He was not the only one to fear it. Around him, the other stick boys were fidgeting as they passed through the archway. Only the cold presence of the Watchers kept them moving. Bikk could hear the low rumble of the Watchers' rotating feet behind him. They were very close. They were always close.
"Move quickly, sticks," one of the Watchers said in a tinny hiss. "Don't throw your lives away for the sake of the Great One's face. He laughs at you."
Bikk thought of a number of protests that could have been voiced--after all, how could they expect the boys not to walk timidly beneath that monstrous face--but they went unsaid. The protests were always left unsaid.
"I'm still sleepy," Ulus said, leaning close, his scabby face broken by a nervous, toothless frown. "I didn't want to get up."
Bikk had watched Ulus age over the uncountable days of their short lives, growing gradually so that his brown robe clung a bit more tightly to his shoulders and chest. His friend still had the same bright, wide-eyed face, but it had thinned, paled. Bikk had seen a few stick boys sprout up pretty grotesquely, but they never lasted long. Ulus still had a bit of a glow in his cheeks, and that was always a good sign. Though physically quite small-- the top of his nearly hairless head just barely came up to Bikk's shoulders--Ulus could not be numbered among the sickly. He had his health, and, although he was a bit too defiant at times, he had learned, like Bikk, how to survive here.
"Keep quiet," Bikk said to his friend, nudging him in the ribs.
"Into the Working Room, all of you, now," a Watcher said.
Bikk stepped out from under the archway into the only other room he had ever known: the Working Room. It was a long, low chamber, its walls made from the same dark metal as the Watchers. A table sat along the far wall--the "working wall" the boys called it. Loose mechanical parts, like amputated Watcher chunks, covered the table's surface. Bits of rag and bowls of blue polish were lined up in neat rows before the pile of parts. Bikk had spent most of his life standing before the furthest bowl on the left, polishing things, scraping dirt and gunk off strange metal bits, the uses of which were never known to him. He could not remember if he had always worked there--at a certain point his memories began to narrow down into a meaningless whisper of images: faces of stick boys long gone, vague snatches of dialogue, not much else--but he assumed this was where he would remain until the day the Great One took him.
He could hear the six Watchers spreading out behind him, steadily forcing the stick boys toward the working wall.
"Presently there are only nine of you," a Watcher said. "Yet twenty bowls. You will have to work hard today to clean the Great One's treasure. There will be little mercy. Start working, now."
Bikk took his place at the end of the line, the oily smell of the metal parts and the pungent stink of the bright blue polish encircling him. He was tired of this place, this table, the hot metal pieces that burned his hands. He was tired of it all, but he had long since given up the idea that there could be anything else. He picked up the worn scrap of rag, then reached for a curved piece of metal. Dipping the rag into the polish, he began to work, scraping along the rounded side of the metal piece until the hard black layer began to crumble off. It was a mind- numbing routine, but one that he fell into easily. His surroundings--the tiny movements of the other boys, their unpleasant grunting, the harsh smells--gradually faded into a distant corner of his consciousness. These motions had become instinctive.
Ulus roused him a short time later with an unpleasant poke to the ribs.
"That guy's dead," he whispered.
Bikk glanced over at his friend, careful not to let his working pace slow.
And then, to Bikk's horror, Ulus actually set his rag down and pointed.
"Look there, Bikk."
Heart racing, Bikk turned to see what Ulus was pointing at. The Watchers were gathered in a circle a short distance away, their tall, cylindrical bodies and flattened head bending over, as though they were in conference. Each one had a pair of long, thin arms that ended in cloth bulbs. When the bulbs touched flesh, they caused an intense burning pain. Bikk knew the feeling. He had been prodded before, and the punishments had driven any desires for rebellion far from him.
Their arms were pointed downward. On the ground beneath them, at the heart of the circle, a boy lay, his body writhing gracefully in pain, his fingers gripping at his robe, the hem of which was frayed and smoking. Bikk did not know the boy--he was one of the newer ones--but it was not too hard to figure out what had happened. The Watchers had prodded him for working too slow, and the boy couldn't take the prodding. Soon, after the boy had finished dying, they would drag the body bag into the Sleeping Chamber and toss it in the refuse hole. It was nothing new.
Bikk forced his eyes away and concentrated on his work.
"What's to see?" he asked Ulus. "Get to work."
"I'm sick of that," Ulus said with a sigh.
Bikk knew exactly what he meant and took silent comfort in their shared disease. The two of them had survived here longer than any of the others, and, for Bikk, time was becoming a heavier weight to bear. Sometimes it felt like Ulus was the only real person, and the rest of the boys were just transient shadows. The others had come and gone over the years, but Ulus remained.
