Where Once The Brave Stood
There I was, after years of jealous wishing, nestled amongst the meaty cabbage leaves of boyhood adulation, enviable at last. But before a lifetime’s pent-up tedium could even be expelled, the dizzy and unwelcome realisation swept me that despite my ill hopes this was not the place, my final rest. I could not yet die at ease.
The sly, performative smile oozed along with all my fragile pride from my face and onto the pillow. Vision free of sludge, I stared deeply into the comically ecstatic features of my counter-player. Her eyes yet unopened to the truth of my moment, I felt utter contempt for her, myself, and the entire sordid project.
Our rhythmic clucking died in ignominy as she realised what was happening, felt the tightened, turgid atmosphere draining from around and within her, saw clearly that my final, limping thrusts were but a thinly veiled impersonation. She peered softly into my already callous eyes in the light of my betrayal. I looked back, felt nothing, arms sulkily drooping from her sides, and uttered two words:
It took no time at all for her to get up, dress and leave. No explanation was required, nor words exchanged. On some hidden level, she felt it too. A door slammed far away. Footsteps echoed off the concrete. I simply lay there in the dusk of my masochistic youth, all the ill-treatment I had ever laid upon myself revisiting me in that fuzzy midnight world, and I felt inexplicably relieved. There was still more, more I had yet to achieve.
Eventually I clambered across the room, over discarded books, plates and clothes to the corner desk to open up my blinding window onto the world, and began to type.
* * *
Skeleton Quay. The name alone rang misery into the ears of those who heard it. The end of the world. The watery portal that would transport you from the eversafe dimension of stability and structure to the netherworld of infinite chaos beneath. Yes, this cursed harbour sucked in with its evil tide not just your body but the very reason for your existence. Those who boarded here were dead long before the howling of the ocean winds chilled their souls on departure, the warranty on their humynity already voided by popular demand.
Any thoughtless misstep in your daily life could land you here. The quay was not selective. Its countless trapdoors opened up beneath the feet of all who occupied the dying world which had created it. A word or two dropped from careless lips or a glance directed at the wrong individual was enough to cancel your entire worth, kick down your house of cards, and stomp your carefully cultivated intentions into dirt, instantly to be – much more than just forgotten – erased. It didn’t really matter what imaginary offence you had committed. Once accused, you were as good as guilty.
Although there no longer existed such things as kings of industry, preachers of wisdom, or noble, self-sacrificing artists, if there had then they too would have been equally subject before the all-inclusive port of no return. Even those revered above all others within their own societies, those whose suffering could not be measured, whose poor luck, depth of agony, innate wretchedness, and general troglodysm placed them at the pinnacle of adoration and respect could only hope that they would never inadvertently insult one even more afflicted than themselves. Even the new world’s most unfortunate prynces could not escape their own fallibility.
A long time ago, apparently, there had once been a whole system of rules governing when somebody was considered guilty or innocent of a crime, an extensive matrix of conditions which needed to be met. It seems far-fetched to me that people could have been kept safe from each other simply by words and rules and bits of paper, but perhaps it was possible back then. Many things were different before the collapse. Anyway, all that was no longer the case. Whatever unaccountable shell of powerful individuals actually controlled the operations of government and the police force avoided completely the tricky business of fairness and blame. Everyone was to blame all the time for everything. Collective responsibility meant collective guilt, and that meant that anyone could at any time be required to heft the burden of the whole onto their shoulders for the greater good. All it took was a suggestion.
But how did I, a comparatively reasonable and unintentioned being, end up here, searching for any last glimmer of hope in the shivering, sweat-covered back of the tattooed and shackled pre-teen girl ahead of me? I pondered, as I’m sure all do, shuffling across that vast concrete shore to the rust-bucket submarines which would transport all of us down to watery oblivion. I supposed that I was there for the same reason as every other wretch and mutant at my sides – subjectivity.
‘It really isn’t complicated’, I thought as I stepped up to the brutalist battlement that marked the vanishing point of my life. Two masked and grimly suited figures stood before me. ‘People had a choice between courage and fear’ – I was de-chained from the man behind me, so blackened with ink on top of his already ebony skin that I could barely make him out in the dinge – ‘and they chose fear.’ I was lifted by the ankles and wrists and rhythmically swung, tossed down a tiny metal chute feet first.
‘It must have been so easy’, I reflected as every loose extremity snagged on rusty iron nail-ends and weld-spots, ‘to sell their souls.’ My skin tore and peeled against the unforgiving surface of the tube, slick though it was with the blood of those who came before me. ‘Life is pain, as they say – easily misinterpreted.’ The shock of the physical trauma would have overwhelmed me on any other day, but that night I was already dead, and could hardly say I felt a thing. ‘I probably would have done the same, offered the choice.’
