Oh dear god, this is one of my favorites. Unfortunately it totally fell flat at my writer's group when I presented it a couple of years back. Most people couldn't follow it. It might be structured a bit too loosely, and it's definitely weird. There's no easy way into this story or this world, but damn I like the way I rendered this one. If you can't tell by the end of it, it's a blatant comment on materialism. Enjoy.
"Anna honey, wake up..."
Anna opened her eyes to find them staring at the fixer, hypnotized by its pulsating, burning needles as they threaded their way through the layers of plastic, painting thin green lines. The vibrations purring from the internal motions of the fixer calmed her, even as she was repulsed by the acrid smell of it. This was not her first time operating this fixer. It required green wax and produced the reclaimed plastic sheaths that the workers wore when rain was in the air outside the factory. She was careful not to get her fingers too close to the green slicked needles; her fingers were already raw from gathering. She had been sent out earlier to gather wax but the ruins were being slowly dismantled with the constant gathering, and appropriate supplies were getting harder to find.
Overhead, the vast vaulted ceiling of the factory reverberated with the sounds of thousands of humming fixers operated by thousands of silent workers. Speech was forbidden on the floor, and singing was a distant memory. Anna somehow caught a few notes skimming around in her brain but she always managed to concentrate and force them out by repeating the laws of the factory. The pheromones phiffing from the cracks in the skin of the fixers took care of the rest.
The factory shuddered as it began another lumbering descent. Anna instinctively clutched the fixer for support, and it flexed its flesh in response to her sudden touch. Several of its antennae stiffened then relaxed, oozing a thin black liquid. Its one clouded eye darted vaguely in her direction, then slowly returned its deadened gaze to a spot fixed in the air halfway to the ceiling. The wax was almost gone and she would surely be brought up to the office to account for her failure. She had to keep the feeding tube full of wax and her fingers away from the needles as she guided the plastic through, but sleep kept tugging at the ragged ends of her mind.
Her fingers fluttered as the level of wax fell. If the wax ran out before the factory finished its descent, she would surely be punished. She picked up the last of the crayons she had collected. The label said "Forest Green". It triggered a faint hint of a memory. She remembered it, or something like it. She surreptitiously brought the crayon to her nose. A sound came back, a sound that workers make, larval workers, many of them, in a room with lots of paper.
Anna peeled the crayon carefully, and bending low to avoid the sight of other workers, put the paper in her mouth. She let saliva soak through it, and she tasted its bitterness before pushing it up behind her back teeth. There was a pit in her stomach a mile deep, and the paper made it seep deeper, but it was a relief to have something that reminded her of food. She couldn't remember when she last ate; it was before the factories descended and froze the day, before she was recruited as a worker, the time before that she could barely remember.
Anna fed the last crayon into the feeding tube, and waited with dread for the fixer to come to a grumbling stop. As the wax ran out, the plastic sheets bunched up behind the needles. The fixer paused motionless, and then it released its chapped mouth from the feeding tube and started screaming. Anna clapped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tight. The other operators sluggishly turned their heads in her direction, then, almost in unison, slowly turned their heavy lidded eyes back to their own fixers.
The cry of the fixer abated somewhat to an intermittent keening, and Anna clutched her hands over her mouth in horror. She looked up to the office door, and there was movement behind its transparent membrane. She wanted to scream herself. Maybe they would just let her go out and collect more wax, or maybe they would shove her into the feeder fixers on the down below. She would just have to explain that she hadn't been able to find enough before it was time for the factory to go up again.
The office door transluced, relaxed, and opened. The floor manager appeared at the opening and squeezed himself out onto the deck. Anna could not remember the name of this one. There seemed to be a new one after every few gatherings. He stood looking to locate the source of the cry. He spotted her trying to crouch low behind the cloudy-eyed fixer.
"You!" he said. "Come here." Anna stood up and began to walk slowly up the aisle, drawing a few furtive glances. "Faster!" Anna picked up her pace, and reached the ladder to the deck under the glare of this floor manager. "Inside!"
Anna thrust her hand into the door, causing it to relax open again. She squeezed her body in. Inside was a finder fixer, a dark figure with spines and a row of slicer scales, and it too wore a sheath. It was hanging from a hook on the wall, its thousands of tentacles pooling on the floor like fresh-cooked angel hair pasta. It appeared to be turned off. The floor manager followed her in.
"Now, state your name."
"Recite the first law."
"Always do what the factory asks."
"Very good. Now recite the second law."
"Never ask questions."
"Also good. My name is Scott. I have just been appointed to this post. Now while my predecessor may have tolerated such lax adherence to the laws, I do not. You have clearly not done what the factory has asked." Scott's left eye twitched, it looked as if it was desperately trying to fall asleep.
