n Armie have filthier souls than old boy Paul.”
Armand "Armie" Dallinson scowled. "Don't put my soul in the same slop as yours, Vince." The guest caught the look of intense irritation on the dark man's face. "I just think they're still alive, that's all."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," drawled Vince, gum popping and clapping in his open mouth. "Then why do you still work here, Armie? How come you still ship 'em down the Line every day? Why do you keep it up when you know perfectly well those people on hooks and spikes are still in the land of the living?" He smirked down at the man, who looked back with rising anger. "Well? Whatcha got to say for yourself, Armie?"
"I have a family to feed, you know that," Armand said, face flushed with scarlet, embarrassed anger. His dark eyes flickered from the guest and to Vince and back, and then, in a low, almost equally-embarrassed half-mutter, he said, "and besides, they probably deserve to be hanging there in the first place."
The guest blinked at Armand. "Why do you say that?"
"Yeah, Armie, whatcha thinkin' in there?" Vince cackled. Paul gave the braying, abrasive man a dark, annoyed look, but said nothing. "What keeps Armie Dallinson on the job?"
Armand's scowl had reached canyonesque levels. His chin rocked at the end of his face, squirming uncomfortably as he struggled to find the right thing to say.
A quick glance at the guest, whose own visage was brimming with honest curiosity, decided him. His jaws ceased their seasick motions, and the thunderheads gathered in his face slowly broke apart. He opened his mouth.
The room was tiny, the size of three coat closets and configured in the shape of an L. It was really a crawlspace, hidden beneath a short flight of stairs in the middle of a creaky suburban house. The only light in the whole building came from this half-pint hideaway. A sole light bulb cast dusty brown-orange light across an even dustier old desk. The clutter on this particular piece of furniture was such that one would be hard-pressed to look over it without craning one's neck--not that one would be inclined to do so, seeing how there was nothing beyond the steep piles of papers, magazines, books, pencils, pens, markers, the occasional action figure, music discs, movies, and general trash but a blank wood wall.
The owner of the desk, and the room, and the stairs, and the house, was a man with bone-pale skin and small, watery eyes. He sat at the desk, amid the rambunctious clutter, scribbling with a black marker on a sheet of white Bristol board. Each stroke of the dark, stinking stylus brought the growing picture a step closer to completion. Had anyone been watching, they would've noted that the artist was merely inking a picture he'd finished drawing sometime earlier. The picture, messy and frenetic as it was, was nonetheless clear in its message: a man in futuristic fighting gear (complete with flight boots and space helmet) held a bruised and battered man over his head. He was preparing to toss his prisoner over the edge of some jagged precipice and into dark oblivion. The man in the power suit, clearly the hero, looked noble and determined; the beaten man wore a look of terror, his gaunt and ugly face slick with sweat, nose as ripe and red as the circular insignia emblazoned upon his dark jumpsuit.
The style was poor, the drawing shaky and out of proportion in several areas, but the passion and effort put into it were evident by the care the man took in doing well with what he had. He slid the marker across the paper slowly, gingerly, making sure every stroke made was the stroke that worked best for the picture. After every line, he examined and re-examined the picture, analyzing, strategizing, planning his next move. His care was extreme (as it always was when he was working on a cover), and it filled the musty old crawlspace with the heat and tension of exertion.
That heat died upon the arrival of three sharp sounds.
Knock knock knock.
The man at the desk froze, and the air with him. While heat had fled, tension not only remained but increased exponentially. Sitting stock-still in his creaky wooden chair at his creaky wooden desk in a creaky wooden room, he waited, making no sound himself, for further noise of knocking. His hand hung over the page, marker poised above the paper; his eye slowly slid across it, making sure his hand had not faltered in panic at the noise. It had not, and the artist inside him relaxed.
Knock knock knock.
He slowly, quietly, laid the marker down on the desk. He made no further motion: his neck did not shift, his legs did not so much as quiver in their joints. Even his eyes remained unblinking, and his chest hardly heaved for breath. He dared not move, dared not make more sound than his minute breathing and hammer-on-anvil heartbeat.
For they were here.
Maybe, he thought, mind aclutter with quiet fear and noisome panic, maybe they will go away if I do not move, and do not squeak. Maybe maybe oh maybe oh GOD.
His arm ached, tortured with the urge to reach over to his desk lamp and turn it off, to kill the heat and light it emitted, creating an unwitting beacon for the eyes and thermal vision of those that were knocking, knocking on his chamber door. His arm remained still, but war waged within his old and anguished nerves, indecision creating quarrel in a mind already under siege by aching anxiety. He wanted to reach up and slap the switch on the lamp, to bathe in comforting darkness, hidden away from his unwelcome guests in a cape of black.
Knock knock KNOCK.
His hand remained where it was. Sweat slipped from his nostrils onto his lips, from out of the sparse forests of his hair and onto his forehead; from his cheeks to his neck, where it spilled beneath his shirt in rolling round droplets. His teeth grit against one another, beartrap mouth clamped shut around his twitching tongue. He allowed himself a single swallow and a single blink, but not the movement of his hand across six inches of detritus-drowned oak to turn off a light that was probably about to get him killed.
KNOCK KNOCK CRASH.
There goes the front door, he thought, as a stampede of rock-heavy footsteps pounded their way up the stairs above him and down the stairs to his left.
Calmly, unerringly, his hand reached out and soundlessly shut off the lamp.
Awash in the darkness, at the back of the room, he waited in his chair, listening to his house creak around him. The footsteps were slower, softer now, as their makers carefully made their way through the comic man's crumbling house. Blank eyes staring into blanker darkness, the hidden man, as still and silent as the living can be, could see his unwelcome guests in his mind's eye. They were clad in blue, from their thudding boots to their blank helmets. Their padded, battle-ready uniforms were bulletproof, shockproof, waterproof, flame-retardant, resistant to cuts and scratches, unstainable, not machine-washable (dry clean only)--but, most remarkably, they were hopelessly blue, the color of a clear summer sky as it transitions to night after sundown. The only break in the monotony was in the black, full-face visor, the black rubber soles of their boots, and the scarlet, circular insignia on the breasts of their uniforms.
Company Security, he thought, trembling in his chair. They found me. He was far from surprised. Despite his alias, despite his efforts to distance himself from his works, despite living like a recluse in the worst house in the worst neighborhood, despite it all, they'd found him--but that was what Company Security did best. How better to serve the Company--and the United States government--by rooting out those pesky dissenters, hidden deep in their urban burrows like scared, petulant rabbits? Hunting down the rebellion was Security's most infamous task--aside from brutal, private executions, which no living person had actually seen happen (but the bloodsplattered, gore-ridden aftermath was evidence enough for most).
Right now, he thought, sweat dripping down the sides of his skull, if they find me... He shut his eyes and silently shook his head. No, no no no no NO. He cut that thought away from his mind and disposed of it, like fat from the meat. He would not think it. If he stayed still and quiet, under the old and rotting stairs, behind the false wall that served as his hideaway's door, he'd make it through.
He just had to keep it up until they were gone.