I fell with a hot, muggy relief onto a slick heap of bodies perhaps six feet high. Gaping gashes seared all around. The air was warm with agony. The groan that bellowed beneath me was an exhausted one, hardly worth the effort. My knees were mercilessly driven into the unlucky back and groin of several of my new peers. Unfeeling still, I monologued internally as naked limbs engulfed my own and I heard the next poor soul begin to descend: ‘Such a shame,’ – there was a pungent smell of death and piss inside the hull – ‘that it was our lesser nature which won out in the end.’ A trickle of fluid announced the next arrival and the heaving mass braced itself. ‘I wonder,’ – slam! A hefty weight bombed across my chest and I thought perhaps it would be enough to kill me – ‘if the good ever really had a chance.’ Too bad, I survived.
Of that pitch black, hollow night I remember very little. I believe I was one of the last to be loaded. This probably saved my life. I may have passed out from the impacts, or the sudden pressure upon descent, the stench of bodily waste, or simply overwhelming despair, but the next thing I recall is a falling sensation which seemed to wake me with a strange, unearthly ease. Perhaps it was designed to trick one into thinking they had finally been condemned to hell; but no, nothing so meaningful lay in store for us.
Have you ever seen a fishing boat unload its cargo? After the initial fleshy landing, I flopped, and rolled, and ragdolled down a hill of broken souls, to come to rest heaving and lapping rotten, scummy air from the corrugated floor beneath. Blurry vision yielded little knowledge of my new home. I heard cries around me of the others whose will to live, like mine, had now become an unbearable curse. You could taste a wordless wish for death in the air. The miasma was broken after only a few seconds by a barking voice unlike any we had heard in our mostly sheltered lives. It contained pure evil, and even the most naive amongst us knew it. Immediately there was silence, and the voice repeated itself:
‘Inmates! If you can stand, you will stand now! If not, you will be drowned. You have 5 seconds to comply.’
Everyone believed him. Instinctively, and with agonising strain, I managed to ratchet my joints into a functioning position and manoeuvre my legs underneath me. I did it! I stood up, and to this day I don’t know why. I knew that from that point on my life would consist only of abjection, misery, pointlessness. He had offered me sweet, oblivious relief, and yet I stood because he told me to. I heard several others in the vicinity clamber to their feet as well. Biological imperatives aside, seeing the humyn spirit in action, right in front of you, within you, really can inspire hope even in the darkest of places. As I rubbed the crust from my eye sockets and began to acclimate to the dim floodlighting in what appeared to be a very large, rather bare loading area, a bolt of lightning struck the back of my head and I was right back on the floor.
‘Inmate!!’ a new and terrible voice screamed directly in my throbbing eardrum, ‘Who told you to look at me?!’
I gupped like the dying sea creature I was as words failed me completely. What I presumed to be a steel toe-capped boot struck my ribs, and that was it. I was dead. The rest was told to me later by my kind cellmates. They said it was Sub-Warden Uhl, the famous white knight of Swim City, who smacked me in the cranium with his prison-issue collapsible steel baton. They said he had a look of joy so horrifying on his face as he did it that their injuries ceased to hurt immediately. He looked around at them as if simultaneously seeking their approval and threatening bloody murder on every last one, and they knew in that moment that if there were a God, it had abandoned them.
Uhl’s notoriety outside the prison was a strange phenomenon indeed. One might suppose that a place so terrible would be kept from public view, for fear of the people’s sympathies cancelling their desire for humyn sacrifice, but this was not the case. Regular TV broadcasts were in fact made, always featuring none other than our brilliantly clad executioner as spokesmyn, extolling the virtues of the corrective facility’s purifying effect on society, as well as the environmental triumph of the salvage programme which had earned it its name. You see, Swim City, or Drown Town as it was more often called in private, was more than just a torture facility for hate-criminals. It was the salvation of mynkind.
In the past, we are taught in the schoolroom, humyns lived across vast swathes of land and could spread themselves thin as they pleased for there was no lack of space available to them. They built their lives as they saw fit, living only for themselves, their own pleasure and indulgence, and this liberty, this chaos, caused the myriad disasters which very nearly wiped out all life on Earth. In my lifetime, men and women have lived only in huge towering structures, connected by a neural net of sky-bridges. The land far beneath was not only toxic and festering, but dangerously short in supply. Some societies had taken to living on great ships, while others climbed mountains far away to the East and West. Alas, here in the flat-lands we had only one option, our governments being far too florid, disorganised and incompetent for ship-building. However, no matter the chosen solution, the problem was a poly-faceted one.
It is difficult for a society without land to farm or create manufacturing facilities. Many ideas were tried, but nothing seemed able to address our starvation, our absolute poverty. All seemed hopeless, until the fateful day a remarkable visionary made themselves known. A researcher at the more or less ornamental university somehow discovered the existence of a long-forgotten underwater facility not far from the Prime City. Its original purpose had been lost, but it was built and equipped such that it could function as a hub for a salvage initiative which would provide all the materials and old-world technology we would ever need – tinned food, raw metals and plastics, fish even. It was advertised as a Utopian dream, and the populace gleefully laid down their heads to rest.