"Scott, sir, I collected as much wax as I could--"
"I do not care for the details, and I do not like excuses. The factory requires that you collect as much material as it needs, no more, no less. The factory requires me to punish you."
"How can I -- I cannot know how much to collect if the factory doesn't tell me how--"
"I did not require you to speak. Do no test my limited patience Alice. Now, I don't think this first offense under my watch requires anything drastic." Scott smugly smoothed the front of his sheath. "The factory has asked me to find someone who can name this." He pulled a small metal object from his sheath pocket. "If you can name it, you will be spared the usual punishment."
"A fork-- that's a fork."
"You do know then. That's excellent."
"That's what we used to use to--"
"I do not need to know the purpose of this object. It is of course completely irrelevant. It's just source material. The factory has a new design it would like to make, and requires many of these. The fixers are being remade to process it. Undoubtedly, the new object will exceed in beauty the old object. This is quite a priority." Scott smiled, his gaze fixed on the fork.
"Sure. I'm sure it will be wonderful, Scott."
"Yes. Now leave. The factory will be descended soon. You will be gathering these, forks."
Anna left the office with an instinctive parting glance at the finder, creaking slightly on the hook with the motion of the factory as it steadied. She stood on the deck for a moment, and watched as the operators got up in unison, and began to file towards the side ports. Not wanting to linger too long, she climbed down the ladder and joined them.
Anna always looked forward to the moment of leaving, but she didn't understand why. There was a dulled sense of joy to it, something she only ever felt in her brief dreams that crept over her, unwillingly but wanted desperately. She shuffled slowly forward, behind her another worker put his hand on her shoulder to steady himself, and then she heard a word.
Anna's face froze in terror though her feet kept sliding forward. Had he been heard by anyone else? She stole a gaze backward, and all she saw was a leaden face devoid of intelligence. Perhaps it was just her mind speaking to her again. She turned back. She was nearing the port. The worker ahead of her pushed through, then it was her turn. She squeezed her hand through, pushed, and then she was out, falling slowing to the ruins below.
The air was cool and wet. Suspended droplets cascaded against her face and popped gently on her sheath. It was dusk here, they must have come a long way, and it had been awhile since she saw the night. She righted herself so that she could land feet first. Air billowed up under her sheath, and permeated her old clothes beneath. Her bare feet grew cold as they reached toward the half-eaten roofs of the ruins. A cul-de-sac reached slowly up to her toes. She felt that this would be an ideal place to gather. She shifted her arms, and guided her descent towards the lawn of one of the houses. Next to it, the carcass of a black automobile rotted on a patch of concrete.
Ahead of her, other workers were already landing, and were dashing into houses with determined faces to find more of the materials their fixer's required. She briefly wondered which of them had been reassigned green wax.
Finally, her toes touched damp grass, and she closed her eyes. A dream came in. Water was spraying; droplets were actually falling. The air was warm and sunlight teased her skin. "Wake up Anna. There's no time to sleep."
Another worker pushed her from behind as he ran past her and into the nearest house. Anna opened her eyes and watched him yank on the locked door, then run to a broken out window. He hoisted himself up, and shoved himself through, his dark stained feet dangling briefly in the opening.
"Forks. Right." Anna often spoke to herself while gathering. Many of the other workers did too. It was the only time they were allowed to do so unless specifically addressed by a superior or a finder, and it helped alleviate the tedium.
Anna began to walk across the grass. It felt good, and cold, and somehow still alive, not frozen. "Forks are for eating Scott." she paused. "Not actually eating Scott per se. Though I'm sure you will be eaten down below shortly." She walked to the window that the other worker had gone through. There was no glass left anywhere, and parts of the casement had been ripped out, as had most of the siding on the house. By the door, a plastic number seven was hanging upside down on one nail.
Anna pushed herself through. It would be hard to search in this dark, and the other worker was mumbling loudly to himself as he worked his way without nimbleness through the remaining strewn contents of the house. Anna slid her feet on the floor, catching debris with the tops of her feet instead of stepping on it. She made her way to the far wall without interference, and followed the wall to a door. She felt with her foot into the other room. Wood gave way to tile. She was in the right place.
She worked her way around the new room, and had to climb over a capsized refrigerator before she encountered drawers and cabinets. Some had been pulled out, the contents broadcast to the floor. She crouched, and ran her hands over the debris. No forks. Her hand came across a cylindrical object wider at one end. A flashlight. Anna wondered if it would work. She picked it up and slid the button on. A strong beam flooded out, and whipped erratically across the room.
"Cool. This will help a lot. Maybe I can keep it with me. Maybe the factory won't know if I carry it with me in my pocket with the forks I still need to find." She shot the beam back to the door, just as the other worker stumbled by. He paused in the glare, arms stuffed with shards of berber carpet.
"Better not keep that, if that's not what you’re looking for." He stumbled on.
