The voices of the Gods have been silent for many cycles. No one alive remembers what they sounded like. All we have of what they said are the etchings their Oracles made on plastic sheets. They were wise not to use paper to record the Gods’ words. Paper decays with time. Our oldest books all are made of the plastic sheets, bound together with nylon threads. The newer volumes have paper pages and leather covers. I prefer their smells, especially the ones older than myself, but it is clear the paper does not hold up as well as the more aged plastics.
I care for the library. Thousands of tomes line the walls of its various rooms in tiers of shelves towering above my head. My days are spent cleaning the shelves and dusting the books, returning stray volumes to their proper resting places, and guiding lost souls to the texts they seek. My nights I spend perusing one tract or another, whichever is currently holding my interest – lately mostly those from which I might glean some knowledge of our history.
It is clearest back to when the voices of the Gods fell silent. Further back, in the Oracles which recorded the Gods’ final words, it seems more of a mythology. They speak of failing computers (whatever that might be) , refer to this small world we live within as a ship traveling from one star to another – clearly a religious metaphor, for the stars are clearly beyond the reach of man, and even the blind can see that we are not moving. They speak of some ancient home called Earth the Gods cited, an Earth even the Oracles admitted to not remembering, or knowing what it is, or was. They speak of a “meteor strike” that damaged a great portion of the ship – I can only infer that they refer to the Great Hole – that portion of Spera into which none may tread for it is open to the Great Void and there is no air within.
This day, I was cleaning one of the shelves near the garden entrance when Marcus arrived. He was one of our few mechanics, the wise men entrusted with the maintenance and repair of the ancient machines entrusted to us by the Gods. His entrance excited me somewhat, for it meant he would be seeking one of the older manuals - the ones scribed by the Oracles.
I woke up to Mike’s face directly above mine. Now, don’t get me wrong, Mike’s a great guy and all, but his face is definitely not the first thing I want to see in the morning. Especially since it probably meant his thresher broke down again and he wanted me to fix it right now.
Most people treat us mechanics with reverence. After all, we’re the “holy men” who were enjoined by the Gods to attend to the ancient machines. Really, we’re just grease monkeys who can turn a wrench. We don’t know the half of what these machines really do, and couldn’t build one if our lives depended on it. But we can fix ‘em, especially with the manuals left behind by the Oracles. But one thing my Pop taught me was, if everyone else wants to believe we’re some kind of wise men, let ‘em. Gets us a few perks, which ain’t bad.
Mike, on the other hand, just didn’t have two sticks to rub together. So he didn’t give me the deference others might. When he needed something fixed, he just let himself into my suite and waited until either I woke up (if I were sleeping) or got home (if I were away). Today was obviously the former.
Pushing him aside by the chest, I sat up in bed and slid my feet into my black leather slippers that lie beside the bed.
“Marcus, the thresher’s broke ‘gain,” he began before my hand even touched him, “the blades ain’t spinnin’.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll get to it soon’s I’ve had some coffee and breakfast,” I replied, trying unsuccessfully to hide my annoyance at being pestered before I’ve even gotten the sleep out of my eyes.
“But it needs fixin’ now,” he whined, “the wheat ain’t gonna thresh itself.”
“And the half hour it takes me to get a bite to eat and wake myself up isn’t going to hurt it any, either, now is it?” I spat back as I stood up and headed towards the kitchen.
He continued to pester me, but I ignored him as I went about the preparations of my day, the most important of which was a giant steaming mug of coffee. With some eggs in my belly, and the mug in hand, I felt ready to face the day.
“Alright, then, Mike, let’s go see about this thresher of yours.”
He almost leapt in the air in his hurry to get out the door and back to his farm in the garden. Thankfully, my place was right on the garden – another privilege of station. Not so fortunately, Mike’s farm was at least an hour’s walk. At least it was through the garden, which is universally agreed to be the most pleasant part of Spera. The portion we were walking through was the wooded portion, and not the one currently being logged. So the walk was pleasant, with firs towering over us on either side of the trail, filling the air with a pine scent, and covering the ground with soft needles. Mike tried to strike up a conversation, but I largely ignored him, losing myself instead in the sounds of birds chirping in the trees and a brook babbling nearby. I couldn’t help but slip into thoughts of how just the other day I had to replace an o-ring in the recycling pump of that same brook.
