The Wold

The light died without warning, and darkness covered Mara. It pressed against her, binding her joints, blocking her nose. She crouched with her arms guarding her face and forced herself to breathe. She counted. One, two… At one hundred, she started over again.

Murmurs began to filter through the darkness, some fearful, some confident, some merely curious. “Maybe it’s on purpose?” “The Director said the light would go slowly!” “Someone must have pushed a wrong button.” “They won’t kill the sighted ones, will they?” “We don’t need light anyway.”

The light returned as suddenly it at had gone, unapologetic for its absence. Traffic began oozing through the tunnel again, dozens of bodies sliding against each other and against the smooth stone walls. Mara moved with it until she reached a junction, where a naked bulb hung above the wider space. She sat down under the bulb, letting light flow over her head and shoulders, into her eyes. She was an obstruction, but no one told her to move. The others hugged the walls, careful not to look straight at her, careful not to let her skin touch theirs.

Soon Mara was alone. The others had all gone to their cells in Sleeping. It was tempting to stay there in the junction, alone in the light, but she would be beaten if she was not in her cell by lights-out, and, much worse, she would lose a meal.

Director Aly had a device called a “clock” that tracked the passage of time. Mara had seen it once. It had seemed useless then, a heavy box that did nothing but move a tiny mark across its own surface. Now, Mara desperately wanted a clock. A clock could tell her how long she could linger in the light and still make it to her cell…

She ran, hunched in the low stone tunnels, passing through long stretches of gloom and small patches of harsh light. Her cell was not in Sleeping with the others, but alone at the end of a disused shaft. As it came into view, the lights began to dim, not dying horribly as before, but turning down, controlled, on schedule. An orderly was waiting for her. She did not speak to him, but hurried past to climb into her cell.

The orderly held up his lantern and peered at her through the cell’s entrance. “I should mark you absent,” he said, “but it’s my turn for punishment tomorrow, and I don’t want to touch you.”

“Thank you, sir,” she answered.

He snorted. He made a mark on his slate and waddled away, a squashed, stump-legged silhouette in his lantern light. She closed her eyes as he turned a corner, so that she would not see the light vanish.

Mara had chiseled two tiny alcoves into the stone above the cell’s entrance. She removed the rag that was her clothing and placed a corner of it into each alcove, then set stones on top of the corners, making a curtain. This was a habit she had started when her cell had been in Sleeping. It was not necessary now–no one saw her here–but it gave her a sense of ownership. It made the cell hers.

Mara lay on her back. She put her feet on the ceiling and a hand on each wall. She pressed, enjoying the strength in her limbs. Her limbs were the body parts that least embarrassed her. They were ugly, but they were useful. Mara was strong. She was the strongest person in the world.

Mara had only two dreams; all others were variations of the two. In the first dream, darkness entombed and suffocated her, and she woke up crying with fear. She hated this dream because it made her afraid of the dark. In the second dream, she was in a bright place with no walls or ceiling, and she woke up crying for a reason she did not understand. This dream did not frighten her–it was exhilarating–but after she had it the waking world seemed small, dim, and lifeless, so she hated it too.

Above her was a great light, infinitely high, so enormous and powerful that it lit the whole world all at once. Under her was green, so intense that she could feel it in her eyes. The green caressed her feet as she walked, and walked, and walked, never turning. She looked up and beheld a color for which she had no name…

She woke in blackness. Her hands groped at the hard stone of her cell. She wept.

* * *

Mara was already awake when the alarm bell sounded. The lights came on, isolated points, showing the tunnels more by reflected gleams than by illumination. Mara took her rag down and knotted it around her hips. She picked up her waste pot and headed toward Recycling.

The tunnels grew congested near the center of the world. As the crowds increased, Mara sensed a strange tension. People were glancing at each other more than usual, their eyes to the sides instead of forward. Some whispered. She tried to listen, but all of the nearby voices were complaining about her–her ugliness, her noise, her stink–and she could hear nothing else clearly.