Though Uhl was not the progenitor of Swim City, by all accounts a kind and well-meaning person presumably turning in their grave (or perhaps even present among the inmates), he was one of the first to explore the place during the discovery missions. The zeal he showed in bringing the facility back to working order was reportedly extremely impressive and earned him much respect. He immediately became the face of the initiative, distinguishable as he was by the immaculately white gear he insisted on wearing, and the smoothness and confidence of his tone when he spoke of the promised future. Some say it was his idea to staff the base almost exclusively with criminals, while others surmise that it was mere lack of housing which necessitated it. Either way, Uhl soon assigned himself to the middling position of Sub-Warden within the prison, and the lambs started to pour in.
After I lost consciousness, they tell me, a few others were ordered to carry me with them as they left the delivery platform, since I looked like a potentially strong worker worth preserving. Those who lived were corralled into a much smaller chamber signposted simply ‘Monkey House’. The guards waited outside. I was dropped to the floor, and the lot of us were gassed. We awoke chemically clean, still naked, and feeling as though a liquid explosion had taken place inside our bodies. Everything hurt, and it was, for some reason, only in that moment that the obvious truth dawned on me that I would never in my life give birth to a child. I was young, only twenty-one years old. I gripped my stomach, cried and felt truly alone, until I looked about me and witnessed many others feeling the same way. I thought of my mother and wondered if a child had ever been born in this abysmal tomb; I hoped and prayed not.
There were about twenty of us to a cell. Peering out from the bars at the front I could estimate another fifteen cells in our corridor before the darkness swallowed the rest. I lay back against the wall, as did all that could. There were no beds, only two buckets in one corner, given as wide a berth as we could manage due to the stench. Claustrophobic and cold despite the bodies surrounding me, I decided the only option was to introduce myself. Perhaps in each other we could find some warmth. I started speaking, and most of the cell turned to acknowledge my existence. Some faces were so frozen and grim that I suppose to do so would have been to let go of whatever fantasised thread they grasped to stay connected to their old lives. I dared not take it away from them. To the others I spoke:
‘Hi everyone. I don’t know what to say, but I want to say something. I don’t know how any of you feel, but I know how this feels for me. I think maybe if we speak about our real lives we could make it a bit easier to exist down here.’
There was a yell of protestation from one who had clearly received better schooling than I. Ghoulishly ugly, his head was shaven and face bare like the rest of us, but I could almost see behind his mannerisms the ghostly afterimage of a floppy fringe and complete set of facial piercings which were the standard accoutrement of the scalper – one who tries to guarantee their own social integrity by continually accusing others of precisely the type of vague misdeed which had landed us all here. (It has never been clear how they all end up looking the same. They are not, as far as anyone knows, organised. I suppose it works as some fashion of defence mechanism, like poisonous frogs and snakes, to ward off predators. However, as evidenced by his presence here, there will always be a brighter, more easily enraged fish out there in the wild.) He sat forward and bore his eyes into me, exploding with one savage word that we all were far too used to hearing:
‘Heathen! Disgusting heathen! Shut your fucking mouth!’
I sighed and stared down at the floor. Even now, cast out by society, literally branded a heathen himself, the rot continued to consume his mind. This man had the look of one who had lived so long in fear, probably spied upon by his parents and his peers, that he had entirely forgotten what it felt like to trust another humyn being. Perhaps he had never known. Suddenly, rather than rage or injury at his outburst, I felt unbearably sorry for him. I looked into his eyes, saucered wide and bloodshot, with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping to somehow project the fear and loathing right out of him with an equal counter-force.
Luckily he seemed to be the only true believer in there with us. Most, of course, knew precisely the right sounds to make in public or around strangers but in private could not help but express their disgust at those who would actually call out and condemn another individual to the hell of non-personhood. In that moment especially, our revulsion seemed magnified by the undeniable fact that one such person had recently betrayed each and every one of us. It was, of course, precisely this revilement we held for them which gave the scalpers their power. They knew that we would never do the same to them. However, despite the fervourous moralising and cultish self-assurance of those who would feed us all into the grinders to protect themselves, they were in fact in the vast minority.
As I contemplated how to proceed with some fragment of love and caution in order to try and bring this vile rat scalper back from the brink of hateful implosion, another large and muscular man stood up beside me. He calmly stepped across the room to face the zealot who himself stood up in turn, still dripping vitriolic foam from his cowardly lips, his forehead level with the other’s chest. The scalper seemed about to speak when the man shot a curled fist as fast as lightning into his wind pipe from below. The rat fell immediately, barely able to eek out even the sounds of helplessness and pain as he choked on his own flesh.