Several firecracker bangs shot through the house. The comics man did not so much as shift in his chair; he kept soundly still, listening to the Security Officers as they made their thudding way through the house. He heard them open and slam cupboards, doors, drawers, shelf covers and even windows, each one opening and closing with a clamorous BANG! that made the moldering, termite-eaten building tremble in its foundation.
The man fervently gnawed on his lip, eyes half-squinched closed, salty saline droplets slipping from his pale, sunken eyes. He knew that the Officers would find nothing out there; everything he needed to survive was hidden in addenda to his cozy annex (the mouth of which was the workroom he presently sat in, weeping, terrified, on the verge of the end of his life, of his work, of all that he’d tried to do for the world). There wasn't a single sign of habitation in the rest of the ruined house; he'd made sure of it. His hope rose like hot air, filling him from paunched stomach to hairless skull.
The brutal noise of gunfire burst from somewhere upstairs and down into the ears of the comic-creating man. He nearly jumped; instead he clamped down with tooth and jaw. Blood spilled from his freshly-cut lip, drawing jerky, scarlet lines down his chin, across the valley of his neck, soaking into his filthy undershirt, clinging to his graying chesthairs. More gunfire, and the sound of breaking glass, shredding wood, flying porcelain.
Bathroom, he thought dully. They're in the bathroom upstairs.
Faint muttering of voices and the sound of footsteps, just overhead. Not a muscle moved. He didn't even blink, and refused his lungs oxygen. He gazed unseeingly, listening hard, viewing nothing but darkness and hearing nothing but thickly-muffled gibberish. Sweat covered him in a hard, cold layer, an icy shell. The voices continued to come from above, one louder than the others (Security Leader, he thought), the other two quieter, more submissive. Clearly a discussion between a superior and his subordinates.
Please leave, please, oh please, please leave me. His tears fell in salty torrents. Please go, please leave, please oh please oh please FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GO GO GO GO PLEASE OH PLEASE JUST GO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GO.
More muttering. Someone shifted their weight from one foot to the other.
A sharp bark, followed by more footsteps. They headed away, down the stairs, across the landing.
Out the door.
Silence, in the house. Pure silence. The man sat like a stone in his chair, heavy and still, shiftless. His ears reached out, groping for sound, for sign that the Officers were coming back, that there were some still in the house, that they were far away. They groped, and found nothing. No sign, not of absence nor presence. Simply nothingness.
Time passed, slipping away, dying.
He unfroze. His eyes blinked. His lungs filled, swelled, exhaled, shrunk. His shoulders untensed and lowered. His hand came up to his chin, wiped away blood.
The chair creaked beneath him.
He froze up in his chair again, eyes darting wildly in their sockets, one hand over his mouth and the other gripping the arm of the chair.
There was a thin, arid sound, like the crepitus of long-dry bones, a puff of sawdust, a spray of splinters, a flash of movement--suddenly the man let out a rasping, rattling wheeze. His hands clutched at his throat, gripping and squeezing. Blood gurgled up over his tongue and spilled between his teeth and out his mouth. His legs trembled and jerked, rattling against the floor, knees knocking up against the desk as he gurgled like a draining tub.
A steel spike, ten inches long and lined with a serrated frill, jutted from his chest, just under the pectoral muscle. Blood jetted around the baroque blade in thin, crimson streams, spraying the abysmal mess of the desk with shocking red. The drawing in front of the man soaked in an ever-growing pool of blood, white paper retreating before waves of sinful scarlet.
Thin rays of gloomy-gray sunlight wafted in through the hole made by the invading flechette, sending silver light dancing across the spike in curving, wavy streaks. The man's eyes were locked on the cold, lifeless weapon, gaping dumbly at it as his blood flooded the floor.
Thuds, heavy and hard, rocked the building, sending dust cascading from the ceiling. The man shook in his chair, writhing, mouth gnashing around silent shrieks shot from a thrashing tongue. Each thud was monstrous to his dying ears; each marked another enormous crack in the crust of the world as it was shredded by chaos; each was a thunderstroke of Vulcan's hammer upon his sparking anvil; each was a hoof of the Reaper's steed, pounding into the dirt, coming, coming.
The thuds stopped just outside the false wall. There was a fearsome grating as a boot slid across the bare concrete floor. Breathing, faint and steady, was barely audible to the comics man, with his throat choked with blood and his ears full of death's sirens.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
There was a pause--and then the click-whir-hum of activating machinery--and then a razor-thin beam of bright-red light cut through the wall, right at the top, and worked its way down to the ground. It returned to the top, cut all the way to the right, then straight down to the ground again. A massive rectangle of wall fell to the floor, leaving a hole just the right size for the Officer to step through, rifle at the ready.
The Officer froze two steps into the room. With a flick of the thumb, the rifle's halogen lamp turned on with a quiet hum. The beam cut into the darkness, bright and blue-white. It danced across the inside of the room, then focused on the man inside it. The Officer moved closer, carefully, watching the target through the rifle's thermal scope, until the flechette was plainly visible. The Officer gave the steel spear a quick nod, as if acknowledging a job well done, and lowered the rifle.
The man gurgled and choked, wide, red eyes locked on his attacker. His gravel-on-sandpaper breathing filled the room with its gruesome white noise. Despite the spear, despite the blood oozing from him in thick streams, despite the way his lungs filled like guzzling stomachs, he managed to hold his head up high and look into that blank, black faceplate, pride painted all across his pale features--pride at what he was, what he was doing, why he was doing it. The look held for all of ten seconds before he succumbed to a violent coughing fit, vomiting gushes of blood into his lap.
The Officer tilted her head, activating a microphone inside the helmet. "Target uncovered and neutralized," she said, voice husky and cold. Chilly blue-green eyes the color of dead ice gazed remorselessly at the comics man as she reported in. "I repeat, target uncovered and neutralized by Security Leader Royle, on mission number twelve-twenty-eighty-six. Gathering infidel and heading back Home."
The man let out a horrid squawk at this last sentence, and tried to get up out of his chair. The blade shone in the halogen beam, weaving silver reflections across the walls and ceiling as the comics creator struggled to rise. Even mortally impaled, his rebellious will held strong. He fought to lift himself up out of his rickety chair.
Officer Royle tilted her head again, soundlessly deactivating the microphone. She glanced at the struggling, jerking man, then proceeded to calmly cock her rifle, pressing a couple buttons on the side. The silver-gray gun clicked, whirred, hummed, and chambered a single glass dart. Royle aimed, peering over the top of her gun, and planted the dart into the man's neck with a swift swoosh and plunk. She watched him jerk as it hit, watched the foam flood from his mouth, eyes rolling in his trembling head, back arched unnaturally.
She watched as he writhed, flopped, twitched, twisted, trembled, shook, and shivered--and finally collapsed, as still and lifeless as his hope.
They had found him.
It was all over.
He tried to wince, to shy away from it with closed eyes and scrunched face, but neither the lids of his eyes nor the muscles of his face so much as twitched. He wanted to blink, at least, to spare himself from the glare for just a second, but even that pleasure evaded him; his eyes stayed open. He tried moving his arm to block the light, but that, too, failed him. His neck refused to operate, as well.