"That boy couldn't take it," Ulus said a moment later. "He couldn't take the pain."
"Stop talking so much," Bikk replied restlessly, kicking at Ulus's feet.
Bikk could hear the Watchers moving away. He dared a glance. The boy had finished dying and fallen still. The Watchers had stuck him with hooks protruding from their backs and were dragging him away.
"He was just weak," Ulus said defiantly, beginning to scrub angrily with his rag. "You hear me, Bikk? He was weak."
Bikk ignored him and fell back into the working routine. Ulus was acting strangely, and it seemed best to ignore him. The other stick boys, the newer ones, were too stupid to understand the one great secret of this place. There was safety in routine. They had all slowed down, unsure how to react to the boy's death. Bikk could sense their hesitance, their nervous pauses. It was no wonder they couldn't last. Even Ulus, in his strange talkative mood, knew enough to keep working.
"A stick has fallen," a Watcher said from behind them. "He took a rest and was shown no mercy. Keep working or join him."
Bikk did not need to be told this. Head down, eyes tightly shut, he had gone numb again. The soft swish of cloth on metal was all he knew. Some days he would let his mind wander as he worked but not today. Today he only worked, and time passed in a blur.
He was startled when the feeding whistle sounded, the shrill sound piercing through the relative quiet of work. Blinking sweat out of his eyes, he stepped back from the table. His arms fell to his sides, aching, his sleeveless, tattered robe hanging off his shoulders wetly.
"Turn around," a Watcher said.
Bikk and Ulus turned to face the Watchers. The other boys were slower to act. The Watchers were in a row, five of them, their flat, circular heads tilted down, black eyes fixed upon the boys. They had lifeless circles for eyes, and, though they spoke, they were mouthless. Their prodding arms were poised outward, ready to strike.
"Sit down," a Watcher said.
Bikk sat down on the cold, hard floor. A Watcher rolled toward him, a slot opening in the center of its rounded body. A moist, gray square plopped out of the slot into Bikk's lap. The Watcher then moved down the line, serving Ulus an identical block of food. Bikk picked up his food square. It was squishy and warm. Most days the food was a pinkish color, but today it was gray, colorless.
"Strange day," he noted.
"Yes, it is," Ulus replied through a mouthful of food. "I hate it."
There was a harshness to Ulus's voice that made Bikk pause. He looked over at his friend. Ulus's pale eyes were narrowed, and he was eating very quickly, tensely. Even after all he'd seen, could the recent death really be bothering him? Surely not, Bikk reasoned. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Another boy had died. They always died.
"You said yourself that boy was weak," Bikk said, clapping Ulus on the back. "Don't let that get at you."
"It's not that. Not really," Ulus said. "I've been thinking a lot. You didn't know, I guess."
Bikk took a bite of food and glanced up at the Watchers. Ulus, he sensed, was about to say something stupid, something dangerous, and the Watchers were close enough to overhear.
"Don't let that stupid boy's death get at you," Bikk said. "Forget about him. He was passing through, that's all. Like the rest. Passing through."
Ulus gave him a curious look, his forehead creased. There was a strange distance in his eyes.
"Bikk, I said it's not that," Ulus replied. "It is a strange day."
"Not like this. You want to know what I've been thinking about?"
Bikk didn't want to say yes, so he settled for a shrug. He really wanted Ulus to shut up and eat. Thinking was for fools. He was afraid to speak, though, because he knew he was about to lose his temper.
"The sticks...we're this little group now," Ulus said. "Before, when somebody died, a new boy appeared the next day. The dead are supposed to be replaced."
"Oh, Ulus. Stop," Bikk replied, playfully punching him in the arm. "We've made it this far, you and me. We know the secret of this place. We've made it."
"No, we learned how to hide. We hide by doing what we're told."
"Yeah, we do what we're told," Ulus said through a sigh. "but it's getting to where everything is just..just too...much." He bowed his head.
Bikk couldn't argue with that because it was exactly how he felt. He ate in silence. The food had an unpleasant, chalky taste, as though it was on the verge of rotting. It was practically inedible, but he forced it down anyway.
"They aren't going to bring in new stick boys anymore," Ulus said. "They want all of us to die, I think."
"Ulus, stop it. Shut up, or I'll punch you right in the face." Bikk clenched a fist and held it up. "I mean it."
"I could usually make this thought go away," Ulus continued, ignoring the fist. "But not today. Another boy dies, and now there are even less of us. They won't replace him."
Ulus held up the last chunk of his food and crushed it in his palm. The gray matter oozed out between his fingers and splattered against the floor.