The rest of us watched on in silence, with absolutely no idea how to feel. Still I was lost in moral uncertainty as a foot pressed powerfully down on the already crushed larynx of the creature on the floor. How many inmates’ death warrants had he personally signed with his inhumyn words? How many of us here would he betray to win favour with the scalper guards, cut from the same cloth as they assuredly were? Before I knew it, my mind was made up – not that it mattered at that point. The decisive moralist sat back down and the interruption was finished. It was once again my turn to speak:
‘My name is Kathryn. I was just a vagrant back home, living with my parents and four siblings in a lift-shaft. It was near the bottom floor, but we had it hammocked up pretty nicely. There was room to move at least. I went to schoolroom, church when I had to, but mostly just stayed at home with my youngest brother and scavenged food where I could. My parents and older siblings worked on the sites, building bridges and extensions. Amber lost a few fingers recently, and dad’s been half-crippled for a long time, but all in all we stayed alive and didn’t bother anybody. That was until one day last week, when I fucked up.’
‘I was walking home from schoolroom when I saw her. It’s not far from home so I never worry too much about the journey. I was alone in the corridor, and she was coming towards me from the stairway that I needed to get to. Her hair was relatively normal looking, and she only had a few scars and piercings – she wasn’t even naturally ugly, hunched, or deformed like most scalpers – but she walked with a more obnoxious swagger than I had ever seen in my life, swaying from side to side and swinging her arms so as to make passing impossible. She wasn’t all that big, but literally managed to take up all the available space in a pretty wide hallway. It was rare to see someone smiling so broadly too. She was nothing short of ecstatic as she bounced towards me. She made my neck hairs stand on end. I kept flat to one wall and looked down at the floor, just like I’d done a million times, but this one was different.’
I looked up to check that my audience had not abandoned me, and to my slight surprise discovered a room full of sympathetic faces staring back. Each looked as if they had briefly forgotten their own anguish in the re-telling of mine. I suddenly realised that I was the youngest in the cell by quite a margin, now that the scalper had been put out of our collective misery. Whatever self-doubt I had felt, whatever notion I held that these people did not understand perfectly what I was referring to, vanished entirely. Reassured, I continued:
‘I could feel her eyes on me without looking. The distance between us shrank and I was getting real nervous. As we were about to pass each other, she bounced even more widely than before and flung an arm at me with clear intent. I should have just taken the hit, but I was in such an agitated state of fear that I did something stupid. I reflexively turned my shoulder and moved my body into an adjacent doorway to dodge her swing. She stopped mid-step, and I didn’t even need to see her face to feel the smile widening. I tried to walk on like nothing had happened, but before I could move a metre she was on me.’
‘Grabbing my shoulders and slamming them into the door behind me, I was forced to meet her rabid stare. She had the look of an unleashed dog on the attack. I swear she even sniffed me. One palm firmly cupped the back of my head while the other cruelly squashed and distorted my lips and cheeks. She raised her voice not quite loud enough for the distant guard to hear and started laying into me. “What was that, huh? You trying to avoid me? Do I disgust you?! Do you hate me?! Are you a nasty little fucking heathen?!” My hands were on her lapel desperately trying to push her away, but she was larger and had already secured a tight grip. In my struggling I accidentally tore open the top few buttons of her shirt, and what I saw there horrified me. Burn scars, covering her entire collar bone and upper chest, presumably even more extensive than that. It was then that I knew I had no chance.’
I should probably explain. Our society is largely kept in check through its many trials and hardships by our renowned religious and spiritual leaders, the great and noble bishops, priests and deacons of the A-Athiest church, forever kept by the wisdom of the supreme Chieftyn of the church – They who suffer the most above all humynity. The church, you see, worships wretchedness – as must we, at least in public. The more afflicted one is, the higher the esteem in which they are automatically held. As we are taught in their lofty sermons, with suffering comes nobility, with nobility truth and honour, and with truth and honour the path to wisdom and enlightenment. Those unfortunate enough to have been born without disease or genetic anomaly, perhaps with symmetrical features or a naturally quick intellect, were condemned without recourse as sinners and worthless nihilists, looked down upon by all. To smash the faces of particularly winsome infants was a well-known practice to ensure their future salvation. Inbreeding was common although not actively encouraged by the church, and families would often celebrate the birth of a malformed new child as the bringer of luck and prosperity. So this is the reason why when I noticed the scars covering the scalper’s bust, and as I looked further her hands and ankles as well, I knew for a certainty that her word would be believed over mine.
‘The rest didn’t take long. She moved closer, eyes slithering all over me, and made motions like she was about to grope my breast, but I had collected my thoughts slightly and managed to scream. She looked panicked for a moment, but quickly calculated her next move. She stepped back before savagely kneeing me in the lower abdomen, made so much more forceful by the pull of her arms. I fell as she turned, tearing off her shirt entirely and running towards the guard. Struggling to breathe, I heard her crying, sobbing, begging, pleading that I had attacked her and that she felt endangered by the terrifying heathen. I’m not even beautiful, but her disfigurement was visible to all. The guard radioed for assistance, and I was dragged away. She winked and blew a kiss to me as the bag was placed over my head. I couldn’t even tell, then or now, whether I was angry at her, but I’ve never been so disgusted in my life, at the world, at people, at everything. And now I’m here, I feel somehow as if I’m free of all that. I guess having nothing is actually preferable to living in fear. Though I suppose we’ll all be dead soon, I take some comfort in that. She’ll live in fear ’til the moment someone slits her rotten throat, but here I am, free.’