Helpless and immobile, he stared unwillingly into the light, watching it as it faded, melting from the center outwards. He could see shiny gray steel behind the glaring white wall; nothing more for now.
As the light slipped away, he tested his other limbs. None responded to his will. He began to fidget internally, uncomfortable with the paralysis and its meaning. He'd been shot and imprisoned for spreading seditious materials and threatening the welfare of the Company. He had been prosecuted for a simple Orwellian offense: thoughtcrime. He'd dared to think against the values of the Company, and to put his thoughts down on paper--and then, in the worst of all offenses, he'd dared to spread his thoughts to the common people.
He'd dared, and now what? Here he was, wherever he was, immobile, in the hands of the vile Company. He'd always known the time would come, one day, when the government Orwell had warned against would take him into their maw and gnash him to shreds, but he'd never thought it would come so quickly or be so frightening.
The light was gone. He stared straight ahead, looking right at a steel wall that spread out in all directions. Near the top of his vision there was a long rectangle of glass, and cutting up through the bottom his vision was a long, rust-red-and-orange spike. Red liquid of varying viscosity coated the shaft.
The spike nauseated the comics man, so he focused instead on the glass rectangle set in the wall above him. Blue-white light lit the room behind it, highlighting the four faces within in cold colors. They seemed to be talking about something, and took no notice of the paralyzed man fifty feet down. He tried his mouth again, to call out to them--to beg, to wail, to scream, to protest, to rave--but it didn't so much as twitch.
The spike taunted him on the lower edge of his vision. It jutted from somewhere below his sightline, and oozed with what had to be blood. It looked like it was made of age-old iron, rusted to the point where the whole surface was dark orange-red. The point at the end was blunt.
The man tried to imagine just where that spike was coming from--and with a stone-like sinking of his stomach, he realized it was coming from him. The rabid-looking red-orange spike was piercing him in the same place that the flechette had--it was probably even the same hole, kept fresh and open by the ungodly lance.
It was piercing him.
The thought surrounded him, building around his mind, flanking it, pressing in all around, clawing at his skull, dragging him down, down, down into screams, so silent and so alone.
So silent and so alone.
Vince stared at the ceiling, chewing his gum like cud, a thoughtful look (or at least as close to a thoughtful look as someone like Vince could manage) on his face. "So, whatcher sayin', Armie, is that all the poor saps on the hooks are traitors?"
Armand nodded. "Traitors and political prisoners, spies…stuff like that. People who deserve it." Next to him, Paul was busy at his station, monitoring what appeared to be a series of constantly-shifting graphs. "That's what I think, anyway." He sat back in his chair, looking expectedly at the guest, chewing on his lip.
The guest nodded. "Seems reasonable. The government's got to do something with traitors." He stared out at the racks, watching them hang there like clanking strings of macabre baubles. He looked at them and felt no remorse, traitors or no. Death held no meaning for men like him; life was not precious and death was not pitiful in the mind and eyes of the guest.
Vince was scowling. "Well, it sure makes sense, I guess. I just always thought they were fired employees, or somethin'." He gnawed on his gum and returned to staring thoughtfully at the ceiling, eyebrows knit together. "You know, or somethin'." No one paid him any mind, and he made no further comment.
There was quiet in the room. Paul busily typed and clicked, Armand busied himself with straightening his wrinkled coverall, Vince stared hawkishly up at the smooth, clean ceiling, and the guest stared at the vile racks, eyes drifting across the bodies. He looked at them, examined their scarred, chalky flesh, riddled with splotches of red and purple-black bruises. Jaws hung open, tongues lolling out like dead slugs. Eyes varied; some stared straight ahead, some were turned in different directions, some were rolled and some hung from the sockets on gristled cords. Blood dripped from every available orifice, including ones that weren't normally present in human anatomy. Hooks and spikes and claws and chains and clamps and cages with barbed bars jutted every which way, half-hidden by thick layers of what looked like corpses (none of them, not even Armand, were sure if they were dead or not, even now).
As he stared at the immobile human mosaic before him, absorbing its every eldritch detail, a thought, like a windborne feather, spun and wound through his subconscious, weaving its way across neurons in astronomical sparks of electricity, until it effervesced in his frontal lobe in a flash of neural lightning. It hung in his head, an orb of curiosity hanging as the fading shower of revelation fell around it.
He turned around, and looked at his companions. Paul and Armand were still at their stations, poking away at their panels. Vince was over at the vending machine, perusing the merchandise with his head in the nimbus and his hands in his pockets.
"I had a thought," he began slowly, hand stroking across the rise of his cleanshaven chin. The orb flashed and crackled behind his dark, sable eyes.
They all looked at him with querying looks. Vince idly slipped his Slider through the slot on the vending machine as he looked at the guest. A candy bar dropped from the racks and into the dispenser tray. It lay there, untended and ignored. Armand's fingers lay poised on the instruments of his station, looking expectantly at the visiting party. Paul's head was half-tilted in the guest's direction, left brain seeped in the technicalities of his job, right brain poised to listen to whatever was to be said.
The guest, well-aware that he had everyone's attention, rubbed his chin, stubble bristling against his fingertips, and continued. "So," he said, addressing them all but really only talking to Paul and Armand, "you get shipments in here every day?"
"Yeah," Paul said, idly flipping switches and pushing buttons. "Every half hour, actually. We have twenty-five minutes to transfer each set of racks from our station. After the contents are counted and recorded, we send them down the tunnel at the bottom." Here he pointed out the window, at the Pit's lower maw, silver, gaping like a too-stretched orifice. "And we never see them again."
The guest's eyebrows rose. His fingers ceased rubbing. "Never?"
"Never," Paul confirmed, nodding sternly.
"So..." The guest turned fully to Paul, leaving Vince to look at his back. The rat-faced man scowled a little, mouth twisted in a tiny tilde sneer, and bent down to get his candy. "So you don't have any idea what happens to the racks after you send down the tunnel?"
"Not a clue." Paul pressed a final button and turned to the guest, lacing one leg over his knee, arm draped over the back of his work chair. "But like I said, I'm not the only man here with an opinion." He gestured at Vince, whose scowl turned into a smirk. "Vincent over there's entertained many a visitor with his 'theory' on that, as it happens." He gave both Vince and his guest a smile dripping with sweet saccharine.
Vince returned the smile, teeth glinting like shined flint, looking almost triangular in the monotone shadows cast by the glaring flourescents. Armand shifted nervously in his chair. A tingle of anxious static crawled across the guest's flesh, raising bumps across his skin. Both of them could feel the grating, red-razor tension that hung between Paul and Vince like taut steel wires, waiting to snap in an explosion of frayed metal. The dislike and the contempt, hidden under a paper veil of courtesy, flashed between the coworkers in miniscule sparks. Armand, a frequent witness to these underlying emotions, had begun to liken their silent conflict to that of soldier versus snake, good versus evil, God versus Satan.
