Thanks to Wiktor Karkocha @rotkif for making this photo available freely on Unsplash 🎁 https://unsplash.com/photos/DSjBUCIZdXE
The company of men had been hired under the impression that they would be allowed to return home after their ten years of labor. Jon, the man with the Old World name and the Old World skepticism, didn’t believe a word of it.
The camps, though not too uncomfortable, were not ideal. Living in simple wooden shacks and eating simple boring meals while wearing simple boring clothes and working simple boring jobs was, blatantly, simple and boring. Jon was sick of the work and constantly found himself slacking off, dreaming of the days when he was a teenager, the days when he could stare across a classroom and catch the eye of a beautiful girl.
Now he could stare across the camp and catch the whip of the stern-faced foreman. Jon hated this life; he hated the stark sunshine and the horrendous task of tearing apart the beautiful wilderness that his people had sought so hard to protect. At first, the promise of exploring the unknown world had made his bones quake and his heart shudder. Now he knew that it had already been explored and his job was simply to destroy it.
Besides the pain of broken dreams, Jon’s stomach hurt. He’d passed up on dinner the past three days, nibbling bread and sharing the main course with his co-workers. Typically, sicknesses passed between every man – well, typically, no one got sick. Jon had been clever to hide his illness; the men in charge would have either prescribed him medicine, or, considering his fate, forced him to eat his meals anyway.
Jon glanced up at the sun, noticing that it had been daylight for the past several hours and yet the sun hadn’t even reached the center of the sky. He had noticed this before, that when it reached their work-anniversary, the sun took its longest to set. He wondered if that’s how they used to tell time, back when humans lived on the Earth instead of in the beautiful towers that were designed to protect the environment.
Once again, the hypocrisy of the statement made his head roil.
For years, Jon and his fellow workmen had carved a great hole into the earth, chopping down trees when the hole needed to be wider, assigning men to carry the dirt away to some mysterious patch in the woods – a patch that would eventually be shorn down for the sake of expanding the hole. Even today, the last day of his employment, Jon wasn’t quite sure what the hole was for. There were men, men who’d been there before his group had arrived, who would sift through the dirt, or otherwise direct the men to a certain mineral deposit. He wasn’t sure what it was they were looking for. He had noticed the different kinds of trees they had chopped down: some were tall and thin with scaly green bark, others shorter and stouter, reddish-purple bark in strips decorating the trunk. But these deposits…there was no similarity in the quality of the material, or Jon simply didn’t have the time to notice what they were.
Some of the men dug into the earth with shovels, others had control of machines that simply drilled into the earth, and there were even robots who worked side-by-side with the men.
Which was another curiosity: why were the men doing this job, when it would be so easy to command the machines to do the same, but faster and more efficiently? Jon had puzzled over this one for many hours. He often wondered, too, if the other men who worked beside him thought. What does it mean to think? Jon had once asked himself. And why am I here if I can think and the others cannot? He could only reason an answer to the first question, that the men were afraid of the robots. With the little history he had been taught of the Old World, he knew that the men and women were afraid of artificial intelligence, that the robots at their command would one day revolt and turn against their masters. Such a fear was unfounded, Jon reasoned, because a bunch of wires that were programmed to function didn’t necessarily mean the robot had intelligence.
Or did it?
The crack of a whip across his shoulder alerted Jon to the fact that he was not thinking efficiently. Sometimes he wondered if there was any reason to this thinking business. What good does it do to have a mind of your own if you just get punished for it? Wouldn’t it be so much better if I could just stop thinking altogether?