"I can see what's happening now, Bikk. It's so clear. I can see it."
A Watcher rolled forward. Bikk's heart leapt in his chest, and he scrambled back, bumping his head on the table's edge. Ulus didn't move, didn't even look up.
"Pick up that food, stick boy," the Watcher said, its dead eyes fixing downward. "Pick it all up."
Bikk drew his arms across his chest. What was Ulus doing? The fool, what was wrong with him?
Ulus, without looking at the Watcher, smeared the bits of food into the ground with his fingertips. Bikk groaned, weak with fear. He could hear the other stick boys making similar terrified sounds.
"Ulus, do what he said," Bikk whispered, his voice seizing in his throat.
Ulus closed his eyes. "Watcher, you want us all to die. That's it, isn't it? Nothing else happens. We die one at a time until there's nobody. It's the end of the world."
The Watcher's right arm shot out, grazing Ulus across the top of the head. There was a sharp crackle, the bitter smell of burnt flesh, and Ulus screamed, falling back. Bikk whimpered.
"Get up, stick boy," the Watcher growled. "Clean up your mess."
Ulus sat up, his eyes glazed over. He looked up at the Watcher then turned to Bikk. The distance Bikk saw in his eyes was insurmountable.
"I knew this was coming, Bikk," Ulus hissed through clenched teeth. "I never said it, but I knew it was coming. You didn't see it because you always hide...but you'll be next."
The Watcher's arm shot out again, slamming Ulus in the face. Ulus jerked back, crashing into the wall beneath the table, his breath leaving him a coarse rush. Other Watchers approached.
"You have one last chance to clean up the mess, stick," the first Watcher roared.
Ulus was quietly twitching, his eyes rolling around in their sockets as though they had broken loose. Blood trickled out of a nostril.
"Now there'll be seven," he said, his voice thick. "Only seven. Then six, five, four..."
"No, Ulus, no," Bikk shouted, lunging forward. He scraped his fingernails along the floor, dragging up the bits of food. When he had collected them all, he rolled them into a ball and quickly swallowed the dirty mass. It tasted like oil and dust.
The Watchers were silent for a moment. Bikk froze in place, blocking Ulus from their view.
"Feeding time is over, sticks," a Watcher said finally. "Get back to work."
Bikk stood up. The row of Watchers fanned out.
"Close, close, Ulus. Too close," he said. "Get up."
Ulus remained on the floor, his eyes half-shut. There was a long, black burn mark across the top of his head and another one on the bridge of his nose. Bikk reached down and snagged the collar of his robe, tugging at it.
"Get up, Ulus, before they come back," he said. "Get up."
Ulus groaned and tried to push himself to his feet. Bikk forced him up, but he seemed unable to stand on his own, leaning limply against the table. His head tipped onto Bikk's shoulder.
"Just turn around and work," Bikk said. "Lean against me if you have to. I don't think they'll care. Just work."
Bikk turned Ulus to face his polish bowl, setting him firmly against his right shoulder. Ulus leaned his arms against the table and grimaced, as though desperately trying not to fall.
"It happens, Ulus. It happens when you do something stupid," Bikk said, close to tears. "Can you work?"
"Have you dreamed of the other place?" Ulus muttered, sounding sleepy. "I think I did once. I think I was there once. It was so clean and bright."
"You're just babbling. There is no other place. Here." Bikk handed Ulus his polish rag.
"There's a beautiful light there. I wonder if it's real. What do you think, Bikk?"
"Work. Please, please!"
Ulus coughed unpleasantly then began to work, sliding a piece of metal toward himself. Bikk breathed a sigh of relief. Ulus was still alive. They'd survived once again.
In time, when he was sure Ulus wasn't going to collapse, he fell back into the work routine, but he felt weak. He couldn't stop his hands from shaking, and he wanted desperately for the work to be over so he could crawl onto his mat, curl up tight, and hide from this terrible day. Unfortunately, time was no longer in such a hurry. The work began to drag until Bikk was almost unable to hold his polish rag. He had to pause from time to time, squeeze his hands against his chest and wait for a moment of calm before continuing.
Another loud whistle signalled the end of the work day. Bikk breathed a monstrous sigh and tossed back his polish rag. On the table before him, arrayed in perfect rows, lay the freshly polished metal pieces, cleaned down to the last crack and bend. He turned to face the Watchers.
"Back into your Sleeping Chamber," one of them said. "Let there be no noise. It is time to sleep, now."