Vince, smirking like a slinky tomcat, slid a chair from the table and over to the other three men. He sat down with an exaggerated sigh of content and stretched his shoulders in a way that reminded Armand of pictures of a rooster he'd once seen: one with the bird ruffling its feathers, standing tall, proud, and deceptively large. The only thing wrong with this rooster was that it had the eyes of a snake, the smile of a shark, and the body of an oily, vile man.
Vince took a large bite out of his candy bar and said, through masticating teeth and crushed chocolate:
racks slid down their tracks, sliding past the cracks, the cracks in the walls.
Past the cracks, down the tracks, slid the racks, bodies swinging to and fro to
the sound of silent music, macabre and moldering.
The racks rocketed down their rails, the grinding hum of bodies shifting together overpowered by the screams of tortured iron and steel, scraping together, shooting sparks and spewing smoke, friction turning the wheels of the racks red-hot. They shot down the tunnel, orange iron demons carrying a vile cargo to the depths of hell.
They slowed as they reached their destination. It was not the brimstone-laden, burning, churning depths of Lucifer's lair; instead it was almost a carbon-copy of Paul and Vince's Pit. It was exactly the same, right down to the shiny steel sides--but in place of the multitude of sensor-circles there was a wall of folded metal beams and bars, clinging to the steel like newborns, curled and contracted around themselves. The beams--and half of this second Pit--were splattered with blood, dried stark maroon in waves, splashes, curving arcs, Jackson Pollock tapestries of crusting liquid. The splatters stretched up almost to the top, where there were still the faintest dots of red spread across the shining expanse; and all the way to the bottom, growing thick and dark
The racks slowed, stopped, and swung slightly with the remnants of momentum. Its cargo hummed and clanked, settling into an inclined line as it locked into place, the clamps shutting closed with echoing CLANGs.
There was a silent pause. The bodies were still. The racks were still. Even the blood was still, congealing on blue-white limbs and orange-red iron.
A chittering of clicks, like the sound of buzzing, biting insects, erupted from the beam-laden wall, rebounding off the sides of the Pit and down the tunnels. The beams and bars unfolded themselves, stretching out from the wall, gears grinding as they extended, flexing and turning as they reached out towards the racks, groping for them with insectile appendages.
There was a hiss, shots of steam along the tops of the racks, and a groaning grind from the bottom of the Pit. With great creaks and tiny squeaks, cage doors shot open and clamps released, freeing nearly thirty-thousand bodies into the air.
The beams and bars reached, groped, stretched, water shifting in hydraulic joints, gears clanking together, claws click-click-clicking--and clutching, thin metal phalanges wrapped around unmoving necks, arms, legs, waists, heads, worn-away treads cutting scalloped shapes into the yielding, bruised flesh. The insectoid arms clamped and drew back, retreating back to their wall, prey in hand. Bodies hung from the trembling limbs, dangling in the air, bearing looks of shuddering intensity, frozen in place by death or drugs; who knew?
They hovered over the Pit's third great maw for mere seconds before the arms released them, huffs of steam and squeals punctuating the action. As soon as the bodies had been freed, the arms screeched and closed back in on the racks, ready to do it all over again.
Down they dropped, turning slowly, limp limbs bending gracefully in the air, hair flapping around their heads in matted halos. They fell, and fell, turning and spinning, dancing as they dropped towards doom, wind flapping in their wounds.
The bodies poured down, down, and the dull thuds came together to form a disgusting music, a rising symphony of cadaverous impacts. Each note in this evil orchestration was a crescendo, the low whistle of the plummet building up to the sound of impact--sometimes a thud, sometimes a gong, sometimes a smack, and, on the occasions when the bodies would land head-first, a splat followed by the drip drip drips of descending droplets of bright blood. Heads split, eyes popped, limbs cracked, and bodies fell, hitting the steel, jittering slightly, clinging momentarily, before slipping down the slope, joining their companions in the great black rift that slit the Pit from end to end.
They slid in, and were seen no more.
The arms were busy above, lifting bodies off hooks and spikes, out of clutching cages and from the ensnaring chains, working their way down the racks, tossing the bodies down into the depths with quicksilver speed. Occasionally a body would cling to the side of the rift, gravity and momentum having failed to fully deliver it, and an arm would descend and nudge it in. Sometimes it would be one body, sometimes a clump of two or three, and, on at least one occasion, six or seven limp, staring bodies piled on the rift’s rim in a tangled knot of jutting, blue-gray limbs, skin pallid and matte. All were pushed into the rift without pause, tumbling in like unstrung marionettes.
The crescendos faded away, tempo dying down as the ritardando grew and grew. The noise slowed and thinned, until it wasted away, disintegrating into silence. The clockwork arms drew back to the wall, curling and folding back into place, clanking and chittering as they did so. The racks quietly dripped blood, hanging, empty, from the black tracks above.
There was an awful, eldritch grind--then a rising, shrieking squeal--and then the noise of a great engine, rumbling and roaring itself awake, rising ponderously from an ungentle nightmare sleep. It snarled from somewhere beneath the second Pit, belching up a vile plume of oily black smoke that stretched up from the rift like a rising snake. It met the ceiling and billowed outward, rolling and gathering against the steel, hanging over the rest of the Pit like a faux thundercloud.
There was a flash of color, the blur of movement, and a strange, wet, squelching sound.
A torso, ragged at its wound of a waist, slid down the wall of the Pit, down the sloped bottom, and back into the rift. As it did, long, streaming ribbons of blood spewed from the shadowed hole, adding a whole new coat to the painted walls. It leapt from the rift in great splatters and jets, sent flying by unseen machinery. It wasn't long before ragged scraps of flesh and chips and chunks of sliced bone joined the blood, flapping and spinning in the air like gory confetti. Occasionally whole limbs would go flying out of the rift, legs and arms spinning clumsily, heads spiraling as they corkscrewed high up--then came down, jaws hanging and eyes rolled, dropping back into blackness.
The grinding grew, the engine bellowed like an injured lion, machinery squealed and buzzed, and suddenly the bottom of the Pit was filled with a tornado of gore, swirling through the air as it was ejected at insane velocities from the mechanical bowels. The gore came up, hung, and came back down, slipping and sliding back into the rift, siphoned off to who-knew-where. Limbs tended to come up several times: once attached to bodies; once not; once flayed; once raw and white, devoid of covering, glazed with blood. Then they were consumed in the great churning grind, lost in its massive, noisome snarling. Had this Pit been hell, whatever lay beneath the darkness of the rift would have been Cereberus, the tri-headed hound of the underworld, guardian of the deep trenches of death.
The Cereberus machine let out its final growl, jetted its final arcing splash of pureed flesh, and let out a terminal puff of charcoal-black smoke before it wound down into silence, unseen tick-tock machinations slowing and stopping, their clicking and clacking fading into minute echoes that quickly and obscurely dwindled unto death.
A loud and grating horn let loose its roar, and the racks, empty and cold, slid down the tracks, into the maw.
Vince scowled around the stub of his candy bar. "Is not."
"Of course it is." Paul was fully turned away from his panel now. He was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, wearing a look of amused derision on his face. "Total bull. That's all that was."