I gave a look which indicated that my story was over. There was a silent yet sympathetic response from the others. They were saddened by my final words, that things should be this way, that the freedom of the old legends should have led us to this, if it ever truly did exist the way it’s said to have existed. Each of us understood in our chests and stomachs that it was all wrong. Each of those still living on the outside too, except perhaps the true believers who had gagged and silenced their own hearts. And yet, it happened. It was. Each of us had done nothing to stop or change it, we had simply gotten along, loved our families, laughed and joked, tried not to die, because we believed that it was a humyn’s birth right to do so. ‘Innocent thoughts for innocent times.’ The words floated across my mind. These were not innocent times, and perhaps our innocent thoughts were simply weeds in the factory gutter. Perhaps our whole lives we could’ve stood up and done something, together, if we’d only been brave enough. Perhaps on the other side of that decision, to sacrifice one’s own life for the future good of all, lay the paradise of which we dreamed.
Just then, an unexpected voice boomed from the opposite corner of the cell to my own, closest to the waste buckets.
‘I’m sorry that that happened to you, Kathryn. I’m sorry to all of you.’
Everyone turned. He loomed forward into view, revealing a body so cocooned in ink that none of his features could be seen in the gloom. He was like a guilty shadow. The eyeballs in his large, round head were black, and his teeth had been removed. It was obvious to all that this man was a priest. Some around the room instinctively stroked their own tattoos in penitence. He continued in his demagogic tone:
‘I know that down here it must be strange and unwelcome to hear a voice like mine. I’m sorry for that too. People like me have been deceiving you all your lives. I suppose all I can offer you now is the truth that I too was deceived. The church took my soul from me at birth and mangled it into one who would steal the souls of others. I regret everything. I cannot offer you salvation. It is a lie, but, if you will allow me, I feel that I may be able to explain to you why it is that we are here, how it can be that you find freedom only now at the bottom of the ocean rather than the city in the clouds. Many truths have been hidden from you.’
He seemed to look around as if seeking approval. Nobody spoke, so he proceeded:
‘My name is Mother Milton. On the surface I had always been an atheist, the church of course forbidding any public foray into religious realms for fear of God’s word being wasted on the unworthy, or Their love becoming twisted in our thoughts. I taught lies to the masses, preaching probing, doubt, and mockery to protect God from what thorny inquisitions might come of a people who truly wanted to hear Their words. The population was not ready to know of Their existence, so we wrote that the true deity was suffering, as that could always be found in abundance.
Only us clergymyn knew the real truth. God was a victim – a victim of our sinful attempts to understand and satisfy Them, doomed as such attempts would always be. God’s pain was incomparable, and we caused it every second by looking at Them with our false hopes and lowly curiosity, venturing ever-towards them with our offensive and conniving ingenuity, forcing them to look upon their miserable creation. Only the great virtuous Chieftyn could absorb the Word and believe it earnestly, for they were the worthiest and had taken on the sins of humynkind in selfishly maintaining our collective connection to God. They guided all peoples towards a state of enlightened emptiness wherein we could finally amputate our desire to know God at all. By following them we would one day be free of the need for truth and nobility.
But at some point I began to understand that those texts, those dreams, those internal nagging questions that I had always been taught to convince others were nothing but the shackles of the weak, wrought in order to drag all along with ogrous humynity on its trek into the night, actually contained within them a special kind of truth, one that would not crumble under any pressure. No matter how I flagellated myself, no matter how often us priests were asked to lick the sores and pustules of the Chieftyn’s leprous skin, to drink the holy sap, I always found myself unworthy. Ten thousand words etched into my body could not erase the questions in my heart. I was so full of doubt that I began to read the ancient legends, not in order to disprove and obfuscate them as we were supposed to, but because I wanted to believe them.
This was when I began to stray in my sermons, to suspect that all along I had been protecting not God but Their impostor, that in fact my occupation was not that of a shepherd but a prison guard, patrolling the borders of a reconstructed courtyard of Eden, handing out forbidden fruit before stripping the inmates of their clothes and parading them before their muzzled creator. Everything was wrong. How could They be afraid of Their own creation? How could myn be so afraid of God? Wasn’t this all just one great excuse to allow the suffering to continue? Weren’t we just addicted to that suffering? It seemed to me that we were not just lost but brain-damaged. The very apparatus within our minds for finding and knowing truth had been smashed and broken by some drive, some impulse, some instinct, and we no longer believed in souls and Gods and humyn lives. We devoured the land, the oceans, each other. We devoured the world itself in our scrabble for guilt and shame and self-pity, and at long last we have devoured ourselves. Smashing our connection to the healing spirit of truth, we repossessed the Word from the mouth of God. They no longer speak to us.
