It wasn’t until the lurching squeal of the train’s brakes that I shook out of the daze.
I smelled piss and sweat, fear and anger, then came a creaking shudder of the rail car door and with it a din of shouting and whistles as the light mercilessly stabbed at my eyes. They were waiting for us.
The men in the car with me protested, cursed and swung at the guards outside but it was no use. I felt the sting of a hand clapping the back of my neck and shoving me forward, there was nowhere to run and in an instant I was just another face in a long line of consternated expressions. Like a stirring worm, anxiety wriggled up in me when I noticed we were clustered in a huge outdoor amphitheater. The wide stone space was packed with line after squirming line of men being pushed forward out of view. These were true workers, with broad chests and worn hands but the stern faced policemen that patrolled up and down poking and shouldering the crowd back into place were much larger.
It was clear in an instant that attempts to entreat sympathy would be futile, these brutes were little more than fleshy automatons. Even still our numbers were greater, perhaps we could overpower them? Maybe even escape? One look at the faces around me and the thought was quashed. Never like this, such a state of simmering fear and confusion found us little more than cattle being led to the pen. To be so lucky.
“Out of my way you bastards!”
A few hundred feet in front of me a man broke from the pack and bolted back in the direction of the train cars. In five steps his body abruptly stiffened and with a groan he pitched forward. A red pool began to form around where his head had thudded and a hush fell over the crowd. I knew we were all thinking the same thing. How? The sound of a gunshot was conspicuously absent. No flash, no smoke, none of the guards even seemed to notice. Despite the silence I could still hear cries and curses and it was then that I noticed the eyes upon us.
Row after row of stark pointed faces gazing hungrily down on us, their lips moving periodically each time they touched their ear. I felt a preserve of dread uncork as I realized one of them was staring straight at me. His face was as white as polished bone, whiter than the fresh snow I’d seen in children’s picture books.
Before the days of the mines, before the invasion.
Down the line one of the policemen abruptly turned and began walking toward me and with him came fear thrashing about like a runaway fire hose. The frenzied beating of my heart battered against my eardrums as he came closer and closer.
Why? Why me! I’d been good, hadn’t tried to run, its not fair dammit!
The gloved hand shot out towards me and there was no place to turn, no one to help.
What did he want with me? Please!
The hand grabbed the back of the collar of the man in front of me and with one sharp motion yanked him out line. I felt only a fringed sense of relief as his bewildered yelps were dragged up out of view. Surely the face in the stands was still watching me, no doubt relishing his power to make us squirm and I fought the urge to meet those cold eyes. We kept our gaze averted and with each jostle of elbows behind me the lines marched steadily forward, our destination as mercurial as the horrors lurking in each of our psyches.
I wondered what each of the men envisioned while I quietly prayed it was anything but a shade of that same private hell which had kept me up so many nights as a child. Ever since that beetle had crawled in my ear I had thought of fiendish incursions, that panicked recoil when something slithers into you, worms its way into a place it shouldn’t be. A place where you couldn’t hope to pry it out. Now and again I invented the notion of things chittering and moving beneath my skin, conspiring against me so I might scream myself hoarse beneath the maddening sensation of uninterrupted horror. It was a morbid comfort to know whatever torment these foes might invent it’d be difficult to rival the terrors of my own mind.
Soon we were at the amphitheater’s exit, being funneled into a featureless hallway. Amidst the sallow glow we were squeezed like potassium chloride through a syringe towards a vein of branching passages. Guards were planted in the middle herding most of the men off to the sides while a small cadre of us continued straight. Other than some nagging whimpering behind me we trudged forward in silence until we came to a great plaza. As a thick smell of grease filled my nostrils I heard a gasp.
The obelisks towered into the turbulent black sky, they seemed to stretch on forever, growing with each step such that I had to stop and gape like an ant before his queen. A different pattern adorned each one, perhaps the darkened windows arranged alternately, maybe an added steeple or a pallid swathe of color. Squinting revealed them a sham, the windows little more than square splotches of black paint and I wondered what else in this place was a hackneyed imitation. Atop were tall appendages of brick, metal, and stone that belched out great swirling clouds of soot, staining a faintly pink sky a deep burgundy and marinating each ray of light into the complexion of an over-scratched rash.
Whilst I stared aghast I was at once conscious of all the suited men hurrying to and fro and despite their obvious limp they hobbled along with a deliberate pace that belied some preternatural programming. Something beyond their dark spectacles guided them into each tower’s base. Their faces bore a variety of different shades of ash, their facsimile clothing spoke signatures of compliance.
I hated them, I pitied them, I feared them and desired nothing more than to prod from a distance until something responded with even the most shallow glimmer of life. My musings ceased with the feeling of a fist closing around my shirt collar and then I was flung stumbling in the direction of a new cluster of guards. They separated us out and we began to march towards several openings near each of the tower’s bases. A spike of sudden apprehension drove into my gut, what sort of hulking nightmares licked their chops for me there?
The intense desire to burst from my captor’s grasp welled up and as I readied myself to tear loose I heard the sound of frantic scrabbling. Turning revealed a terror stricken man backing away from his escort.
“I-I-I’m not meant to be here, there’s been some kind of a mistake. Please you’ve got to listen!”
He struggled and tried to thrash away from their clutches.
“No! Stop! I’m no use to you! I don’t want to be like them, oh god no! No!”
His shrill wailing reverberated all around as the guards dragged the struggling body into the encompassing darkness of one of the buildings.
I closed my mouth and lowered my head. There would be an opportunity soon. There had to be.
Like discarded luggage they pitched me into that black chasm and then in an instant I was alone. Even the sickly light from outside was gone when I looked back behind me there was only an interminable suffocating darkness. I felt in front and touched only cold stone on all sides.
There was no door, so how? And why? I’d followed all the orders, why trap me here, what are they planning?
I shouted and scratched at the stone then off in the distance I heard the sound. Like a butcher slowly sharpening his tools the whine of sliding metal rose up at me from the depths. I felt myself jolted upward, faster and faster on a hellish rollercoaster belligerently careening into the night. It was too much, my stomach churned and protested. Helplessly holding my grumbling abdomen I felt a slowing, and with a rattling quiver it all stopped. Returning was the silence, the damnable drooling silence that beckoned out the horrors of my mind. I could feel the vibrations of them tapping, always tapping at the edges, searching for that weak spot so they might carve a hole just large enough to pull me across.
I put my hand on the wall in front of me and with it was an odd warmth and on the other side a faint whirring noise. I leaned closer. The wall split and my hand waved in open air as it slid away. Some sort of sour implacable odor wafted in and I took an uneasy step forward. In an instant I was pinned to the back of the chamber with a mighty blast of air that rattled my teeth and deafened my ears. It was impossible to struggle or do anything but shut my eyes and wait for the end. I slipped away.
Can’t move something’s on me. In me.
Something burrowed in where it shouldn’t be. I tried to rip my neck back and an incredible pressure at the top of my head kept me rooted in place, a sinister sunken talon squeezing and relaxing over and over. There was a pulsing sensation of liquid being pushed in.
No! Stay away, stay out!
I tried to blink but nothing happened, at first I thought it due to the dark then I tried again. Nothing moved aside from a futile tensing of muscles.
My eyelids! Where are my eyelids!
A deep pain throbbed in my ankles, they wouldn’t move either. I wanted to scream but there was only a muffled vibration in my throat and I gagged and coughed on a thick hose while my eyes burned with a stream of tears. I felt it in my stomach greedily probing, claiming the space for itself. Any attempts to lurch back were met with the talon’s squeeze and I had to stop immediately. Everything drifted away with the hot tingling sensation near the top of my spine. A signal. A directive.
Like dreamlike smoke came wafting in a vision of rows and rows of glistening bodies, great fields of them spread out in a vast room. Their arms and legs were locked in cycles of vigorous movement and long snaking clear tubes were anchored to the back of their flexed necks. Every so often a small stream of fluid traveled up the tube to the ceiling and the prisoner would emit a wrenching cry of agony that made some deeper part of me bristle with disgusted rage. I heard them begging and pleading and wanting to die and wondering, always wondering if this punishment was eternal.
Somehow I knew I was to hurt these men. I was to be the sentinel of their suffering, their continual anguish a spark to unearth just another resource and I just another drill.
They promised rewards if I complied, small carrots of freedom if I did my duty.
Just kill me now, I’ll never help you.
My refusal meant nothing and I knew they knew. At first I resisted the brief flashes then they came faster and faster each one longer and more grotesque. It showed me horrendous torments beyond the pale of anything I could’ve conceived. It threatened beetles digging and skittering and multiplying inside me, generations living and dying while I felt every movement, every brush of the antenna, every horrible nibble of the larvae. Begging for it to stop I crumbled.
They had me.
Ages past and I was good. They were proud of me. I was an earner. I was their doom-driven bastion of cruelty, a cold machine of progress, an instrument of extraction.
I never relished the work like the others, never salivated or aroused my interest. There was a time my mind wasn’t so different from those of the resources I carve up now but those days are just wispy fragments of another life. The shreds are too quick and I’m too slow. Their slipping away and I’m sliding the other direction, there’s just enough left to know its the wrong direction.
What does that mean? Who can I be?
These resources, no, these men, implore me for the release of death. A final kindness.
Can I? But they’ll know. They’ll send them!
I maneuvered into a particularly supple mind and began the search, it didn’t take long to find. Insects, hundreds of them covering him and tunneling in and dragging him down. I paused for the first time since I could remember. Not this one, it didn’t seem right. They had enough already but I knew they’d never let me skip.
It’ll be you. Just do this one then you’ll stop later.
I started to pull it into his forefront.
No! This ends now! Let them come.
I shoved it away and pressed on his motor cortex as hard I could. There was no pain just brief confusion and with a pop he stopped moving and it was done. I danced from one to the next, bursting in then crushing their cortex’s into nothing then out and in again. Dozens, I was known and it wouldn’t be long now. Hundreds, the beetles were at the edge starting their horrific climb inside. Thousands, the whole back line began to collapse and the beetles were everywhere, their mandibles tearing at me but I kept going, I had to. A few more then I couldn’t find anything, I was drowning in them. With one last surge of focus I grabbed onto something that seemed like a cortex and squeezed with everything I had.