We were struggling a bit to come up with a topic for today’s blog, so we’re going to be a little lazy and post an excerpt from our serialization over at Wattpad. It’s the intro – we hope you enjoy it, and if you do, click here to check out the rest! Let us know what you think in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.
The smell of spoiled meat: sweet, rancid loss. The magnolia petals have fallen, all fallen, and rot in the streets. They fall still—though there’re no more buds to birth them.
The mounds of flesh-colored shells steam and stink, pucker and become pulp. Not merely death and decomposition, but the death and decomposition of something good, something beautiful, announcing the arrival of an era of perpetual remembering. The trees stand stark against a burning sky, black branches gnarled and groping like the submerged fingers of Bastion, that fabled miner who dug too deep and was buried alive. The people of Idlevine march in lockstep down the street, covering their mouths and noses against the foul odor. Kaleb gags and watches the procession through blurry eyes. This has all happened before, and it’s never ended well. Along the side of the road broken machines endlessly, pointlessly shovel and rake the rancid petals. The doomed robots never actually dispose of the waste. They just stir it about like unwanted food on a plate. Some of the robots are without limbs, others without heads; they amble and gesticulate like decapitated livestock or lost children.
At the end of the road sits the Chamber, a wet stone mausoleum buttressed by massive statues of the Five Sleepers. The road morphs into an ancient conveyance belt, an endlessly circulating loop like the path inside the Chamber that leads to a door none are permitted to enter. The ancients loved loops. Like the strange feminine voice in the control room that has been repeating the same message in a forgotten tongue for over one thousand years: ich verließ mein herz in der kammer sechs null fünf…ich nicht weitergehen kann.
The townspeople are too awed by the marvel that is the conveyance belt to consider where it’s leading them. Kaleb understands and is horrified—but there’s nothing he can do. They ignore him. He is the poor, mad engineer who lost his wife. He looks to the other four engineers for help, the only other people who know what evil awaits these innocents, but they’ve blinded themselves with their own thumbs. The people are funneled into the Chamber’s mouth, a slow procession of friends and neighbors into what has become a hollowed-out skull. He is face-to-face with the grinning skeleton; with the prospect of nothing more, now, forever. Bone as old and yellowed as the magnolia’s waste, sockets blacker than the non-hour between the days.
Bone doesn’t reflect light.
Kaleb Bell slowly blinked as faint morning light fell on the skull in front of him. He was lying on the floor of his home. His lips, stuck to the dirty wood floor with dried drool, ripped painfully as he brought them together to smack.
If it’s not bone, it can’t be a skull.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kaleb noticed an empty bottle of Vlad’s homemade grain alcohol. He groaned, his entire body aching. He turned his eyes back to the metallic head.
With considerable effort, he managed to sit up. He felt his entire blood supply drain out of his head. The room spun. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose. He counted to five, then opened his eyes. The robot’s head stared blankly back. Kaleb picked it up and held it in his hands.
The metal was painted a burgundy color, but the paint was peeling and faded, revealing the tarnished chrome beneath. Kaleb rubbed a thumb across the thing’s temple, revealing: LILE-0605. Kaleb was one of very few people in Idlevine who knew what that meant—or basically knew what that meant. LILE was the type of robot (Logistics and Item-Locating Expert), while 0605 was its model number. The things were, of course, non-cogs, but they handled some pretty serious stuff in the Chamber (judging by the complex nature of their software; not even Kaleb knew what they did). This one had been brought to him by a scavenger droid…last night? He struggled to remember. Severed cables dangled from the thing’s neck. For the first time, Kaleb noticed the robot’s decapitated metallic body crumpled at the far end of the room.
What a mess.
Suddenly, there was a knock at his door: two quick raps, a pause, then a third.
Kaleb set the head down and stood. The world spun again, and he had to lean against a table for support.
“I know you’re in there, KB,” Vlad called.
“Give me a second,” Kaleb shouted.
“I’m freezing my nips off!”
The vertigo passed, but walking turned out to be an adventure. Kaleb stumbled to the door, keeping his arms out in front of him in case he should fall. He finally reached it and pulled it open.
Vlad Ramiro was enormous. Weighing at least a hundred and forty kilos and standing just under two meters, he was wider than Kaleb’s door frame and, for that matter, most frames in which he found himself. He had a tendency to burst out of anything that attempted to confine him, such as the black, standard-issue curator cloak he wore, or the navy-blue pajamas he wore beneath it. This outfit, finished off by a garish pink scarf wrapped tightly around his ample neck, made him resemble a bulbous slab of meat wrapped in twine. A light snow fell behind him.
“What’re you selling?” Kaleb asked.
“C’mon, man. Let me in.”
Kaleb stepped aside and Vlad squeezed through the door, shivering violently and rubbing his massive arms. Kaleb closed the door behind him.
“Ever heard of a fire?” Vlad asked, his teeth chattering.
“I just woke up.”
“What the heck happened to that thing?” Vlad asked, nodding toward the headless robot.
“You know I almost never know. I don’t perform autopsies—I just fix them.”
“I guess I’d take some tea if you had it.”
Kaleb shuffled over to his kitchen and set a pot of water to boil. Vlad picked up the empty bottle of his black-market alcohol and sniffed it.
“You drink all this last night?” he asked.
Vlad whistled through his teeth. He set the bottle down and crouched in front of the fireplace, his rear-end blocking it entirely. When he scooted away, there was a fire roaring in the hearth.
Vlad was Idlevine’s Watcher, which meant he spent his days in the monitoring station, watching dozens of screens that recorded the Barrier surrounding the town. Ostensibly, he was supposed to be on the lookout for anything suspicious. Since no one could remember the last time there’d been anything suspicious on one of the screens, Vlad spent the majority of his time fermenting grain alcohol in flagrant defiance of the town’s laws.
Vlad was the closest thing Kaleb had to a friend. They’d been in the same class at school and had been assigned seats next to each other on the first day. Thus, for boys and men alike: best friends forever. Vlad had been the ringbearer at Kaleb’s wedding.
Vlad scooted Kaleb’s favorite rocking chair—noisily—across the floor, collapsing—noisily—into it.
“So,” he asked. “What did you think?”
Kaleb opened one of his kitchen drawers and paused. In the drawer was a small metal tin filled with griss—a foul black plant soaked in various chemicals. Wickedly addictive, potentially deadly, the plant nevertheless focused the mind and brought about a wonderful feeling of relaxation. There was a time when Kaleb would have been too self-conscious to consume griss in front of anyone—even a friend—but that time had now passed. He opened the small metallic can and placed a pinch of the black gruel in his lower lip. He grabbed a trashcan to spit into and sat across from Vlad.
“What do I think about what?” Kaleb asked, spitting.
“Whoa, whoa,” Vlad said, pointing at Kaleb’s lip. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing? Nothing! When did you start sucking griss?”
“When I was fourteen.”
“And I’m just learning about this now?”
“What did I think about what?”
“I mean you think you know a guy and one morning he’s putting griss in his lip.”
“It relaxes me.”
“Yeah, sure. You’ll have plenty of time to relax when your jaw falls off.”
“Let’s focus maybe on what you asked me.”
Vlad shook his head. “I was going to inquire as to what you thought about the alcohol, but now I am just too flustered. I am completely flustered, Kaleb.”
“The alcohol was fine.”
“You know they say if you mix griss and alcohol together it might make griss even more harmful.”
“Vlad, the strength of the stuff you make is more liable to kill any disease than it is to help it.”
“Does that even make sense?”
Vlad closed one eye and stared at Kaleb, unconvinced. Then he smiled. “What did you think of the taste?”
“To be completely honest, I don’t really remember, Vlad.”
“Reason I ask is the stock came from some ethanol Jameson appropriated from an agro-tractor.”
Kaleb’s eyes widened. “You used fuel?”
“Well all you have to do is heat it up and that gets rid of the methanol and then you’re golden.”
“You used fuel that you stole from an agro-tractor?”
“So what I’m wondering though is if you noticed any differences in taste and or quality.”
“And you’ve got Jameson roped in on all of this?”
“He’s a very entrepreneurial individual, Kaleb, whatever his other shortcomings.”
“Who the heck’s watching the screens when you guys are doing all of this?”
“Watching the screens for what?”
“Everyone has a job, Vlad.”
Vlad nodded, seemed to think better of it, and shook his head. “The problem is no one tells you when you’re a kid that you shouldn’t strive for the boring jobs.”
“All jobs become boring.”
“I remember thinking, way back when, that a job where all you had to do was watch some screens sounded just about perfect. No thinking or anything. But you don’t understand how long it makes the days seem.”
Kaleb glanced out a window, trying to judge the time by the light. The snowflakes were fat and slow.
“Why are you here?” Kaleb asked. “What time is it?”
“Though I suppose it’s the allure of potentially seeing something that makes it all worthwhile. That one day, something might appear on one of those screens, I guess, is what keeps me marginally interested.”
“Right. Look, Vlad, I really should—”
“That amazing moment when, gosh, who knows if it’s ever happened—but when something pops up on the screen. Something that by all rights shouldn’t be there.”
Kaleb turned to Vlad.
“You saw something?”
A ridiculously big smile stretched across Vlad’s face, puckering his features.
“No. I saw someone.”