"Yeah, yeah. Scott's replacement will get all upset." She turned the beam to the far side of the room, and it shot through to another room.
"Forks Anna, forks. But there may be forks in a dining room. No guarantee. A kitchen always has spare forks. I can get both. No, shouldn't waste the time, I'll get fed for sure." Anna walked into the other room, hardwood meeting her feet, and worked the beam around, cameoing each piece of furniture. This room had been left relatively intact, but there were few items inside. Then the beam fell on something odd, a tall, narrow chair with a larval worker still sitting in it, staring blankly.
Anna moved closer, and it slowly turned its face towards her, squinting its glassy eyes in the light. Anna dropped the flashlight in horror. When it hit the floor, the beam rebounded chaotically around the room. In the darkness, the worker moved a pudgy arm, and held it out in her direction.
"Are you..."Anna could not understand why it was here, how it had been missed. How had it not been gathered for incubation in a cell just above the down below? Anna herself had gathered larvae, but that had been done a long time ago. How long had this one been here unattended? Where were its parents?
"Parents. I haven't thought about that in..." A dream took over. Wet clothes were hanging lank under a summer sun. Anna was watching them from below, seated on a red tricycle. A woman smiled down at her, a blue plastic pin in her hand. "Anna honey, you have to focus dear." Anna absently back-pedaled, trying to remember why. "Remember freedom Anna." Her lids peeled apart unwillingly.
She stepped towards the larva. She reached her hand to its outstretched arm. It looked up at her, and opened its mouth attempting to say words it did not know. Anna touched the warm skin of its forearm. The sensation washed away the memory of the scent and sight and feel of the fixers. "You're not... you're not a larva, are you?"
Anna stepped closer, reached into the chair, and picked the baby up. The child put it's arms around Anna's neck and looked into her eyes. The baby was heavy in her arms. "You must be as hungry as me little one. Maybe there is something left to eat in here. Then we should find your parents. You can't grow up without somebody to take care of you." She stooped with the baby clutched to her chest, and picked up the flashlight.
The factory wailed plaintively, signaling the call to return, and Anna was pulled back to its urgent needs. The other worker crashed and swore somewhere on the upstairs level. Anna began to panic. She could not bring the child back to the factory, the factory would be angry. She could not leave the child behind, it would end up staying there forever in its chair, alone in the darkness of the perpetual night.
She swung the light around the room again. She brushed it across a door, canted on one hinge. Past the doorway lay damp grass. If she ran now, would the factory know she was missing? Would it send its finders after her? She stepped over to the threshold of the door. The factory loomed above her, the bottom cells squirming with hungry feeders, the wailing beginning to crest.
She felt the first wave of the tugging; it welled up deep inside her. Her mind flailed against the unbidden desire to return to the factory. The tugging became more insistent. The factory knew. It knew she didn't want to go back. The tugging wrapped itself around her insides, and pulled, constricting her. Anna's feet left the floor, and she was slammed into the ceiling. Anna dropped the baby and it fell gently down amid a halo of paint flecks and bits of stucco. The tugging relaxed, and Anna knew she should leave the house.
She returned to the floor and picked up the baby once more. Anna looked around for something to hold on to. The beam of the flashlight caught sight of an oven missing its elements, but it still had a handle. She ran over to it, sliding on debris. She managed to drop the flashlight in her pocket and take hold just as the tugging regained its grip on her insides.
"No, you're not taking me!" She screamed as the tugging felt like it was dissolving the middle part of her body. Her arm strained as she was hoisted again and again towards the ceiling, as the tugging pulsated within her. The baby clutched at the front of her sheath. Pain was wracked over its face; the tugging had taken hold of it too.
A tendril of pain wove itself through her ribcage then wrapped itself several times around her spine. As it inched its way towards the base of her skull, she fought the urge to let go of the oven door. Then it relaxed.
"You're not taking me, you're not taking us!" Savagely, the tugging invaded her brain. She could see nothing but whiteness and could not feel her body. The tugging subsided again, and Anna found herself being scraped across the ceiling on her back toward the open door, but the baby was still held close. She let herself relax until her feet hit the door casing. She braced for another strong tugging but it did not come. She was simply held frozen to the ceiling. Stucco pricked her back as she wondered what was next; she had never resisted the tugging before.
She could smell it first. It was unmistakable. Outside the kitchen door Anna heard the rustling of a sheath, then it wrapped several thin tentacles around the broken doorjamb. They poked at the metal of the hinges finding purchase. The tugging pulsed within her and strengthened its grip. The finder shot through the doorway below her and stopped just before the wall opposite, spraying debris, its slicers extending several feet to give it balance between the floor and the ceiling. Tile cracked loudly as Anna's heart fought frantically within her immobilized body. Three large, red, ringed eyes turned towards her, and darted from her face to the light from her sheath pocket, and finally settled on the baby in her arms.
The finder shuddered, its tentacles briefly swirled and flexed. It contracted some of the slicers and moved towards Anna slowly. A probing tentacle curled through the air, gleaming with a rank clear fluid that the finder was exuding. The tip of the tentacle brushed against her hand before it slid across the cheek of the baby. It pulled away drawing a string of the sticky fluid.
The tentacle returned to the finder, and it contracted all the way into its body. The finder's eyes darted as it processed the new information. Anna was breathing hard now, but malice was taking hold, steadying her.
"What are you going to do now?" The finder returned one eye to her face. "It's a baby. A human baby. A child. Do you know what that is?"
The finder slowly rose and forced a slicer through the ceiling, lazily sending bits of stucco through the air. Wood creaked as the finder held tighter. "You don't scare me." Anna shook with anger. The finder moved closer, it's eyes just inches from hers, the stench almost unbearable as it's warm breath leaked out between the cracks in its carapace. "Why did you come here? Why did you take our memories away?"
A dream took hold of Anna again. She was in a maze of warm blankets, and then there was a ringing sound. A voice came, "Turn on the news Anna. You won't believe this!" Then everything froze, and her life seeped away. Anna felt a pain in her hand. She woke.
The finder was slicing into her thumb, and hooked around the bone. It slowly pulled her hand away from the baby. Tears wanted to well up in Anna's eyes, but couldn't find their way. "I'll never be free will I? The best I can hope for is to be fed to the feeders." Several tentacles wrapped around the baby, one right over the eyes. Gently, the finder pulled the baby up and under its carapace. Then it pulled out a short metal rod.
The rod gleamed with clear fluid, and glowed intermittently at one end. The finder brought the glowing end to Anna's face, and pressed it into her cheek. The tip was so cold, a searing pain radiated into her face. The tugging crawled up out of her chest, through her skull, and into the rod. As it left, Anna began to fall slowly to the floor. She tried to land on her feet, but the tugging had left her legs a tangled mess of pins and needles. She reached the tile belly first, and fumbled towards the doorway. The finder loomed over her watching.
The debris bit into her through the thin layer of sheath. She inched forward, and managed to grab hold of the edge of the metal plate at the bottom of the doorway. The finder moved with her, above her. As she began to shove her way to the outside, it hooked a slicer on the back of her sheath. Anna strained against it, until the sheath tore. She fell numbly onto the steps, tumbling over until her face met the wet grass of the back lawn.
Anna rolled over onto her back, trembling, and completely exhausted. The finder emerged from the doorway, holding the rod above her. "Are you going to drag me up to the factory now to be eaten, or would you rather torture me?" Darting eyes answered her.
"I'm just going to keep crawling." Anna's hands gripped tufts of lawn. "You're going to have to rip me up from the Earth." Tentacles splayed out in the air. "But maybe I'm too much trouble."
The finder released the rod, and it fell slowly towards Anna. She rolled to the side to avoid it, and it impaled the lawn instead. The finder descended beside her, landing a slicer right next to her legs. Three red eyes examined her face, and then suddenly the finder was gone.
Rain pelted the lawn, and the air grew cold. Then light. The sun rose. Clouds broke and the sun reached a low wintry apex. But the sun didn't stop. As Anna took one breath, the sun flashed three times across the sky. As she took another, it flashed ten times. Then in a moment, it passed overhead a thousand times.
Anna looked up, and the house rotted away in a blur. In the distance something large had crashed, and trees grew up into the sky atop it. Only the area a few feet around the rod seemed unchanged. The sky strobed then turned to a dull gray. She sensed forms moving around her, as a forest surged into the sky. The forest vanished, and then surged again, taller, its foliage completely covering her view of the sky.
The numbness slowly left her body, and she sat up. The forest vanished once more, and the soil around the circle of lawn began to fall away. The lawn was undercut, and suddenly leaned at an angle. Anna grabbed the rod to keep from falling out. The forest returned. Then Anna noticed that the circle was slowly shrinking.
Anna curled up around the rod, holding it tightly. The forest grew closer and closer. She thought about letting go, but the thought of being half in and half out of the circle disturbed her.
As her toes fought to stay on the lawn, the rod stopped glowing. The sun paused above. It was late afternoon. Anna could hear something singing in the trees. An animal rooted at the base of the lawn. Anna slid off the circle and landed next to the creature. Soft decaying leaves nestled around her feet. The animal looked up at her in surprise. Its long snout twitched as it sniffed the air, trying to determine what exactly Anna was. It had one cloudy eye that punctuated a face covered slackly in cracked skin. The antennae on its back oozed black fluid before it darted off into the underbrush, snuffling and wheezing loudly.
Anna collapsed to the ground, and fell instantly to sleep.