Vince rolled his eyes and popped the last inch of chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter into his mouth. Chewing purposefully, he shook his head. "What do you know, anyway? I could be right or I could be wrong, no one knows. That's the freaking point." He swallowed, and smirked. "Which you seem to have missed."
"Oh, you're part right, and you're part wrong," Paul said, grinning at Vince (and at the guest, and at Armand, but mostly at Vince, who looked at those gleaming, smirking teeth and wanted to crush every last one of them into powder). "You'd be all right if it weren't for a couple small details, I'll admit that. So maybe not total bull. We'll go with incomplete bull, for now. How's that sound?"
Vince's face was hard and waxy, caught in its expression by the force of his irritation. "Fine," he snapped, tugging at his coverall with agitated hands. "We'll go with that. But you gotta explain yourself." He leaned back in his own chair, mimicking Paul's position, right down to the crossed arms (the main difference was that Paul's hands were open and limp, while Vince's were taut and formed into brick-like fists). "'Cause you sure know more than you let on." He allowed himself a snide, serpentile smirk. "Or so you pretend."
"Unlike you, pretending isn't something I resort to," Paul snapped. Vince managed to convert his flinch into a petulant scowl before anyone could catch it. "If I have something to say, I say it, and not a word of it ends up false. You know that. You've been around me for years, Vincent, and I know you know. So don't you play games about all this; let's get it all straight instead: I don't lie. You don't lie, either, you just prance about in make-believe. You're a storyteller, I'm a reporter. People like you more because what you say sounds more exciting, more fantastic, more euphoric. You generate the fantastic, weaving as much excitement and intrigue and surprise in it as possible so that whoever hears your wondrous tale of flair and finery will be dragged into it like a hooked fish. You don't tell lies, you just ignore the truth and give people what you come up with on the fly."
Paul smiled, pink-red lips parting to expose ivory-cube teeth, shining like bright, baroque pearls. Vince tried his hardest to find even the smallest smidgen of spite, malice, sarcasm, poison, bile, or disgust behind those snow-white bicuspids--but even his hardest peering and his wildest mental machinations could not create what was clearly not there. Thus, Vince was faced with a starkly honest and friendly smile--something that neither Paul nor many of Vince's other acquaintances had ever graced upon the man. He was struck mute by that bold enamel crescent, shining at him from the face of a man who'd never liked him and never spared him so much as a single note of praise in all their years of parallel employment. He was completely flabbergasted by it.
"On the other hand, you've got me." Paul gestured at himself. "I'm a reporter. I see, I remember, I recall. Like a voice recorder. Hear, record, repeat. Maybe I whip it up a bit, add the emotions that I felt, or perceived, but for the most part I just tell it like it was. I lay down the facts, the truth, of what happened, why, where, and when. A lot of the time people don't like me, because what I say scares them, or angers them, or insults them, or depresses them. It makes them feel that way simply because they know that the stories of woe and sadness, of tragedy and defeat, of evil and tyranny, all of them are true. If there's anything that irritates a human being most, it's knowing that the world isn't as nice as it should be, and that people aren't as nice as they should be, either." His expression had gone serious and sour, and he was looking at Vince like a mother would look at an insolent child. Vince had to fight not to turn away from that look.
"We get it, we get it," Vince said, waving his hands. "You tell the truth, I make stuff up. We got it." He looked exasperated, his hands gripping his knees and his mouth twisted into a grimace. "Now c'mon, tell us your truth, Mister Reporter Man. You've left us hanging for too long, and some of us have breaks coming up right quick--breaks that we'd rather spend out in a restaurant instead of sittin' here and listenin' to you."
Armand glanced at his station. A display in the corner of the screen showed the time in well-defined blue LCDs. As he looked, the seconds ticked by, and they entered a new minute in the ever-flowing stream of time.
"He's right, we have limited time," Armand said, begrudging the first two words even as he said them.
Paul nodded, and looked at the guest, who had taken a seat across from him, next to Vince. Armand stood between them all, hands in the pockets of his coverall, fingers fidgeting with the lint. He felt like a man standing on the border between the camps of two armies, standing there as they charged one another with sword and shield, standing there about to get slain in their wanton combat. Shaking a little, he took a chair, put it down next to Paul's, and sat, hands still in his pockets. Paul gave a slight nod: acknowledgement of allegiance. It made Armand quiver.
The guest and Vince looked at Paul. Armand merely looked at them, gazing into their faces with his own stolid, blank gaze.
Paul flexed his shoulders a bit, loosening up, drew his sleeves up his arms like a magician preparing for his tricks, and smiled. Behind him, thousands of shiftless faces gazed blankly at the back of his head.
Bodies fell like hailstones from the great rift, their matter cold and heavy and numerous. They dropped quickly, slipping out of the faint light of the Pit above and into the velvet shadows below. Blondes, brunettes, redheads; the young, the elderly, the middle-aged; the babies, the toddlers, the teens, the tweens; healthy, sickly, dying, dead. All shapes. All sizes.
The plummet was silent and sightless for a time. It was as if the bodies had passed out of atmosphere and into empty space, where there was no light and no air and no sound, where there was nothing but dust and death--where neither heat nor cold dared venture. The drop in the dark was so long that an observer might have been pressed to ponder if the bodies hadn't reached a pocket of anti-gravity and gone static mid-fall.
Blue-white light stretched into the darkness with soft, curving tendrils, gently caressing the bodies, wrapping and enfolding them in satin glow. Their forms half-cast in darkness, the bodies of these damned and destroyed eased into the light, descending down into the ungodly effervescence, their skin turning periwinkle as they grew closer to the cold luminescence, beaming from below.
There was a faint hum to the air, as if electricity lunged through it in steadily-streaking bolts. Indeed, there seemed to be some strange energy in the air, for as the bodies neared the terminus of their voyage, they slowed, their velocities easing into neutral, giving the impression that even the eternal orb of time had begun to slow, its axial rotation grinding and groaning as it shuddered to a halt.
And the bodies with it.
They hung like unattended marionettes, limbs askew in the air, hair caught in whirling curves, the strands glittering an ungodly blue in the light. Eyes stared dully into space. Mouths hung open like those of dead fish. Wounds glistened with cold blood, their pits and channels transformed into dark splotches and streaks by the swelling glow, which was swiftly transforming into a shining, sheering blaze. The source, unseen but not unfelt, seemed to be swelling, as if consuming glutinous volumes of energy and expelling it as unholy radiance, which built upon itself in thick, viscous layers. It was this light--and its inherent energy--that held the bodies aloft like detritus in still water, like marbles in gelatin. The pocket of anti-gravity had made an appearance after all.
hovered for several minutes, stragglers dropping into place all around, the
ever-present monotone hum strumming 'round them, blue bolts of electricity
licking across their skin like sparking earthworms. Electron-thin lines of
eldritch-blue power leapt from body to body, some chaining through as many as a
thousand masses before expiring in soundless, invisible explosions.