All of this, of course, I realised far too late. It was too late already when I was born. Events cannot be reversed. A great flood came, and that’s that. God no longer hears our prayers, nor our insults and derision. We are truly alone. I could not hide it though, not effectively enough. My voice became weak and insincere, my sermons less powerful, and the masses under my care restless. They reported undue optimism and a tendency towards forgiveness which caused them severe unease. It is hard to inflict self-punishment and wallow while another is offering you hope of redemption, and so I was removed. I knew it was coming before it happened. I did not fight.’
The preacher looked around once more, feeling perhaps that he had gone on too long already. He was met with expectant silence. I, for my part, was entranced. I had never heard someone speak like this. It was as though invisible mud had been covering my body, so long I had forgotten it entirely, and now a cleansing tide was washing it away. With my eyes I begged him to speak. He did:
‘That’s part of the story anyway, the latter half. I promised you answers as to why we are here, why the world is this way. Unfortunately even I do not know the cast-iron truth of what happened long ago. Perhaps the archbishops and the Chieftyn do, but honestly I suspect they know even less than myself. The truth, I’m afraid, can only be spoken in fable now, though perhaps that is for the best. I will try to preserve the meaning of events.
There was a time when a humyn was a single thing. These were the golden days. We believed ourselves to be separate and individual and interacted with each other as if there could be such an impossible thing as one person’s lone perspective. Life was full of beauty, and the goal was simply to understand one another. You may think that we still have this now. After all, am not I, an individual, sitting here speaking to you all, individuals? But no. Think about why we are here and you will realise that there is no longer such a thing as you or I. We are simply heathens, the ghosts of individuals.
The forbidden legends tell of a world where ‘great’ men and women stood above all others, revered for their abilities and the beauty and tragedy of their lives. Art was common. Crowds of millions were brought to tears by the struggles and triumphs of countless heroes as they fended off the beasts and barbarians in the night who would attempt to invade our minds and bring us down with fear. Those same millions took up arms themselves and followed their champions into battle with the unknown. Though the universe remained a terrifying miasma of decay and distant death, our small corner was illuminated with the fire of unified resistance, and humynity stood tall for the briefest of moments.
Then came the Great Awakening. The heroes of old, supported by a purpose-driven population, won a glorious victory against the monsters in the night. All was well in paradise, and the armies of darkness seemed to have retreated beyond the walls of our tremendous techno-cities. All lived as one. The wary laid down their swords once more in the spirit of peace and grew fat on the majesty of their achievements. But time inevitably passed, and the shifting of the sands began once more.
This time the danger came not from outside, but within. One by one, the strongest among us began to die off, but the fires of opposition which had forged their die-cast souls no longer burned in times of prosperity, and a vacuum formed where once the brave stood, with many unworthy wards and regents rushing to fill their seats. The bulk of their followers, however, remained certain that the battle had been won. Their lives were celebrated dearly and their eternal spirits thanked for the world they had built. The millions which had by now become billions felt safe in the knowledge that if danger ever did rear its titanic form and blast once again the bagpipes of war new heroes would emerge to answer the call and lead us in the fight against uncertainty.
Unfortunately for us, evil had learned not to announce itself. Something soon did emerge, from deep within the bowels of our own metropoles. Something slimy and crippled – a monstrous, deformed, hulking infant like the spirit of foetuses thrown from Spartan cliffs dragged itself from the birth canal of our species, and slopped onto the operating table, now searing with puss and excrement, where it lay and it screamed. Nobody was brave enough to touch it. It let out a banshee’s heart-rending wail as all around turned their heads in unspeakable horror and their hearts were shaken by the return of mortal fear. Many were traumatised by its appearance alone. However, those living who had stood united during the great wars of old believed still in individuality, in standing tall, in the unending pursuit of truth and happiness, and so they decided to teach this creature how to escape its nightmarish existence, how to raise its head and suffer nobly, so as to escape what they knew to be the deepest circle of hell – purposelessness. Despite the people’s apprehension, an idealistic consensus was reached.
But the creature knew only pain, self-pity, gnarled and twisted intentions it could not control. Its capabilities were impaired, its intelligence barely serviceable, its sight unable to distinguish between the punishing lash of existence and the supporting hand of another. It struck out at every opportunity, stealing, fighting, crying and shitting, bashing its head until it gushed murky brown blood into the eyes of those who would try to ease its existence. It was an unbearable presence, and it grew. It grew and grew until it crushed houses and climbed castle walls. Many lost their lives to it, and a river of blood and hatred was left in its wake. By the time we realised that it could not be saved, we were unable to kill it. Humynity lived in its shadow, there were no heroes left to come to our aid, and we watched as everything we loved burned to the ground.
Finally an act of God was what saved us. The flood came and washed the creature out to sea, along with everything we had once built for ourselves. Some say it was our own doing, but one cannot know for sure. I prefer to believe that it was providence at play. We were forced to live up in the rafters of the grand old skyscrapers, spread thin across the land, clustered in city-groups and separated from one another. From then on, cowardice and shame have spread like plagues, as if the monster stayed with us somehow in our very blood, changed our nature forever. We wish for the end in the absence of purpose but haven’t the courage left to bring it on ourselves, so we beg those most wretched and broken to inflict it upon us, and fall ever-further into darkness.’
