Sunday, February 21, 2016

10: The Factor

Consciousness.  Crisis.  Awareness.  Anxiety.  Existence.  Fear. 

They were all one and the same.  It did not think about such things.  It hardly thought at all.  There was no time.  There was no margin.  All was anxiety.  All was stress.  If one felt the ground beneath to be secure, if one’s stock were producing then the need to keep producing, keep on top, keep up was a crushing weight from above.  If one’s share from collective was favorable then one felt held out over a pit.  One could fail.  One could fall.  One’s stock could be increased or decreased, stock could be injured, fail or cease to produce.  Nothing done before mattered.  There would be no credit.  All was now.  And now was a fine time to fail.  Fear could also come from the side.  Rival factors might take one’s stock.  Take one’s share.  Take one’s very being.  Nothing was secure.  All was negotiable.  All was capricious.  All one had to count on was one.  And one was never sure if one was enough.  There were a million ways to fail and one had to anticipate them all.  If one had nothing else to do, one could be very busy trying to anticipate the next crisis.

It had not anticipated this crisis. 

It had not even been sure there was a crisis.  The stock were still harvesting.  The share was delivered on time.  And that was the first worrying sign.  The harvesters were becoming regular, as if not having to search far for food.  As if something or someone was feeding them.  It sensed a rival.  There as a stench on the returning stock, almost familiar.  Yet there was something of the foreign about it too.  And foreign was crisis.  Another collective?  It should alert it’s own factor.  But only when it was sure.  A false report was worse than no report.  It would get surety.  It had waited by the aperture for its stock to return.  It chose one, not at random, a poor performer typically, it had quickly risen to equal the factor’s best harvesters.  Another ill omen.  It looked positively sleek, its crop full.  The factor had pounced on it, encircling it, squeezing it till its eye shutters bulged.  It had cast anger at the rest, paralyzing them and forcing them back against the wall of the tunnel. 

“Where?”  It was a typical cast, a typical question of the hive, where O harvester, did one find this food?  At times a celebration, a reason for the collective to rejoice, to do a joy dance.  Here, in this tunnel nearly hot with rage and quivering with fear, the victim bursting and cracking in the Factor’s crushing grip, it was an accusation.  One, amazingly, frighteningly, not answered at first.  How far had they been turned?  Were they already in the employ of the foreign factor?  Were they spies? 

Traitors?  The stakes must be raised.  The fear must be real.  It raised a feeding tentacle, let it hover in the face of the victim for all to see and poked it through the eye socket of the chosen sacrifice.  Gore and bile burst around it as the pressure was somewhat relieved.  It drank.  It took its time.  First the victim’s own innards, then down into the cavity, into its crop.  The others watched and shrank back even more.  “Where?”  this time it did not bellow.  This time it purred. 

Then they told.  They told everything.  And the Factor had made its plan. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

9 Over the Side

The crewmen were masked and nervous and it wasn’t only because Ch’loi stood on the rail over them, balancing herself with a ratline.  Nine days of their macabre task had not been enough to inure them to the risks.  “I do not care for our odds of making it back to port without contracting the fever ourselves.  This is a cursed voyage if ever there was one.”  Captain Rayjay summed up what they were thinking.  “Stand by there!”  The crewmen grabbed their first wrapped bundle of the night at the corners with thick gloves.  “Heave ho!”  The first plague cadaver went over the stern, followed by Ch’loi leaping to the sand below, closely followed by the other three sheet-wrapped corpses as fast as they could grab them and heave them.  When the last one was safely in their wake, they stripped off the gloves and tossed them too.  Captain Rayjay removed his mask and spat.  “Good riddance.”  Kurga thought it prudent not to ask which the good captain was more pleased to be rid of, though he did wonder.  “Are you still set upon your fool’s errand?” the Captain asked Amisbhake. 

“I am,” the Lord Counselor said. 

They skimmed the dune crest, gathering speed from the higher winds and then when the Captain felt something only he could sense, he heeled the catamaran over and down the back side and into the trough.  The boat careened and plunged with familiar if sickening speed and Kurga waited for his stomach to find its customary place again.  The other nine nights they had put as much distance as they could, upon her orders, from Ch’loi and her silent cast aways until the second watch when they would tack back and pick her up, alone, well after dawn. 

Tonight however, the Captain navigated the boat through a maneuver designed to bring them as near to the drop point as he felt he could without being seen.  This took some time with the contrary winds and his efforts to keep the mast’s tip from breaking the horizon.  He drove on in a glowering silence but the time came and he announced it, “Make ready.”

“I’d like to join you if i may,” Kurga heard himself say.

“Really?”  Amisbhake said.


“I’m .. mildly shocked.”

“As am I,” Kurga said, “I wasn’t sure myself until just this moment, though I’d been considering it all day.”

“I suspect it’s going to be rather dangerous?”

Kurga smacked his lips and found them dry, “yes.”

“Alright then,” the Lord Counselor assented, somewhat to Kurga’s chagrin.

Captain Rayjay shook his head.  “Get the fool a weapon,” he ordered his first mate.  The mate brought a heavy rifle to the merchant. 

“You’ve used one of these before?”

“Something similar.”  The mate pointed out the safety, the ejector and which end the bolts came out.  Handed him an extra clip and patted him on the shoulder.    Kurga was less than reassured but he had no time to reconsider for the Captain gave the word and Amisbhake grabbed and handful of Kurga mounted the rail and leapt.