A winding, curving length of silver cable slipped through the air, snapping its tapered tip around the waist of the nearest body, wrapping itself tight before dragging it down, out of the field of blue light, into the white. A thousand duplicates rose in its stead, mimicking their predecessor even as another thousand lifted high.
The first tentacle sped down, down, down--into white light, over a floor made of a hundred pale-blue depressions, like a multitude of bowls set rim-to-rim. Sensors along the inner length of the motorized appendage determined the body's specifics (male, one-hundred-thirty pounds, forty-eight, bald, seditionist, living), gleaned from a chip embedded in the flesh of the earlobe. This information allowed the tentacle to determine which of the many bowls to unceremoniously dump the body like a discarded toy, leaving it lying face-down against the cold metal. Six more bodies--all of similar ages, body types, and states of disrepair--piled atop him. All around and above, bodies were flung into the hemispherical depressions, the tentacles tossing them at just the right amount of force to be quick and efficient and yet keep the bodies from becoming further damaged in the process. It was swift, effective, economical. Cold.
A half-hour later, the final few bodies dropped into place in their respective bowls, some lying shallowly in their cool containers, others piled in bleeding mountains made of crooked limbs and twisted torsos. The tentacles, waving and weaving like the tendrils of an anemone, slid soundlessly into the hatches interspersed between the bowl-depressions, their shiny surfaces gleaming as they slipped out of view, the hatch doors sliding shut behind them with clanging finality.
The blue light faded away, the hum dying with it, the occasional bursting POP of electricity springing out from the growing silence. The anti-gravity emitters--glowing hemispheres extended on hydraulic arms, fingers of blue energy stretching from their sparking surfaces--slid into their own hatches along the side of the high, sloped walls of the brightly-lit Underchamber.
Blue faded, leaving only the white--and soon, even that began to fade, slowly, gently giving way to black. Even as it did, there was a creak, a groan, a rumble, and a half-mad shriek--as the bowl-like depressions moved forward, led along by a massive conveyer, journeying into shadow.
Journeying to the Separators.
One of the depressions lifted up off the track, propelled by sparking blue emitters all along its rim. Within its coldly-curved confines sat eight bodies, all fat and bald and old--and alive, some of them twitching even as the bowl rose into the air, silent as the grave. These particular bodies jerked like fish, flopping about, bodies smacking noisily together. Their flapping, numbed mouths managed only to utter half-grunts and frightened noises. They wriggled and writhed, unable to completely overcome the shackles of paralysis, while their strange wounds ached of agony and oozed precious blood. Eyes spun in their sockets like wheeling marbles, glancing all around with frantic anxiety. Those that laid on their backs in the bowl stared, stunned and frightened, up at the high ceiling, from which unrelenting light shone down, bright and cruel.
The bowl made its way through the air, its fellows following suit all around it. It floated to the nearest wall, which was separated into a mosaic of square-shaped tunnels, lining it from bottom to top. Each one was marked by numbers, highlighted in glowing green; they denoted every cubicle, from one to one hundred. A deeper, plainer version of the depressions took up the width of the mouth of each of the cubicles; red lights blinked on and off along its rim as the floating bowl docked with it, settling in with a clank and the sound of the emitters powering down, their blue light flickering out.
There was a thick buzz, like the amplified drone of a single bee. Then, with a spark and a flash, the rest of the tunnel filled with blue-white light. Tentacles slid from ports in the wall, curved and poised like living vines ready to attack. They lined the length of the corridor-like tunnel, gleaming and sparking, waiting.
Tentacles drew bodies into the tunnel, one by one, their lengths wrapped around arms, legs, necks, torsos, foreheads. As soon as their burdens were enveloped in the snapping, popping, snarling light, the tentacles released it, letting it float down the corridor, gently propelled by its own acceleration. The tentacles dove upon it, extending strange implements.
The bowl was quickly emptied, the very last body sliding into the anti-gravity even as the corridor was voided at the other end. It hung in the center of the tunnel, twitching with returning nervous control, neck jerking as it fought to turn its head to look around. Its eyelids fluttered, sometimes squinching closed as impulses got confused. A hand groped out towards the wall.
From that same wall came a tentacle, tipped with a long , thin needle. It deftly dodged the flailing hand and planted itself into the meat of the body's flabby thigh. It remained there for mere seconds before withdrawing, slipping into its port like an eel diving out of sight. Several other needle-nosed tentacles jabbed into arms, the other leg, the neck, the torso, injecting jaundice-yellow liquid into the body's sluggishly-pumping veins.
The body--that of a man reaching the boundaries of old age (evidenced by his declining hairline and increasing forehead)--jerked, twitched, flexed, and twisted in midair, fighting to scream, fighting to flail, fighting to push away, away from all that surrounded him. His mind, trapped inside something that felt more like a giant, flopping prison instead of the body he'd hauled around for decades, could only scream without a sound. Its cries grew epic as its vessel was dragged back into paralysis, limbs falling limp, eyes going still, breathing slowing, slowing...mind shrieking, shrieking…
FREE ME! FREE ME! FREE ME! I AM A HUMAN BEING, FREE ME! I AM A MAN! I AM A PERSON! I AM ALIVE! I AM ALIVE! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LET ME GO! it wailed, its unheard howls doing nothing but echoing back.
There was no way out of his mind
There was no way out.
There was no one there.
There was no one but the machines.
The tentacles moved his limbs into the proper position: arms spread straight out from the chest, legs spread straight down, shaping the body into a T. His head was straightened and lifted, his fingers splayed. A strangely-shaped tentacle rose up to his head and pressed itself against it, then drew itself across the flesh, humming as it sheared the hairs from their roots, an attached vacuum sucking up the strands and particles. It progressed all over his body, eliminating the hair and consuming it with an unseen mouth, until he was fully smooth. The tentacle sucked up the few missed bits of detritus, then whipped away.
There was a short pause, the body floating down the corridor, nearing the end.
Ports opened on all sides, their mouths spiraling irises that gaped with sharp edges. Strange, fat discs ejected from them, their rims encrusted with anti-gravity emitters. They circled the body, examining it like vultures. Each had a glowing eye, set like a jewel in the center of their circular bodies. This eye shone, blinking away peridot light as it scanned the body before it.
There was a BEEP, and every eye turned bright, sulfur yellow. They froze for a second, then spun into sudden, frenzied action. The discs positioned themselves all around the body, arranging themselves in formation. Their eyes pulsed gently, the color building up brighter and brighter, a near-silent throb growing with it.
Their was a flash, and a buzz, and yellow. Saffron beams of piercing light sprung from the eyes of the discs and pierced the flesh of the man. The discs zipped down, making long, straight incisions down the body, splitting the skin into fourths. They repositioned themselves and cut again--and again--and again--and again--until the body was covered in cauterized wounds. The skin was now separated into oddly-shaped patches.
The discs pulled back, gathering in a cluster behind the body. Their eyes flickered back to peridots.
Stage one was complete.