Like all large rooms, Recycling had an irregular, organic shape, with lumpy walls and a ceiling covered in the broken stumps of stalactites. It was dominated by the Recycler, an inscrutable mass of metal tanks and pipes that took up half of the floor space. A cluster of bulbs on a pole in the room’s center cast shadows that gave the machine a knotted, intestinal look. Mara knew that something bad would happen if all waste was not put into the Recycler, and she knew that the machine was somehow involved in the creation of water and fertilizer. She knew nothing of it beyond this, and she was not curious.

People queued in the empty half of the room, forming a line that doubled back on itself a dozen times. When their turn came, each person ascended a short metal platform and dumped their waste pot into a chute. At the chute’s bottom, a pair of toothed rollers ground up whatever was solid and let liquid pass through into the machine. Occasionally there were corpses to dispose of. An orderly would mark down the name of the person who had died, and the body would be tossed in with the other waste.

Mara did not join the queue. She stood in the darkest part of the room and waited to go last. This was because no one would stand next to her, but it was also her choice: standing on the outside, she could watch and listen furtively, and that was something like having acquaintances. She spotted Mur and Bel, a pair of old women who were always exchanging humorous observations. Mara turned an ear toward them, expectant.

They held hands, as usual, but their grip seemed tight, as if seeking support rather than enjoyment. There was no mirth in their conversation: “Who did you hear it from?” “Lond, but everyone’s saying it.” “The Director would tell us if it were true, wouldn’t she?”

A trio of eunuchs came into earshot: “Could the blackout have been a sign?” “There’ve been blackouts before…”

Curiosity suddenly burned in Mara. If the blackout was not the cause of the restless mood, then what? She felt an overwhelming urge to ask someone, but she must not; if she started a fight, she would learn nothing.

The queue dwindled until only Mara was left. She hurried forward and dumped her pot into the Recycler. The orderly marked her on his slate. “Thank you, sir,” she said.

Eating was the largest and brightest place in the world. Ten bulbs hung from the ceiling in a line down the long axis of the oblong room, casting light nearly to its edges. Several metal tables occupied the center. Their legs had been cut off in times past; the people around them sat on the floor.

Mara skirted the room to the food pot. She took two stone bowls from a shelf carved into the wall and held them out to be filled.

Two bowls, when every other person in the world took one. Two bowls, meaning that some other person could not live because of her. Her deformities–her towering height, her huge eyes, her greedy lungs in their oversized rib cage–these could have been forgiven. Her appetite could not. There had not been a murderer in the world for many shifts, but Mara was regarded almost as one.

As the cook spooned food into her bowls, she wondered why the Committee made this exception for her. Why didn’t they let her starve, or simply kill her? Mara had not pondered this question for many shifts, but curiosity had awakened in her, and it was indiscriminate. Her labor was valuable, she knew–she could lift nearly twice as much as anyone else–but she doubted that it was more valuable than the labor of two people. The official explanation was simply that the Committee was obligated to feed everyone, but the Committee routinely killed malformed infants, so she did not believe this.

“Thank you, sir,” she said to the cook. She looked for a place to sit. Normally, she would take the place with the fewest people, but she wanted to listen. The most animated conversations were at the tables, but she would be conspicuous if she tried to sit near them. She spotted a pair of eunuchs talking near the tunnel to Generating. She moved as close to them as she dared, and sat down.

“Rebellion, maybe?” one was saying. “Maybe he wants to replace Aly as Director?”

“Betraying us wouldn’t help him get that. I think he’s just crazy.”

“If Tev is crazy, then half the world could have craziness in them.”

The second eunuch tipped his bowl back and slurped the last of his food. “Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to go see if Rast has heard anything.” He stood and walked off, toward the tables.

To Mara’s astonishment, the other eunuch turned and spoke to her: “Hey, who are you? I’m Hass. Have you heard anything?” He was blind, she realized, his eyes shriveled and gray at the bottoms of their sockets. A thrill went through her. What luck!