The Watchers fanned out in two rows, creating an open pathway between them that led from the working wall directly to the archway into the Sleeping Chamber. The stick boys began moving in that direction, but Bikk hesitated to see if Ulus could walk on his own. Ulus took a step and stumbled. Bikk grabbed for him and managed to snag his arm, holding him up off the ground.
"Get up, Ulus. We have to go," Bikk said, grunting with the effort. "Put your feet under you."
Ulus struggled to get his legs straightened beneath him, and when he did, he wobbled uncertainly.
"Bikk...something's wrong," he whispered, his voice choking. "Something's really wrong."
"Just walk, Ulus. Hurry, before they take notice."
Bikk tugged on Ulus's arm, forcing him down the path between the Watchers. The Watchers seemed tense and cold, and Bikk could imagine them smiling, waiting for one of the two struggling boys to fall, so they could administer punishment. They would be crooked, perverse smiles, the twisted grins of killers.
"We'll survive anyway," Bikk muttered, practically dragging his friend under the archway into the dim, red Sleeping Chamber.
Bikk laid Ulus down on his cloth sleeping mat and bent over to catch his breath. He could feel the weight of the Great One's face above him, and he turned toward it.
"You'll never have us," Bikk said, raising a fist to the cruel, stone face.
A Watcher appeared in the archway beneath the face, and Bikk let his fist fall. He took a seat on his own mat, waiting for the Watcher to speak, but it said nothing. It seemed content to stand and watch. Around the room, the other boys were settling onto their mats. A few boys were in line to use the refuse hole in the corner or get a drink from the trough beside it. Bikk watched them and felt a sudden rush of intense sadness. None of them would have survived what Ulus had just survived. They were all too fragile for the world. Too pale, too small.
It was Ulus. His voice was very weak. Bikk leaned over him. His friend was curled up in a ball, his eyelids fluttering slightly. Bikk was alarmed to see blood oozing from Ulus's mouth, pooling on the gray mat and running over its edge onto the hard floor.
"Oh, Ulus, what are you doing?"
Ulus groaned and rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in his arms. He was quiet for a moment, and Bikk nudged him with a foot.
"It ends in death here," Ulus said finally, cocking his head to one side. "It all ends in death."
His eyes slipped shut, and he let out a weak cough. Bikk nudged him again, but this time he didn't respond.
"Ulus, what are you talking about? You made it," Bikk said, leaning in closer.
There was a terrifying stillness about Ulus. He seemed at rest. Bikk let out a strangled groan and grabbed his friend by the shoulders, shaking him.
"Ulus, look at me. Open your eyes right now. I'll punch you, I swear."
Ulus did not respond. Bikk stood up and looked around in panic, not knowing what to do. It seemed impossible to catch his breath.
"Ulus, Ulus," he hissed, wringing his hands until they hurt. "You have to get up. If the Watcher thinks your dead he'll come toss you in the refuse hole. Ulus!"
He kicked his friend in the side, but Ulus merely flopped over onto the floor, his arms tangling up beneath him. Bikk fell to his knees, grabbed Ulus by his robe and began shaking him violently.
"You get up before they see you! Get up! Get up!"
A sob broke out of Bikk and he fell back onto his mat, weeping, pounding the floor with his feet. Above him, the stone face smiled.
"Hey, you, shut up! Quit crying. They'll hear."
Which stick boy said this, Bikk did not know, but he fell silent, his blurred vision fixed on the Great One. Around him, the other stick boys sounded frantic, curling up tensely on their mats, and Bikk remembered the Watcher in the archway. He glanced at it, expecting to see it rumbling toward him, its arms held out, ready to punish the crying stick boy. But the Watcher had not moved. It was still in the archway, silent and immobile.
Bikk almost wished it had been coming toward him. What was the use anymore? If Ulus couldn't survive, who could?
"No, no, no," Bikk grunted, drawing his arms around him.
Ulus was not dead. Bikk could not accept that. Ulus would be awake again in the morning. He couldn't be dead, and, if he was, the Watcher in the archway would have come to retrieve him by now. Bikk had seen boys who died in the night being dragged away. The Watchers always knew when a stick boy was dead. So, then, Ulus was alive, if barely, and he would be awake by morning.
Assured, Bikk closed his eyes and rolled onto his side, away from the still form of Ulus. He was restless, but, in time, he fell asleep, tears still wet on his cheeks.
The voice began in his dreams, a detached roar speaking through the walls. Bikk thought it was the voice of the Great One whose words were too terrifying and monstrous to be understood, and he fought his way out of the dream to escape them.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself in pitch darkness. The Sleeping Chamber light had been extinguished, which in itself was disturbing because it the light had never been turned off before. He could only assume that traces of his dream lingered, for he heard the voice in the darkness, speaking from somewhere far away, above him. He could hear the stick boys rustling around him, trying, apparently, to dig deep enough into their mats that they would no longer hear the voice.
Bikk let out a fearful moan and sat up. At last, the Great One was speaking. The end had come, as Ulus had predicted. Its voice was strangely emotional, not at all like the Watchers, and deep, penetrating. He could not catch the words at first. He had to concentrate to comprehend them.
"All power has been shut-off," it said. "This includes the remote guard robots and the lights and doors. All sealed doors will open in five minutes. Please make your way to the main foyer as quickly as possible."
All of this made no sense to Bikk, but he clutched his arms to his knees and waited, listening, wondering how his death would come.
"I repeat, the Emperor has been overthrown, the guards robots shut down. The palace will be detonated in an hour. When the sealed doors open, make you way to the front foyer as quickly as possible. This message pertains primarily to slaves held in working rooms. We cannot locate all slave rooms, so when the doors open, please leave immediately. Someone will find you and take care of you."
Now the stick boys were crying out in fear. Bikk could hear them crawling around on the floor, feeling their way in the darkness, cowering from the voice.
"Why don't you miserable sticks shut up," Bikk said, shouting over the other voice. "Ulus told us the end of the world was coming, didn't he? And did we listen?"
Bikk rose to his feet and turned to face the direction from which he could hear them moving.
The distant voice continued. "The palace will be destroyed in thirty minutes, so it is imperative that you leave when the doors open. We will take care of you now."
What madness was this from the Great one? Or was it the Great One? The Great One would not speak to them like this, surely. This voice had a kindness to it, a gentleness that Bikk had never known.
This thought was shattered as white light poured across the floor, drawing Bikk's shadow in a long, skeletal trail before him. His heart began to pound until he thought he might collapse. In the light, he could see the other sticks boys, curled up in tangles in the far corner. At the presence of the light, they began to scream. Bikk could feel the source of the light behind him, tickling along his neck.
He turned slowly, his hands held up as shields. A luminous white square stood against the far wall, blinding and pure. Even blinded, Bikk could see that it was an opening of some kind, and there was a long, bright chamber beyond.
"We're all going to die," a stick boy shrieked.
Bikk dropped his hands and faced the lit doorway fully. He managed to open his eyes all the way, though they watered painfully.
"Ulus, you were right," he whispered in awe.
He looked at the still form of his friend, still sprawled limply beside his mat, blood dried onto his cheek. Bikk bent down and grabbed his friend by the hand.
"I won't leave you here, Ulus," he said, tugging his friend's stiff body up off the floor.
Bikk managed, though achingly, to lift Ulus onto his shoulders, then he took a step toward the white door.
"No, you stupid stick," someone shouted from behind him. "Don't go in there."
"You'll get us all killed," someone else said, his voice hoarse and frightened.
Bikk paused in his steps. The room beyond the open door was so bright, how could it bring anything but death? The other sticks were right. To pass through the door meant death.
And yet, Ulus had spoken of such a place. Bikk began walking toward the door. He heard rustling sounds behind him and suddenly a hand was firmly clamped around his ankle.
"Don't do it," a stick boy cried, tugging on his leg. "You'll get us all killed. The Watchers will see!"
Bikk shook off the hand and glanced at the still Watcher in the archway. He sneered at it and kept moving toward the door. Another stick boy rushed up and grabbed him around the torso, almost tackling him.
"Stop! Don't do it. Don't kill us," he pleaded.
"Let go of me, you stupid stick," Bikk said. "All of you, you're so weak and stupid. Can't you see that the light is our only choice. Ulus said so. I argued with him once, but he was right. Follow me or stay here and die. But let go of me, either way."
The arms fell off his torso, and Bikk started forward again. When he was but a step away from the door, he glanced back at the other stick boys. Some were following, some were cowering. All were trembling. Bikk felt a momentary stab of terror. Stepping through the door meant stepping out of this world, his world. And he only had a detached voice to go on. He was sure the voice had not come from the Great One now. The Great One was only a stone face, and the Watchers had been stilled. All he had to do was step through the doorway.
"Will you follow me?" Bikk asked the other boys.
"Who are you following?" one of the boys asked, shivering as though he might soon break on his bare feet.
"I follow this light," Bikk said, nodding toward the open door.
"But...but what's out there?" the boy replied.
Bikk sighed and shook his head.
"I don't know," he said, and, taking a deep breath, he stepped into the light and into a new world.
"I am 24 years old, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, working in student ministry. I have been writing science fiction since I first learned to scribble.
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