Stage two initiated as tentacles once again extended from the walls, click-clacking claws spread wide. They pounced upon the body, gripping the patches of skin at their edges--and ripping them away simultaneously, stripping the body of flesh in mere seconds. Blood hung in the air in trails; a floating, flying vacuum drew them in, collecting them in its clear plastic belly. The flesh itself was dropped in an equally-airborne crate extending from the wall. It drew back into its hiding place without a single sound.
The eyes of the discs became sulfur crystals once more and spun into action. Tentacle-claws gripped muscles while disc-lasers cut them free from the bones; the bleeding, red masses of meat were quickly dumped into crates. Organs--the heart, the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, the testes--were cut from where they lay and placed into cold-storage boxes. The intestines were clipped loose and dragged out, looking like some fleshly, unpleasant rope, drenched red. They were evenly cut and loaded into another, bigger, cold-storage box. The eyes were cut by nanites sprayed from a tentacle; the invisible robots evenly shredded the optic nerve on a microscopic level. The optic globes themselves were plucked from the head like eggs. The mouth was pried open and the teeth wrenched from the gums, one by one. The tongue was lifted up until the tip pressed against the roof of the mouth; a thin laser sheared it from its root and a claw pulled it out of the mouth, the bottom dragging across the bleeding gums. The flying vacuum, now accompanied by a pair of clone brothers, siphoned liquids of all sorts from the air, from wounds, from emptied gums. Each type of liquid was drained into a different pocket of its artificial stomach. Tendons and ligaments were snipped and clipped and dropped in cold, smoky boxes. Bones were gently lifted away when their supports were released, and were placed into marked boxes ("Femurs," "Tibias, "Fibulas," "Patellas," "phalanges (fingers)," "phalanges (toes)," "Pelvis"), which quickly and noiselessly slid back into the walls they'd come from.
Soon, only the spine and the skull remained, floating slowly along the tunnel, strange, sparking energy flickering across the bloodstained bone. Most of the tentacles had retracted, and only one of the discs remained, orbiting the skull like a moon. It aimed its single cycloptic eye down at the cranium--and fired, its bright-yellow beam cleanly cutting through the white matter, making a lid out of the top of the skull. Its purpose fulfilled, it slung itself into its port without further adieu.
A tentacle clamped its claws onto the top of the skull. With a sickly sucking sound it drew off the "lid," exposing the meat within. Long, thick strings of slime stretched from the "lid" and the revealed brain; they floated dreamily in the gravity-free air until the flying vacuum idly consumed them. Another tentacle--this one with a long, chrome nozzle--leveled its snout-like nose and let out a huff of air--and miniscule machines, which skittered invisibly across the surface of the brain.
They dove down the sides, scrambling their way down, down, down to the stem. They gathered around it, pushing frantically against the sides, little spider-legs wriggling in thick liquid. Once all were present, they began to nibble and gnaw, chewing at the stem with clashing mandibles, swarming to the core as they ripped at the sleek rope, the sole connection from the spinal column to the brain itself. This connection, like all the others, was quickly cut. The nanites, overzealous, dived down, biting their way down the inside of the spine, ruthlessly eating every stringy nerve; they ignored the brain, which was drawn from the skull by a series of tiny, tugging tentacles, each of them pulling at the shiny, shiftless mass until it came out, sickly-wet sucking sounds accompanying the extraction.
The tentacle hovered over the skull, holding the brain aloft, tendrils writhing tight around it, running over the wrinkles.
This precious organ--the organ of all organs, the chamber of the human soul, the cradle of being--was disposed of like an old and rotting cabbage. It was tossed, with a whirl of its tentacular captor, into the nearest hovering crate. It struck the side with a violent, viscous SPLAT. The tentacle nudged it down to the bottom, then drew the lid closed.
A pair of tentacles gripped the skull and the spine each, and pulled them apart with a single, vicious tug. The two were placed in their separate containers and whisked away. The vacuums made their final trip through the charged air, whirring quietly. Tentacles plucked shards of bone and bits of meat and collected them in vials.
Their work done, they all--tentacles, vacuums, crates--drew back into the walls, sliding into hatches and ports that were mere inches from the tunnel's inevitable terminus:
A dead end.
Armand reflected, as everyone stood there staring at Paul's expressionless face, that even though silence usually seemed empty, there were times when it was so full of flying, streaking, boiling, bubbling, noiseless energy that you just knew, just knew, that not only was the silence not empty, it was ready to explode in a flash of fireworks and frenzy. He wanted to duck behind the table, or out the door, before everything went kaboom and emotions splashed across the room like fiery-hot shrapnel.
Then Vince let out a shaky, hoarse laugh, and some--but not enough to put Armand at peace--of the tension ebbed away, like air being let out of a balloon.
"Right," he said, hands clenching tight on his knees. "Right, that's exactly what they do with them. Right, that's what they're all for. Right, and my mother is the Queen of Eng--"
"I saw it."
Vince's mouth shut so hard his teeth clicked together loudly. The guest winced visibly.
Paul gazed at them both, still expressionless. "I was there. I saw it all."
Vince swallowed several times, then choked out, "You can't prove it. You can't. There's no way...there's no way..."
"I don't have to." You believe it anyway.
Vince tried to say something, and found nothing in his mind to speak about. So instead he latched onto a drifting curiosity.
"If this is all true--and I doubt it is," he said, rolling his eyes, "then can you tell me, Mr. Reporter, Sir, what the Company does with all these ripped-out pieces of people? Can you tell me, Paul? Can you?!" He was nearly screaming now.
Silence. Again, Armand shivered, feeling surrounded by a sea of dark emotions.
"Tell me," Paul continued, seemingly unperturbed by his spiteful coworker, "when was the last time you saw a cow, Vince? When? The building we're in is surrounded by countryside and farmland, Vince, when was the last time you saw a cow?"
Vince could only stare, eyes agape. The guest stared, as well, perplexed.
"You think your shoes are made of cowskin, Vince? You think your hamburger was made of bull meat? You think you drink cow's milk? Countries have to eat. People have to eat. And there are no cows anymore, Vince. The Bleeding Plague saw to that. There are no cows, but there sure are a lot of people, aren't there? Billions. And billions. And billions. And every couple of months, a hundred thousand pass right through here, right down the tunnels, out of a Pit and into the Seperators.
"And every day, manmeat rests under plastic in grocery freezers. Leather jackets made of human skin hang on clothesracks. Human hair is made into wigs, fur coats, blankets, rugs, stuffed animals, dolls. Teeth are made into ivory beads, cufflinks, necklaces, pendants, earrings, charms--along with bones, which are also good for those skeletons you see only in schools and doctors offices--you know, the ones that hang, fully-assembled, on metal racks. Organs are preserved for transplants--or, more profitably, for consumer consumption. Hearts, livers, tongues--they're all on sale at the supermarket. Just look for the section with Bessie the Overweight Cow, universal logo of all things beefy."
He said it with the indifference of a man discussing the weekly weather, but Armand, caught in an ocean of feelings, could feel a stream of roiling warmth pouring from Paul. As he stood and listened, it grew hotter and hotter: the man was a fountain of fury. Armand was forced to take a couple steps away from Paul, to keep the streaming, steaming air from scalding him.
"I've seen it all, Vince. I've seen every age cut up and stored away--the elderly, the middle-aged, the new adults, the young adults, the teens, the tweens, the kids, the toddlers, the infants, the newborns." He spat out the word like a mouthful of raw poison. "I've seen fetuses carefully cut from the womb and dumped in growing vats. I've seen semen and eggs extracted from gonads and force-fused together so that the puling greedy leeching monsters that run this wonderful Company can keep feeding us. I've seen a hundred thousand clones dragged down the racks, drugged and mindless, never able to walk awake in a single second of their lives! A hundred thousand souls, Vince! A hundred thousand of them, stolen innocents who never did anything to anyone! Nothing!"
He stood over Vincent, casting his shadow across him. His fists were clenched tight, flesh white and shaking. He breathed heavy through his nose, his lips pressed together in a taut scowl. His eyes blazed like beacons, flaming with indignation, disgust, rage--and sadness. Unshaking, cold sadness. Vincent looked into those bright eyes and saw a man who'd been mourning for millions for every day in a decade. He saw mourning--ringed with guilt.
"You--you--" he stammered, edging backwards, trying to escape Paul's enveloping shadow, which loomed over Vince and the guest with room to spare.
Paul looked at him with his eyes daring.
Vince said nothing more.
There was a beeping sound, and Vince let out a small screech. He looked around, unembarrassed at his squeamishness, for the source.
Paul hadn't so much as twitched. "It's lunchtime, fellas."
Armand managed to tear his staring eyes away from Paul to look at the beeping monitors. Each one flashed orange numerals at him. Lunchtime, indeed.
"He's right," he said quietly.
Vince was already up and moving, his long legs stretching clumsily in front of him as he lurched his way towards the door. When he got there, he stopped, and swiveled around, nearly knocking over the guest, who winced and stood back. Both of them stared at Paul; Vince with rising, petulant anger, and the guest with trepidation--and nausea.
"You're full of it," Vince snarled. "You're full of it and I'm having you reported. You can't talk that way about the Company!" He was screeching again. "You can't! You can't talk that way! You can't spread crap like that around! That's not a good joke! That's not funny! What's wrong with you?!" His spittle flew and landed in clinging strands on the shining table. "What the hell is wrong with you?!"
Paul looked at him with those same eyes. "It's lunchtime." Rock hard tones.
Vince flinched. His anger washed away like a cheap façade. The fear hung out from his face like drooping, rotten eaves. His skin was sallow and slick. "I'm reporting you," he finished lamely, and left, the guest following, holding his stomach. For a second, Armand could see both men's eyes flashing to the waxed paper petals that had once held big, juicy hamburgers...then dash away, flesh going green just as the door shut with a click.
Armand turned to Paul, expecting to see the man still standing, still glaring like a statue of a god--Aries, or Zeus, or raging Poseidon.
Instead, he found himself presented with an excellent view of the back of his head. Blinking, the revelation that had been flung at him only moments before already washing away (not really, of course, he knew that; it would come back to him in time, and that's when he'd cling to the rim of the toilet bowl and pay his dues to the porcelain goddess, throat aching, eyes weeping, soul cringing and clenching), he neared the man.
"You should go."
"I don't want to," Armand said simply.
Paul nodded, not looking at his one remaining companion. His fingers busily flicked buttons, turned knobs, adjusted controls. Armand's eyes widened when he realized what his coworker was doing.
"Are you sure you--"
"Very." Paul hit a final button and sat back in his chair, reclining slightly, staring at his screen. "I am very sure."
"Alright." He swallowed, tried to speak, and couldn't. He stood instead.
"You'd better leave."
"I know." He swallowed again, throat dry as death. "You used to work in the Separators, didn't you?"
Paul inclined his head, looking over his shoulder at Armand. "Yep. For six years. I got tired of it one day, and I asked for a way out. They gave me this--" he gestured at the monitor before him (and, it seemed to Armand, at the bodies still hanging outside), "--on a condition."
"What condition?" Armand said, but his question was lost in the squeak of the chair as Paul pulled it forward, closer to the panels. He opened his mouth to ask it again--and closed it. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know.
"Go, Armand. Go have lunch," Paul said lowly. "You've only got twenty minutes left, and you and I both know how long it takes you to eat." He turned back again and gave the dark-skinned man a shaky grin. "Go on, get outta here."
Armand shifted and nodded, doing his best to return the expression. He turned away--then turned back. "Thanks, Paul."
Paul, already facing the panels again, raised a single hand in a jaunty pose. "Not a problem, Armand. Take care."
Armand watched that hand lower with sorrowful displeasure. "You too."
Armand stepped out, closed the door behind him--and turned to see Vince standing there, hovering over a curdling pile of vomit.
Vince looked at Armand. Armand looked at Vince, his hand still on the cold steel knob of the door. He had just enough time before the panting man spoke to notice that their guest seemed to have gone on ahead.
"What're you looking at?" Vince said through short gasps. Pink-brown slime drizzled down his chin--the remains of his hamburger meal. His tone was angry but his eyes were blank and distant: he was trapped in shock.
Armand shrugged, and opened his mouth.
There was a soft shifting sound that quickly built up into a screech--and ended in a SLAM as something big and heavy slid weightily into place behind the door, which jostled and shook in its frame like a frightened kitten. Shock waves rode up Armand's bones until they rattled in his chest.
Both men stared at the door. A faint, unmistakable whir droned from behind it.
"The vending machine..." Armand muttered, eyes wide. He turned the knob.
"I always wondered why that thing was so heavy..." Vince murmured, staring, his forearm pressed against his mouth to keep himself from dry-heaving.
Armand pushed the door open--or tried to, at least. "It's blocked." He tried again, yanking the door back forth, managing only to slam it a millimeter one way, a millimeter the other. "Completely blocked." He gave the knob a tight, furious squeeze before letting go. He glared hatefully at the door. "Come on, maybe if we work together we can--"
"I," Vince said, backing away from the door, "am on my break." He kept backing away, walking down the hall, the spider-webs of vomit still stuck to his chin. "And that means," he said with a nervous grin, "that I don't have to do any work with anyone." He kept on, heading for the lunch room. "So, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to walk...the hell...away..."
And so he did, fumbling as he turned around, work shoes clip-clopping on the cool metal floor.
Armand watched him leave, a bitter taste hanging off his tongue. He looked down the hall one way (the way that Vince had just vanished down), then at the door, cool and unmoving, and down the hall the other way--where the exit was.
He tried the door again--to no avail, of course. That vending machine was a monster; scrawny Armie Dallinson wasn't about to topple it with his Muscles of Nonexistence. All the same, he pushed, and shoved, and kicked and punched and slammed, beating the door with curled brown fists.
Sighing, shaking, trembling with anger and hate and sorrow and sadness, he stepped back from the door, carefully avoiding Vince's puke puddle, and gave the door one last look--and Paul one last "thank you," silent as thought but as heartfelt as could be.
Then, stone-faced, trying not to cry, Armand turned away, towards the exit.
He wanted out.