Jon shrugged, a slight pain searing across his back – nothing he wasn’t used to, being the man with the Old World name gave him an equal mockery and pain back in the Tower – and set back to work. As he dug with his pick, chipping lazily into the wall of the great hole they had dug, he wondered what this particular patch of ground had looked like before mankind had decided to tear it apart. As a matter of fact, what would the world look like if mankind had never been in the world in the first place? He imagined that, for the former, there would be more of those pretty trees, surrounded by a valley of grass, the kind that grew in the cracks of their log huts, the kind that tickled his bare feet when he stumbled out of bed at night. The latter, he supposed, would have the same kind of peaceful beauty and growth, but far more advanced. What was it they had told him in school? That the Old World humans had destroyed the Earth by planting roads where there should have been trees and using trees to build houses? Why was that so bad compared to tunneling a giant hole in this pretty valley?
A shout of joy drew him from his reverie, and he turned, as did every man around him, to see that the man at the drill had tunneled into something that rang with a cool grinding noise, that shone like dull metal and smelled of rust. Jon stared, unable to believe his eyes at the metal that lay buried under so much earth.
“Alright, boys,” said the foreman who had mere minutes before viciously slashed at Jon, smiling with his big teeth. “It looks like your work is done for the day. Go and enjoy your last day, sons.”
Work…done for the day? Jon looked around and saw that only one or two of his companions were equally stunned. The rest had already dropped their tools – a clean-up Jon was sure he would have to do later – and dragged themselves out of the hole, pulling up over the ridges and tearing up the stairs. If Jon had known any of the creatures who had once filled the Old World with amazement, he would have said they were flying as fast as eagles. As it was, Jon was stunned by the way his companions had very little thought as to what the foreman had said – they just did. His inactivity wasn’t noticed just by himself, but by one of the foremen as well.
“Didn’t you hear your master, boy?” the man asked, stepping towards Jon and pulling him close by the collar of his work shirt. His breath reeked of something like tobacco, except that tobacco was no longer used and Jon would not have known what it was, and he snarled something like a grin at Jon’s startled face. “He said go, and enjoy your last day.” The man shoved Jon away, eyebrows raised.
Jon didn’t think twice. He stumbled away as so many of his colleagues had, doing his best to appear mindless and weak. Both foremen had said it, hadn’t they? “Enjoy your last day.” Was that what they were saying? Enjoy the last day of work? Or something a little more sinister?
Once Jon reached the edge of the woods, he could hold it back no more. He vomited up the little bit of water and bread he had eaten that day. He hoped that the men could not see him where he was, as he knew that any sign of sickness meant days of misery ahead. He had heard the men who the nurses had tried to save, yowling and groaning like dying wolves. At least, that was what the nurses said the men had sounded like; Jon wasn’t entirely sure what a wolf was, except that it must be some kind of creature that howled like it was dying. I wonder what kind of skill that would be, Jon thought, wiping his mouth. To be able to yelp as if you were in pain. Would that scare off humans who were hunting you, little wolf? Did they pity you and raise you as one of their own? Jon jumped, terrified, as, in the middle of his thoughts, a small creature looked back at him with eyes round and wide.
“Hello, little creature,” Jon whispered, quaking in his muddy boots.
“Hello, little creature,” the thing echoed, tilting its silver head. What was that, on its face? I’ve never seen a person with so much hair on it. But…that’s not really hair, is it?
“Are you…are you real?” Jon whispered, stepping closer to the being with large golden eyes and cool glowing fur – skin? – and squatting before it.
“Are you, are you real?” the little thing repeated, eyes widening at Jon’s approach, tilting its head, clucking. “Are you, are you real?”
Jon was amazed. This thing seemed to be repeating his every word without having a mouth at all. “What are you, little thing? You’re very pretty.”
“What are you, little thing. You’re very pretty.”
Jon was about to pet the soft pelt atop the creatures head when he heard a head count booming from the camp. “A49, B49, C56. A50, B51, C57.” The thing at his feet was echoing the camp. How could it hear from so far away? It was impossible.
Jon had little time to think. He dashed back to camp, going by way of the bathrooms, and ran to his place just as his number was called. “C76. Why are you panting?”
“I was in the bathroom, sir. I didn’t realize there would be a count, so I raced to my position, sir. I am sorry, sir, for being late to the count.” Jon hoped his groveling would ease the stern frown on the man’s brow.
“Apology accepted, son. However, because of your tardiness, I expect you to clean up the tools in the pit,” the man smiled gently, almost knowingly. “It’s only fair.”
Jon didn’t mention that this would force him to be late for lunch, but that was because he knew that missing the meal would be good for his stomach. He nodded, then crossed his arms over his chest and squared his stance – it was regulation to stand in such a way during the count. “C76?”
“Sir?” Jon said, looking blandly at the man.
“Do make sure to eat some lunch, though.”
“Sir,” Jon answered, turning his sightless stare back to the tree in his immediate line of sight. He was imagining the little silver creature that he had met in the forest. He wasn’t sure how to describe it; if he had lived in the Old World, he would say that it looked like an otter, but instead of water-proof fur, it wore a mantle of silky gray feathers. Its eyes were also too big for an otter, but would have looked more suiting on an owl, and the snout that was hidden in the shadows was covered in slippery scales. The creature did not have wings, but behaved much as a flying squirrel would have, and probably evolved from that same ancient ancestor, being that it had the same skin flaps between its legs, and could climb just as well. It found its home in trees much like those that were beech trees in the Old World, with bark that was gray-white and almost silky to touch. This evolution probably occurred because the insects that would later evolve from what the Old World called butterflies into what they would call fairies, preferred the dazzling silver trees over the duller gray ones, deciding to spend their time pollinating those trees instead of the others.
Jon, though knowing not how to describe the creature, knew exactly how it had looked, and was amazed at the creature’s ability to blend into the shadows. What had it been hiding behind? he wondered, and he settled on the idea that it had been a small tree that it had most of its body hidden behind. Its eyes and crown had peaked over the leaves, a type of silver crest over a small plant, and it had echoed Jon as though it had known how to speak. He was amazed. He wondered if anyone else in the workforce had met such a creature, and wondered even more if they would have been able to make the creature talk as he had. Oh, did it have a melodious voice! It was sweet and silky, unlike any voice he had ever heard before. It was like the croak of a mourning dove, but instead of a sweet, sad who-o, it had murmured actual words! Jon was practically skipping between the buildings on his way to the hole after the count, astonished at his find, and, even more, proud that it had been him who had found the creature. There was no doubt in his mind that he would keep the thing a secret to himself.
As Jon began loading the tools into his arms, he stared up, in the direction he knew the Tower was. He had not seen it in ten years, the inside perhaps not even for fifteen. He suddenly realized how old he must have been; he was eighteen when he had been recruited, and the training and exercising lessons had lasted for at least three years – he hadn’t bothered to count – and he was just completing his tenth year of labor. Oh, how sweet it would be to return to the Tower.
Except, Jon didn’t believe that he would be returned to the Tower. He had almost forgotten what his mother looked like, and it was even harder to recall his sister. She had been ten when he was recruited, and he’d never really cared much for her. He remembered the few times he had taken her to the park, the large, indoor garden complete with swing sets and a track, slides, monkey bars, everything. Those days had been fun, as were the days when he had shown her his games, games that each boy was allowed to play for an hour a day, games that girls were limited to about thirty minutes, if they were lucky. But Jon had supposed that there was no harm in showing a girl the games, and besides, his little sister had loved it. His little sister…what was her name? he wondered, and was astonished to find that he couldn’t remember. He knew it had been Old World-y – their mother was a researcher of the Old World, a government position, a hard-to-earn job that was as easy to lose if the researcher dug too deep in an area they were not allowed. Their mother had also been prohibited to share too much of what she knew and…goodness, what was her name? Jon had forgotten completely, and he knew that he must be at least as old as she was when he had left. Or was he? He remembered her looking so young and happy, with shiny brown-red hair that she took hours to nurture and a little make-up applied to her cheeks. He did not feel young, and he certainly did not feel happy. His sister was always untidy, too young at ten years old to be permitted makeup, too lazy to brushy her unruly blond hair. He knew she would grow up to be a beauty one day…
Jon had forgotten what he was doing and had been holding the few tools he had picked up like a child. Luckily, no one was around to see, and he busied himself with scurrying around the multi-leveled hole, throwing tools atop the stack on the second shelf, and, when he was lower down, the eighth shelf as well. He was moving faster than he ever had, fueled by yearning and the astonishment of the creature he had found – and fear, fear that a foreman would find him there, fear that he would be accused of skipping lunch on purpose. The sun had reached the center of the sky and was already lowering itself when Jon finished piling the tools on to the top layer of the hole, near the lucky drill that had uncovered…whatever it had uncovered. He was proud of himself for moving that quickly, and his short sleeved work shirt was dripping appreciatively with sweat. Despite the sweat, his stomach gurgled painfully, and he grimaced at the prospect of eating anything, despite his promise to the count man. He wondered if he’d even make it back before lunch was over, and wondered even more if he actually wanted to.
When he reached the lunchroom, it was to find that it was very, very empty. Eerily empty. No kitchen staff, no foremen, not even any men who had stayed for left overs. Jon grinned at his luck, jumped the counter where the chefs usually worked, and rummaged for a roll. He knew he’d regret munching on it, but he also knew his body needed food, and, despite the roiling pain in his stomach, he knew the bread would provide him just enough energy to make it through to the next day. Plus, he’d promised the count man he would eat something, and he never said what he was going to eat. Chewing his roll thoughtfully, Jon walked down the aisles, looking at the empty platters. Everything had been eaten on every tray. Jon went to where he sat and saw that, unlike the rest of the trays, his was still full.
He had been expected to eat.
The hair on the back of his neck quivered. He wondered if the men who usually sat around him, A82, B78, and B91, had been instructed not to touch his food. He knew that, unless otherwise told not to, they most certainly would have devoured his lunch. And, Jon had to admit, the food did look rather appetizing. A feast of a warm, gravy covered steak, corn, potatoes, and green beans, along with a nice slice of peach cobbler. The sight of such delicious food made Jon’s stomach recoil with a passion, and Jon wondered whether he would throw up again. Instead, after the heaving in his stomach passed, he took the food and slipped out the back door of the dining hall. He went into the woods only as far as he dared, noticing the tall, branch-y silver trees that must have been home to the creature he had met, and dumped the food into one of those short trees the creature had hidden behind. He knew that such a tree had easily concealed the creature, so it could just as easily conceal the food he hadn’t eaten. Relieved, but still trembling, Jon dashed back into the wooden dining hall and set his plate back to where it belonged. For good measure, he took a pinch of bread from his roll and sprinkled it around where he sat. He assumed that the foremen had noticed his love of bread, and he thought the crumby mess he’d made looked like his usual lunch time mess.
He did not know that bread had not been served that day.
Curious, Jon poked his head out of the front door, looking for his coworkers. Interesting, he thought, amazed at the silence of the camp. Even on a traditional night, there was always noise from the men as they settled in to bed. Perhaps I’m later than I thought, Jon mused, looking for his cabin, marked with the curious word “Delta”. Who knows what that means? Jon thought again, as he did every other day he went into his cabin.
As he expected, all the men were curled into their bunks, sound asleep. He poked one, afraid they would wake, only to find the man so deeply asleep that he did not move. Filled with a strange mixture of amusement and dread, Jon supposed he may as well join the men in their sleep, though he did not really understand why they had all gone to bed so early. He clambered up to his bunk, which hovered over his meal companion, B78, and wondered again how amazing these beds were to not fall and crush the brother underneath.
I wonder if they made these things in the Old World, or if these are a new innovation, Jon thought, pulling up his sheets to his chin. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but his stomach ached and he couldn’t get comfortable. A sudden thought made him jerk out of bed to check that his companions were truly asleep. Wouldn’t it be a clever prank of the foreman to get me to sleep when I should be working? Jon climbed out of bed and poked the cheek of B78, and then wondered what his real name was. Jon knew his own name, but he wondered if the other men knew theirs. Maybe he knew his own name because he was faced with mockery every single day for having such a strange, Old World name. My name is not strange! he remembered shouting to his bullies, my mother says that it used to be a very common name. He wondered, now, as an adult man, if his mother had given him such an individual name because she knew he would be one to think for himself. He wondered, too, if there were many people left who could think for themselves, or if it was just these men who were thought of as mindless. Was that why they had been grouped together? Because they were mindless?
Jon had a sudden urge to beat the sleeping man in front of him. He wanted to punch and strangle him for being so perfectly mindless, for being able to obey the foreman without feeling the harsh crack of his whip across his back. Why me? Jon had whimpered some nights, wondering why he was cursed with this pointless ability to question why he was there, why he was able to put order to the wilderness around him, to put some semblance of order to why they were mining, even though he didn’t really know what mining was and he knew even less what they were mining for. Why have I been cursed with this ability to think but not to know? Why don’t I know what that creature was? Well, Jon argued, I do know what that creature is, now, I suppose. I wonder what it would have been called, in the Old World. Had it even existed in the Old World?
Thus distracted, Jon no longer felt like killing his bedmate, but instead wondered at the physical appearance of the man. To Jon, his eyes were of the usual, human size, but to the Old World people, his eyes would have looked overlarge and strange. His lips, too, were of an unusual size, too small, it would seem, for his head. His forehead was larger and taller than those of the Old World people, and he had long, thick, curly eyelashes that would have seemed feminine, once. His cheek bones were prominent, and his skin was a supple leathery tan, and his hair, which had once been a dusty brown, was sun-bleached to a white-blond color. The man’s arms, even in his sleep, rippled with muscles, and Jon knew that his chest was as broad as his own, and perhaps was decorated with the same curling hairs, though probably brown, and not black, as his own was. Jon wondered if this man had brown eyes, or golden eyes like the creature’s, or perhaps the man had purple or blue eyes. In fact, Jon wondered what he looked like, for he had only looked at himself when he was a teenager, and he only remembered that he had black hair and some semblance of freckles across his nose. What do I look like? Jon asked himself, and why do I care?
Either way, it seemed safest to Jon to curl up in his bed to at least try to go to sleep. He still wondered why the men would want to sleep away the dazzling sunlight outside, but he tried not to worry too much as he clambered once more to the top bunk.
The wind, which blew warm air through the open front door, alerted Jon to the anomaly. The front door was always shut. He must have left it open.
And then he heard the voices as they approached and realized it was too late to fix it. Instead, Jon imitated as best he could the sleeping position of B78, and closed his eyes and tried to breathe slowly. For all the fear and adrenaline pulsing through him, his senses were not very alert, and he almost jumped at the cold hand that touched his cheek.
“They’re still warm, sir,” the voice of the count man whispered, startling Jon with even more fear. He was ashamed, too, that he was thirty-two years old and as scared as a chicken – whatever that meant.
The count man moved on, but not before he heard the man’s low whisper of, “You better learn to play dead, Jon.”
When the door shut, Jon quaked with apprehension. Did the count man really say that? “You better learn to play dead”? Where did he learn my name?
What was going on?
The fear and the discomfort of his stomach ache brought him a night of tossing and turning, and each time he was touched on the cheek, he had to fight his desire to leap up with fright and run for the door. The report from the count man was different each time, but Jon was so feverish and afraid that it all blurred together. The count man did not try again to warn Jon, but he did not tell the other foremen that Jon was still awake, and what’s more, that he was still alive.
When Jon awoke the next morning, it was to find that the sun had already risen, but his comrades had not.