“I’m Kana,” Mara said, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. She spoke slowly, choosing her words. “I heard that maybe what Tev is doing is because of the blackout last shift?”

“What?” Hass said. “That’s stupid. Why would Tev refuse to mate because of a blackout?”

“Not because of it, maybe. Maybe the blackout was a sign of what was going to happen?”

Hass moved closer to Mara, walking on his knuckles. He turned his ear toward her. He had never heard her speak, but the noise of her breathing was unique, known. She tried to draw shallower breaths, but it was too late. “Mara?” He reached out. His hand touched her breast, grotesquely protrusive, the size of a fist. “Mara!” He recoiled in revulsion and retreated, cursing.

He had forgotten his bowl. There was still food in it. Mara felt guilty, but there was nothing she could do except leave it and hope he found it again.

Mara headed toward Tilling. Tilling was where her strength was useful, so she was usually eager to get there. Now she moved slowly, thinking:

Tev had refused to mate? “Father Tev,” the most successful breeder in the history of Progeny, who had sired more than one hundred of the world’s people? Tev’s children were consistently perfect: thin, short-limbed, toothless, eating little and sleeping much. Many of them were blind. If Tev had stopped mating, that would be a great loss for Progeny, but worse was the possibility that Hass had mentioned: If Tev was insane, what of his children?

Mara was so engrossed in her thoughts that she did not notice Tev himself standing in the middle of Tilling. The gasps of others drew her attention to the stooped, bald man standing on a heap of crushed rock. People gathered around him. A frantic whispering built up. The orderlies muttered and fidgeted with their knives, but they did not know what to do.

Tev spoke: “We all crave light. Even those who cannot see love to feel it on their skin. And yet we hope that our children will be blind. How can this be?”

He said no more. The crowd parted for him, and he walked out.

Disorder was immediate. Everyone began shouting at once, some wanting to follow Tev, some wanting to work as usual, others already arguing over what the riddle meant. One woman fainted. The orderlies shouted for calm, but no one listened until Director Aly herself appeared. She stamped her booted feet until there was silence, then commanded the orderlies to kill anyone who did not work as normal. Everyone knew that the threat was good.

Mara and the other diggers chiselled at the wall with scraps of metal. The rock they dislodged was hauled to the center of the room, where beaters pulverized it by smashing the pieces together. By iterations, the rock became powder. The powder was taken to Growing, where it was mixed with fertilizer from the Recycler to make soil. In the soil was grown the rubbery fungus which was the world’s food.

* * *

Tev visited all of the departments that shift. In each he spoke a different riddle. The shifts that followed were unlike anything in Mara’s experience. No one talked of anything except Tev, and they talked of him constantly, even when they were supposed to be sleeping, even when they were supposed to be working. Conflicting interpretations swirled.

Director Aly repeated her threats. The orderlies did kill three people, and two more died in careless accidents. But even the sight of corpses going into the Recycler did little to suppress the whispering.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that Tev did not reappear. No one had seen him since his visits to the departments, not even the other breeders. Was he in the Committee’s Private Rooms? Why were they hiding him? What did they not want to be known?

On the fourth shift, a meeting was called. Lights-out was delayed, and everyone was told to gather in Eating after work was finished.

All but one of the bulbs in Eating had been dimmed, and a table had been moved directly under it. Director Aly stood on the table, singular in the circle of light, looking regal in boots and a garment that covered her from her neck all the way to her knees. She stamped her feet for silence.

Aly spoke: “Throughout history, we have risen to many challenges. When the old food ran out, our ancestors did not sit idly and let themselves starve. They invented a way of growing new food, and survived. When airmakers broke down, our ancestors did not let themselves suffocate. They started the population quota, and survived.