Soon enough we were at his farm, and it turned out to be just a minor clogging of the blades with some shafts of wheat. He could have fixed it himself, if he had had sense to, but, then, this was Mike, and I already told you about that. A few minutes and some dirtied hands later, I brushed myself off and climbed back down off the thresher blades. Stepping well clear of it, I let him know it should be good to go, then picked my mug up off the fencepost I’d left it on, and headed on my way to find my next chore.
I strolled somewhat leisurely for a few minutes, just appreciating the robust, earthy, calming smell of the wheat. The sound of children laughing danced into my ears, and I smiled as I saw two boys, the smaller one with corn-yellow hair, the larger with coal-black, come rolling out of the wheat, leaving a chaos of waving stalks in their wake.
But then I noticed something wrong. Outside of the swirling whorls the two boys had created, there was no other rustling in the wheat. The further out stalks all stood perfectly still when they should be swaying ever so slightly, rustling as they brush against each other. There was none of this. I sighed, took a long pull from my mug, and picked up my pace – I’d found my next chore, and I needed to get to the library before I could fix the air recyclers.
*Billy and Bobby*
Billy and Bobby were the best of friends. Billy’s father was the blacksmith, and Bobby’s was the salvage collector, so the latter visited the former on a regular basis, dropping off scrap metal for Billy’s father to smelt and forge back into some more useful form. Sometimes Bobby’s father would bring strange devices that were found in some uninhabited portion of Spera. He’d frequently bring Bobby with him to help carry the heavy loads, and that’s how the two boys met. They quickly hit it off and were now inseparable, spending as much of their free time together as their parents would allow.
This morning both had the day off, and Bobby had come by the smithy to see if Billy could come out to play. Billy’s father assented with a grunt from where he stood adjusting controls of the plasma stream that was used to heat the forge. Squealing with glee, Billy rather indecorously dropped the bucket of brads he was carrying and leapt towards the door when his mother put down the crucible from which she was pouring molten steel into a mould and pointed the tongs in the boys’ general direction.
“You be home by lights off, Billy, you hear?”
“Okay, mom, bye!” Billy replied over his shoulder as he ran down the corridor.
The two ran a short distance before deciding they truly were free and clear and slowed to a walk.
“So whataya wanna do today, Bobby?” Since the scavenger’s boy got to see more of Spera than Billy ever did, the blacksmith’s boy usually deferred to his leadership when it came to planning what mischief they might get about to at any given time. “Wanna go to the li-bary?”
“Nah, I wanna play Fore and Aft,” the smaller boy replied, “but we’re gonna need someone else to play.”
“What about Freda and Jeffrey?”
Brother and sister, Freda was a bit of a tomboy and Jeffrey was always willing to tag along, the lost puppy of the group.
“Sure, let’s go get ‘em. Fastest way’s across the Garden, through Farmer Bronson’s farm,” he looked at Billy with sky-blue eyes, then took off in a run, “Beat you there!”
“No fair!” the boy with soot-smudged cheeks cried as he gave chase. Soon the two were in the gardens and beating their way through thickly-growing shafts of wheat that near matched Bobby’s hair. Kernels broke off and lodged themselves in various places of their clothing and hair, but the two didn’t notice at all as they forged further ahead, laughing as they ran. Finally the bigger boy was able to catch up and he tackled his friend, bring the two of them to the ground in a tumble as they poured out of the field and onto the very trail upon which Marcus the Mechanic was walking.
They tussled a moment before noticing him, but by then he was already walking away from them. Billy slapped Bobby on the shoulder as he stood up. “Stupid, see what you made me do? We’re s’posed to give our ‘spects to the me-chan-ic.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal Billy. See, he hardly even noticed us. Let’s just go get Freda and Jeffrey.”
And the two headed off again, this time at a walk down the trail, occasionally playfully batting each other. Now and then one would stoop to pick up a rock and then toss it over the wheat as far as he could throw.
After awhile they made it to the corridor that led out of the garden and to their friend’s abode, and shortly thereafter stood at that very doorway, barber stripes painted on the wall next to the buzzer, which Bobby pressed. Soon Freda appeared, the question was asked, and all admonitions were made by the parents, and the four were soon off back to the garden once more.
Bobby led the way to an access panel hidden in an elm grove, and opened it, holding it so the others might enter before him.
Little Jeffrey complained, “Won’t we get in trouble if we go down there?”
“No, we won’t scaredy-pants,” his bigger sister replied with disdain, “not if we don’t get caught. And ‘sides, where else are we gonna play Fore and Aft if not near the Hole? Bobby says this is the fastest way there.”
She dropped down through the hole in the ground into a dimly-lit grey-walled Jeffries Tube. She was soon followed by the other three and they begin their crawl down the tube, which, after making a few bends, led to another closed off panel. Bobby crawled over the children in front of him to open the grating, since none of them knew how. He cracked the panel open just a smidgen and peered through.
The thunder of running feet pounding against hard flooring warned him of the approach of an adult and he quickly pulled the grille back in place. No sooner had he done so than two pairs of booted feet quickly passed in front of him, the cover breaking them into a pattern of lines. The sound of them rapidly faded, the children found they’d been holding their breath, and they all exhaled in unison.
He eeked open the panel once more, peering through the crack as he did so. Emboldened when he saw no one there, he pushed it open the rest of the way, stuck his head out into the hallway, looked both ways, then whispered back, “It’s all clear,” before worming out of the opening and rising to his feet. The others piled out behind him.
“Where they going?” Billy asked, straining his neck as if he could look around the bend in the passageway.
“Pro’lly goin’ to bust some Aftie heads,” Freda posited.
“Ooh! We should go watch!” Bobby animatedly interjected. And he pursued, the others following soon after.
The Afties were always up to something, and it was never good. They came from the other side of the Hole, sometimes crossing it in Breather Suits, sometimes slipping in through one of the Jeffries Tubes that connect their side of Spera to ours. They’d come, and they’d try to steal our food, or our supplies, or our women. They’d come and they’d kill a few of us before we found them. They’d come and they’d sabotage something before trying to slip back to their territory.
They wouldn’t always succeed, though, and it was my job to make sure they didn’t. We in the Fore Defense Force – our job was to stop the Afties whenever they invaded. Sometimes we’d mount small offensives of our own, usually when there was some lull in the Afties’ attacks, when we had the men to spare.
Our barracks were on the Hole side of the gardens. The closer to the Hole the better our response time, but we left a bit of a buffer zone to prevent them from being able to surprise us totally. Most of the soldiers bunked in a common bay, but given that I was a Noncom, I had my only humble little room, just off my platoon’s bay. This allowed me to keep tabs on them day or night.
On this particular day, not much had been happening. I had just run them through a rigorous training exercise in Breather Suits the day before, so today we were cleaning those same suits and inspecting them for damage. Even the slightest puncture was fatal and needed to be repaired immediately. For this, liberal applications of duct tape would suffice until the suit could be returned to the clothiers for more permanent repairs.
We sat around the bay, some men and women sitting on their bunks, other on their footlockers, everyone with some part of their suit in their laps – a helmet, boots, pants, or coat. In the manner of soldiers, crude banter bounced around the room, the usual blowing off of steam that those of us in charge never interrupted. At least, not those of us who knew better. They needed it. Otherwise, one of these days, one of ‘em’ll snap and *bang* they’ve blown someone’s head off with their zapgun.
In the middle of this, Private Zsang of 4th Platoon came slinging into the room, his hand clasped firmly on the door frame to slow the momentum of his run.
“Afties hit the air pumps!” He yelled, then dashed back out of the Bay.
“All right, boys, you heard the man, get to it! You have 3 minutes to gear up and form up! Move move!” I barked, jumping to my feet and running to my room with suit in hand. I tossed it on my bunk, grabbed my rifle, web-gear and c-pot, then dashed back into the middle of the bay, threading my arms through the web-gear on my way. Various members of the platoon yelled “Formation!” as they scrambled to finish dressing in their gear then fell in place in front of their bunks. I donned my c-pot, hating the thing as always for the loss of vision and hearing. It had other advantages, though, mainly that of having a good chance of preventing a zapgun from splitting my head open. I began walking down the length of my now fully-dressed and prepped platoon, each man and woman standing smartly at attention with their weapons at order arms.
“Alright, boys and girls, you know the drill. We’ve done this a dozen times before. When we exit this bay, I want you to split up into your designated teams and spread out to search your assigned corridors. We sweep until we’ve either found the Afties or have confirmed those Void-eating scum have returned to their side of the Hole. Got it?” I didn’t pause to give them any time to question me before giving the order, “Move out! Private Foster, you’re with me.”
The platoon’s heavy gunner fell in beside me as I proudly watched the other grunts double-time their way through the bay doors, some heading left and others right, always in pairs, as they split off on their appointed routes.
“Foster, we’re going to head straight for the nearest Hole entrance. We’ll set up there to try to catch ‘em as the rest of the platoon flushes ‘em out. Let’s roll.”
“Yes, sergeant!” The big man shouldered his heavier zapgun, and proceeded out the bay door in front of me.
We double-timed down several twisting hallways, weapons at the ready, slowing at the turns and intersections just long enough to ensure they were clear of hostiles before proceeding. Once I swore that a vent covering was open, but when I looked again, it was closed tight. That tube was too narrow for someone to readily crawl through, anyway, so I just chalked it up to my own jumpiness and kept running by.
We found ourselves at our destination in short order. It was a large, cavernous chamber, with several corridors opening up into it. A jumble of debris was scattered throughout, some of it charred, twisted, bits of melted something. The far wall was itself misshapen and miscoloured – a result of the tremendous force the Gods exerted when they created the Hole. There were bright yellow warning signs beside three doors, each bent, two of them clearly welded shut, but the other showing signs of having been recently cut open and temporarily resealed. This clearly was the Aftie’s entry point.
“There,” I gestured to a particular pile of refuse that seemed to provide good cover, and from which we could set up kill-zones encompassing all entrances to the room. We sped over to the mound, half-crouching in anticipation of taking fire from the enemy whom we expected to arrive at any instant. Planting a hand on a relatively flat looking spot, I vaulted the barrier, then turned to face outward, laying myself down and resting my rifle across the same flattened spot. Once, settled, all we had to do was wait.
And we didn’t have to wait long.
Mere moments after we had established our position, dashing feet reverberated off walls from what sounded like two different directions. Williams panned over both of them, as did I. Suddenly, out of the tunnel from which we’d come, four children spilled. Almost simultaneously, four men, clearly not of the Fore Clan, sprinted from a nearby entranceway. I recognized one of the children – the blacksmith’s son.
“Get out of here, you kids!” I yelled, then took bead on the foremost of the Afties. Unfortunately, the trained soldiers before me responded far more rapidly than did the children, and soon the air was ablaze with the sizzle and crack of God-beams.
It was over in mere seconds. Smoke filled the air, and with it, the smell of ozone, and the sickeningly sweet tang of recently cooked flesh. Four dead Afties sprawled near each other where we cut them down. And not far from them, four dead children. I don’t know if it was from a stray shot from myself or Williams, or if one of the Afties purposefully turned his own weapon the innocents, but it doesn’t really matter. The results were the same. And here I was, the man in charge, the one responsible for the action. The one responsible for their deaths. For a moment, the world began to spin around me, and I felt sick to my stomach.
Then, biting down, willing myself to calm, I crossed the room to kneel over one of their broken forms. I don’t know why, but I wanted to imprint this child’s face in my memory. I think perhaps my doing so would somehow bring the child back to life, if only in my mind. It took some time before I stood up and walked away, remembering that I also would have to be the one to tell the parents.
“Nononononono! Fucking Afties!” Foster stood over the small corpses knuckling his forehead, then walked over to the nearest intruder’s body and kicked it in the ribs. “We’ve gotta make ‘em pay for this, Sarge. Pay hard!” He broke into a run back in the direction of the barracks.
My head snapped up to look after him. “Foster, get your ass back here!” He didn’t listen to me, so I was forced to chase after him. Despite the extra burden of the heavier weapon, he managed to beat me back to the platoon bay, and already had one leg in the pants of his breather suit when I came running through the door. I didn’t stop until I was up in his face and grabbed him by the shoulders, my weapon forgotten and hanging behind me from its shoulder-strap.
“Now you listen here, Private! You are not crossing the Hole. Not on your own, and not now. You will put get out of that suit and put down your weapon, NOW,” I ordered, piercing him with my harshest ‘you will do what I say or rue the consequences’ stare. He stopped what he was doing.
“But, Sarge, the kids! We can’t just let those Afties get away with that! We gotta do something.” Sheer consternation showed in his distraught eyes.
“I know, and we will. But we gotta do it right. First, we’ve got to get those kids bodies back to their parents, so they can be given a proper cremation. Then we’ll report to the council and let them make the decision on how we proceed. I’m sure they’ll want us to retaliate. We just have to do it proper.”
He hung his head like a dog and reluctantly pulled the pants off. He threw them on his bunk, then replied, “Yes, Sergeant.”
“Good, now come help me with the bodies.”
He fell in beside me as we returned to address the grisly task of collecting the four children who’s lives had been cut so appallingly short.