The man leaned back against the wall, the tone of that final word indicating clearly that the story was finished. Although I didn’t understand the meaning of the events he had just described, somehow they rang true within me. Something like that must have happened for us to be where we were. Whatever blind, seething monster had in fact torn through the sinews of our wonderful free world was long dead, but the aftermath remained. The old world could never be returned to us. I don’t know why, but knowing this made me extremely happy. I smiled and let out the longest breath of my life. The good did have a chance. It was just wasted. People didn’t realise what they had until it was too late, and they let it all be destroyed. The guilt was theirs, not mine.
At that moment, a distant clanging could be heard far down the corridor. The noise grew louder and louder, approaching us – a stick ringing out as it playfully struck the bars. As it got nearer, it separated into two distinct rhythms, and soon there were a pair of guards, a man and a woman, standing outside our cell, rifles slung across their chests, batons in hand. No time at all was wasted in putting us to work. They gazed in scornfully for a few seconds before the man spoke:
‘Right! You lot are looking a bit more achey and scrapey and painy than you did on the outside, eh? How does it feel, huh? You like knowing what pain feels like, you entitled, stuck-up, honourless heathens? Do you? You should be glad you finally get to understand a little bit of what the rest of us go through every day! I bet before you got here you spent your days in bed stuffing your faces while the rest of us worked our fingers to the bone.’ He looked directly into my eyes, ‘Well there’ll be no more of that for you, lazy whore.’
They tossed in a bag who’s contents spilled onto the floor of the cell. Out slid many pairs of handcuffs, some open padlocks, and a length of chain. We all understood what was happening, but they explained nonetheless.
‘Put those on now. Be a good bunch. Biggest at the front…’
They continued lecturing, taunting, patronising, and occasionally striking one of us for fun the entire time it took us to shackle ourselves and exit the room, throughout the long shuffle from the cell-block, down through the winding guts of the facility, and into the diving complex, only eventually halting due to Sub-Warden Uhl’s arrival on the gallery above the area where we were to don our swim-suits and oxygen tanks. I noted on the way down that every cell was as full as our own had been with softly weeping inmates. I wondered if Uhl personally saw off every salvage party, or if there was something special about ours. The guards jumped to attention, and demanded that we do the same. There he stood, perfectly quiffed umber hair, deceptively weak jawline, beady, secretive eyes, festooned in his strikingly white combat suit as always. Uhl spoke with the pensive deliberation of a literary type, yet his voice also contained the forceful repression of a military man. However, I had heard his primal scream of rage back at the loading area. I knew this to be an act immediately. My skull ached as his filthy inflections invaded my ears.
‘You are here, inmates, for the prosperity of all surface society. Here, deep in the Earth’s septic gall bladder, your lives are worth more than they ever could have been up there. You should be grateful for the opportunity to transform your meaningless, self-serving existences into something that benefits your families, your friends, your lovers and children back home. Just think, each tin of meat or vegetable that you find could be the one that they pick up at the food station in whatever slum you came from. Each serviceable machine could be the one that saves their life one day. When you’re down there in the deep dark, I want you to think about all of them, not yourselves. I’m sure the officers have already made you aware of the tracking and explosive devices in your diving suits. You don’t need me to tell you that if you stray from the pack, or if either of your supervising officers lose their vital signs, then every last one will detonate and your lives will be lost, forgotten, and stripped of any potential honour or glory they may have otherwise accrued before they sink to the bottom of the sea. With that said, suffer nobly, and you may even find yourselves redeemed.’
At this final remark, a man a few paces to my right failed to suppress a scoff under his breath. I could only just hear it from a metre or so away, but Uhl, high up on the gantry above, perked up like a hyena at the muffled sound. In a flash, he aimed his rifle and fired a shot. Nobody had time to move. The man fell to the ground screaming, and Uhl gestured for two guards who had been standing against the wall to pick him up.
‘Take that one to my room.’
And with that he, the man, and the guards were gone. We hadn’t time, nor inclination, to wonder what fate lay in store for him. We were once again being lectured at to put on our diving gear as quickly as possible, for the good of all. We did this, as did the guards whose suits were distinctively marked so as to differentiate them. We entered the next room wherein we found a slimy-looking pool, and we dived, each of us in turn followed by the guards, into the chilling, black ocean water.
One at the front, the other at the back, they led us in a predetermined direction, presumably to some known destination, probably pointed out by a previous team. The gear was not exactly heavy as the oxygen tanks kept us buoyant, but breathing was strange and the atmosphere around us thick. Seeing only in the torch’s light made me feel as though something dark and malicious lurked in every shadow. It occurred to me that I had rarely ever bothered going underwater. Why would I when all our time was spent building bridges?