“Today, we are not merely surviving. We are preparing for the future. We know that one day there will be no more fuel for the Generator, and then there will be no more light. Do we simply wait for this to happen? No! We are breeding people who do not need light, who will be at home in the future world. Our descendants will think back on us with gratitude for the work we are doing. Diggers, tinkers, menders, orderlies, breeders–all of us! We are ensuring a good life for those who come after us.”

The crowd murmured assent. She paused to let it.

“We know how important our work is,” Aly continued, “yet we have allowed it to be disrupted. People have died. Food production has slowed. And, yes, it is true, one of our best breeders has stopped his invaluable work. Why have we allowed this? To hear rumors? To tell stories? It grieves me that foolish words have been allowed to weaken us. But they will weaken us no more. Here and now, I will confront these rumors and lay them to rest.”

Aly gestured to mouth of a nearby tunnel. A pair of orderlies emerged from it, leading Tev by a chain. His face was swollen and discolored. Bruises covered his limbs. A whimper ran through the crowd, growing into a moan. Aly stamped her feet again, then again and again until order was restored.

“It is horrible to see,” she said. “But it was necessary. I love Father Tev, and I would not give up on him without trying everything to make him see reason, to convince him to take back his stories and end the trouble he has caused. Regrettably, he refuses. So we will do this instead.”

Aly looked down on Tev and commanded, “Tell us your idea in full, without riddles.”

Tev stood obediently before the table and spoke, his voice rich after Aly’s shrill. “The reason I have stopped mating and the reason I spoke to you four shifts ago is this: I have come to believe that the world is not our home. There is a different world, and we belong in it.”

Mara breathed in and forgot to breathe out. For a moment the room was completely silent.

“Tell us why you believe this,” Aly said.

“Since childhood,” Tev answered, “I have noticed things that seem inconsistent, like the world is contradicting itself. These things have always troubled me, but I said nothing, because I believed that my thoughts were unimportant. But when I saw the horror the blackout caused to many of us, it changed my mind.

“I noticed that we crave more light than exists in the world. Even in the brightest rooms, none of us has enough. If we belong in this world, why do we want things that it does not provide? Progeny in trying to breed people without eyes. Why is this necessary? If this world is our home, then why we do we need to change ourselves in order to live in it?

“I noticed that the world contains things which cannot be made in it. Our ancestors ate the old food. When it ran out, no more could be made. The Generator is fueled by burnstones. Our ancestors had many burnstones. We have few, because we cannot make more. The table our Director is standing on is metal. We can’t make metal. If these things cannot be made, where did they come from?

“I noticed that a stone arch will collapse if too much weight is over it, but our tunnels do not collapse. If the stone above us goes up forever, then its weight must be unimaginably great. Why doesn’t it collapse out tunnels?

“I noticed that many of us have the same dream. We dream of a great light, of rich colors, of an open place with no ceiling or walls. People who have the dream feel that it is better than the world. How can we all want the same thing if it does not exist?

“The answer, I believe, is that the open place is real. We crave light because we belong under the great light. The things we cannot make were made there. Our tunnels do not collapse because the open place is above us, not endless rock. We all dream of the open place because the first ancestors came from there, and our blood remembers. I believe that the open place is real. I believe that we can reach it.”

Finished, Tev bowed his head.

“You have heard him,” Aly said. “Now hear me! What Tev says seems plausible. Even I was tempted to believe it at first. But it is foolishness.

“It is true that we crave more light than the world provides, but is that evidence of a ‘great light’ somewhere? Certainly not! In the past there were more bulbs, and more fuel for the Generator. The past was brighter, so of course our ancestors were accustomed to more light. The reason the light does not satisfy us now is because we have not adapted to the changing world. Our ancestors did not start Progeny soon enough. That is not reason to abandon Progeny. It is reason to increase our commitment!

“It is true that the world contains things which we cannot make, but why should that surprise us? When we break a stone, we cannot recreate it. Does that mean that stones are from a magical otherworld? The old food, the fuel, these things are simply a part of the world, like the stone itself. They did not come from anywhere. They simply are.

“Our tunnels do not collapse, no, but what does that prove? Tev assumes that this ‘open place’ is above us, but he might just as well assume that there is an unknown type of rock, or that gravity stops at a certain height, or that there is nothing at all. We simply do not know, and that proves nothing.

“As for dreams, Tev is partially correct. Your blood does remember something, but it is not an ‘open place.’ It is this.” Aly reached into her garment and drew out a shard of stone. She held it up so that it caught the light.

Mara gasped. The stone was the color from her dream.

The crowd began to creep forward, mouths gaping, eyes wide to receive this beauty. The orderlies brandished their knives, keeping the people back.

“This is the color blue,” Aly said. “The Directors before me stored several blue objects in the Private Rooms, to keep them safe for when they were needed. They are needed now. From now on, an orderly will bring a blue object into Sleeping before lights-out. Anyone who wants to see blue may see it and be satisfied.”

The crowd cheered.

“Let this be the end of foolish talk and destructive fantasies. We have work to do.”

* * *

“It’s called a ‘chair,'” Aly said. “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” Mara answered. “It’s…” She pressed back, relishing its caress. “It’s amazing.”

“You could sit in it often. Would you like that?”

Mara nodded. She would be glad to even see a chair often; its form was fascinating. Director Aly sat in a second chair, behind something she had call a “desk.” There were two bulbs in the room, one above the desk, the other illuminating a shelf of–there were no words for them–a shelf of beautiful things.

“I know you don’t get to see the blue things when they are brought into Sleeping,” Aly said. “You could come here to look at them. Would you like that?”

Mara nodded, but it was not true. She did not want to see the blue stones, not now, not ever.

“But before you can see them,” Aly said, “there is something I need you to do.”

“You need me to kill Tev.”

“Why would you think that?”

“It makes sense,” Mara said. “People think Tev is crazy, but they still love him. They were angry with you for beating him. They’ll be angry with whoever kills him, even though they know it has to be done. So it makes sense for me do it. Everyone already hates me. They can be angry with me, and nothing is lost.”

“You thought of that yourself?”

“I think about things in my cell. I don’t have anyone to talk to.”

“I am sorry, Mara, about the way things are for you,” Aly said. “I love you. I love all of my people. But loving everyone means that I can’t treat everyone the same. Everyone has a purpose, a destiny. You have a destiny, Mara. You are necessary.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Three Committeemen led Mara down a brightly lit tunnel to a room with a metal door. Inside the room lay Tev, bound hand and foot. They pushed Mara into the room and pressed a knife into her hand.

“I want to be alone,” Mara said. The Committeemen glanced at each other, uncertain. “This is a shameful thing,” she pleaded. “I don’t want anyone to see me.”

One of the Committeemen laughed, “Mara? Ashamed?” But they closed the door, and she was alone with Tev.

The Director had made further efforts to convince him. His whole body was bloody and bruised. Mara could see broken ribs through his skin. She knelt beside him, the knife in her hand.

“Be quick,” he said.

Mara spoke: “I believe you. I believe in the open place. Aly thinks her blue things prove it isn’t real, but they don’t. They prove it is. We don’t have the dream because the color is special; the color is special because we have the dream.”

Tev met her eyes. He smiled, and she smiled back.

She was quick.

* * *

The next shift, Mara began humming to herself. She hummed during lights-on so that it would not be suspicious when she hummed during lights-off. If anyone came near her cell while she was digging, her voice would mask the sound.

It was simple to smuggle a digging tool to her cell, simple too to smuggle out the bits of broken stone, folded in her rag. She dug straight up; no one could see her tunnel unless they crawled fully into her cell with a lantern, and no one would ever do that.

She scraped away a finger-width of rock each shift. The tunnel grew taller. Soon she was worming her whole body up into it, feet and knees braced against opposite walls, hands working overhead.

Mara did not think about purpose or destiny. She did not think about how far there was to dig. She thought simply that she was moving toward the open place. That was enough.

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