After some while, there remained no sign of the ocean floor ahead of us. We were still descending when the man in front of me, who I recognised by his size to be the one who had executed the boy in the cell, began to increase his speed above the rest of the pack. I was four spaces back from the guard at the front, meaning the man was just three. We were each about 10 metres apart. It did not take him long to catch up, as our convoy moved at a comfortable diving pace. (They had been kind enough to explain to us before setting off that if one dives or re-surfaces too fast they risk their health.)
Each of us carried a fine net with a drawstring around the edge which would serve as a receptacle for any valuable items we might find on the mission. I watched in awe as the man took his net and placed it over the upper body of the prison officer, who seemed to have had no inkling of his approach. I spun to see the guard at the back rapidly heading towards me, combat knife in hand, as she too had seen what was happening. The other inmates seemed frozen in shock and did nothing, simply floated there. I looked ahead again to see the two struggling and the prisoner wrenching the oxygen pipe from the male guard’s tank.
In that moment countless thoughts flashed through my brain. I calculated the relative worth of everything which has ever mattered to me, and saw all the variant futures which might have resulted had my past actions been changed. I fell in love with the murderer in front of me for his ability to decide these matters without hesitation while simultaneously despising him as he had just condemned us all. Most importantly, though, I saw one single fate ahead of me – death. I decided nothing, as there was no time. I simply realised that I wished above all to choose the manner of my own death. So, turning again, at the crucial moment when the female guard was passing me by, I spread my own net out ahead of her. She had no chance to evade it at the pace she was going, and became entangled immediately. She put up quite a fight, but I copied my mentor and tore out her breathing tube while controlling her blade with my other hand. An eruption of bubbles filled the liquid space between us as I watched her drown through the clear visor of her helmet. Her grip on me lessened and I kicked her away. I felt no remorse in that moment, only pure and heavenly liberation.
All of us looked around at the others. There were functional radios built into our helmets, but there was nothing left to be said, no blame, no hate, no excuses. I might even have called the scene peaceful. I closed my eyes, spread my arms to the world, and awaited the end. There was an almighty surge of pressure all around me as the bombs went off. I concentrated on the faces of my family and those that I remembered of my cellmates. My body was rocked and buffeted by the explosions, but to my surprise I soon found myself at rest again.
I inhaled and exhaled a long breath before opening my eyes. I thought for certain that I must have died and awakened in some afterlife of whose nature I daren’t even guess. Regaining my vision, I found my breathing still belaboured by the suit, my eyesight still restricted by the darkness. I was still alive and underwater, but how? Looking around, I watched a marvellous swarm of bubbles escaping towards the faraway surface from all about me, and below the fading beams of sinking torchlight which accompanied my fallen comrades. A malfunction! My explosive had malfunctioned and I was all alone. Alive and alone at the pit of the world. I breathed and breathed and had no idea how to feel. Gently I wept for what could have been, and for the first time in my memory I felt truly lucky to be alive.
After floating there a few minutes I realised that I had to do something. My suit still contained a tracking device, and there would no doubt soon be sent another team of officers to investigate what had happened. Remembering the guards’ edict not to rise too quickly, I stabilised my breathing and began to ascend. I have no idea how far I travelled or how long it took me. It seemed like an eternity, but I felt only tranquil wonder at the void passing me by. My mind was empty and my chest ripe with newfound freedom. Light began to penetrate my world as I neared the surface, and my excitement grew and grew. I burst from the depths and threw off my diving mask like escaping from a brutal choke-hold. Real air was mine again.
I looked around me and could see in the distance the mighty tower-blocks of the Prime City. Knowing that I could never return after all that had happened, I turned and lost myself amongst the endless waves meeting my gaze in the other direction. I am tempted to say I saw God in the surf, but perhaps what I saw was my other self, my full self, the one who was never allowed to exist. Either way, I felt an irresistible force pulling me towards it. Bidding goodbye to my friends and family at home, I swiftly stripped myself of the rest of my suit, detaching and keeping the oxygen tank which would help me stay afloat. Naked and freezing, I began to swim towards a new world.
* * *
The stale smells of cigarettes, musky bed sheets and half-eaten dinners swirled around me. With eyes weary and bloodshot, head delicately beginning to throb, I felt the dawn’s first light break through the minute gap in the curtains. I realised that I had not slept, that the entire night had been spent spilling my tangled emotions onto another unappreciative page. I folded down the laptop’s glaring screen and looked exhaustedly around me. Had I achieved enough? I was almost certain I had not. Had I simply wasted yet another opportunity for human connection? In the quivering clarity of morning I could see that this was the case.
This time, however, instead of punishing myself as I had always done, I chose to make things right. It was an easy decision. I supposed it always had been, but up until then I had simply lacked the courage to make it. Something imperceptible had changed. Slowly, purposefully, I picked up my phone, selected her number, and prepared myself for an argument. Listening only to the dial tone, free of guilt, I stared into the unknown future and smiled. At last, I could live at ease.
Written – Jan 2018 – March 2019
Published – March 2019
Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash