Authors: A.J. Dalton
The other scrabbled feebly at the thickness where it was mixed with areas of absence. She sensed that the other would get stuck in the thickness again! The thickness was not as hard in places as it needed to be. Couldn’t the other tell?’
With a grunt, she pulled the other back and started to shift the thickness herself, but only where the thickness was hard enough and would not make them stuck.
‘Oh! Thank you. By the Overlords, that’s amazing!’
She pushed through and past the thickness with ease, more familiar with its nature than anything else in her life. It was the substance of the womb that had fed and nurtured her from the beginning. She’d eaten it, slept on it and clung to it in the dark since she could remember. And she’d become as hard as the thickness itself, becoming just an extension of its substance, albeit a moving one. When she passed through it like this, she almost felt at one with it and fancied she could understand its vastness, could feel its infinitely slow movements, and could glimpse its strange thoughts, although none made sense to her.
The other stayed crouched directly behind her as she went.
‘You move through the rock as if it were water, or the air itself. Truly, you have an amazing skill. You must be the greatest miner in the world!’
Sounds from the other that were not unpleasant to listen to. In fact, they were nice and created a feeling in her she could not remember experiencing before. It was like wanting to be consumed by the otherness. It made her want to do things for the other, do everything for the other.
She moved all the thickness aside until she broke into the great absence beyond. And then the darkness disappeared and she became blind! She cried and made unpleasant noises to tell the other that she was scared. And then the other was there helping her.
‘It’s just the light from the miners and the home chamber up ahead! Here, cover your eyes until they get used to it. Give me your hand! Here, over your eyes. That’s it.’
Gone was the texture, depth and differentiation of the darkness, all washed away by something that was … not darkness, was the opposite of darkness.
The other guided her forward through the blindness, just as she had guided him through the dark and thickness a moment before. Was the blindness then the substance and nature with which the other was most familiar? Had this substance fed and nurtured the other during its beginning? Had the other eaten of it, this thin substance that was not darkness, slept on it and clung to it? Was that why the other was soft and thin where she was hard and thick? Was otherness then precisely what she was not? Was that why she felt completed by it? Was that why she wanted nothing but the other?
Sounds came towards them, sounds that were more others. So many! The sound swamped her and she tried to block it out with her hands, but then the blindness flooded in. Trembling, she turned away.
‘Back, back!’ the other cried. ‘Don’t crowd it! It saved me! Yes, I’m fine. It brought me through the cave-in. Quietly, quietly! It seems scared.’
‘Is it the rock blight? I’ve never seen it so bad.’
‘But it moves freely. It hasn’t petrified or turned to stone like so many do. How can that be?’
‘Its skin seems hard enough though.’
‘How is it not a statue, fixed?’
‘It’s a female,’ the other sounded. ‘But mute, I think.’
‘Poor thing. Let us women take her with us.’
‘No, she has the taint. She’ll infect us all!’
Contact all over her. She lashed out.
Unpleasant sounds. Cries.
‘Aieee! My arm! It’s broken! Bitch!’
‘Leave her!’ Sounds from her other. ‘Back! All of you! Don’t touch her. You’re scaring her.’
‘My arm! My arm!’
‘Someone help Gang-leader Darus. I’ll calm her and take her to my tunnel,’ the other said.
‘She’s a danger. Ah! Careful, you dolts!’
‘We shall deal with her in good time, Gang-leader. It’s more immediately important that we see to your own immediately. We are nothing without you. Quickly, take the Gang-leader to the healer.’
Contact again, but this time she knew it was her other, for she could sense its particular texture. She clung tightly to it, knowing she must be hurting it, but there were no unpleasant sounds. The other was helping her. The other completed her. All would be well while the other was with her.
The other led her through the absence. She sensed them both entering a vast area of absence and then a smaller place.
‘Here we are. This is my burrow. It’s small but cosy. Sit here. That’s it. Now, let’s see what we can do about your eyes. I’ll wrap some cloth around your head and you can get used to the small light that gets through that for a while. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.’
And so she entered the world of the Overlords. Every morning Norfred would speak to her and teach her words. He gave her the name Freda, and she was pleased because it was a gift from him, although she wasn’t sure why she needed it or what it was for exactly. And the others referred to her via other names and words anyway, although she wasn’t sure what any of them meant. Then he would test her eyes without the cloth, and she would suffer the blindness for a while to humour him, although she could sense far more when her eyes were closed and she moved through a world of darkness.
After their morning lesson, they would go with the others to work at the thickness, or
as they called it. The others were soft and not very good at moving through the thickness despite the things they had called
. She, however, had no trouble pushing though it. The others were amazed at how she worked, and made excited noises. Norfred was happy too, and that pleased her, especially because he seemed to need more help than a lot of the others to move the thickness.
‘It’s because I am old, Freda,’ he said when she asked him about it one day.
‘Old?’ she gurgled.
‘Yes. After a certain amount of time, people start to get weaker, Freda, until they are so weak that they simply stop altogether.’
Freda scratched at her head and flicked away bits of skin that had crumbled where she had caught her head against a low-hanging piece of rock. ‘If they stop completely, they become like the rock … or slurry, yes?’
Norfred tilted his head as he thought about it and then nodded. ‘Yes,’ he smiled, ‘just like the rock and slurry, waiting for miners to find valuable bits left in among them.’
‘Once they have stopped, how do they start again, Norfred?’
‘They don’t, Freda, I’m afraid. It’s called being dead.’
Freda was quiet for a long while. Then she gurgled unhappily, ‘I don’t want you to stop, Norfred!’
He patted her on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, Freda, it won’t be for a long time, especially if you’re around to save me from any cave-ins. It’s a blessing for us that you always know where the rock is too weak to venture. There hasn’t been a single accident since you joined us, you know. Even Darus has to listen when you say where we should and shouldn’t work, although I don’t think he likes having to do so, eh?’
‘Darus doesn’t like me, Norfred!’
‘Ah, don’t worry, Freda – he doesn’t like anyone. That’s just his way. It’s his job as Gang-leader not to like anyone or have any favourites, as that way he makes sure we all work as hard as possible. Our Overseer made Darus the Gang-leader precisely because Darus was the meanest of everyone here, you see. But Darus is in a far better mood these days now that you help us find so much sun-metal. The Overseer is very pleased, I hear, and there’s talk that Darus might soon ascend as reward. He would be the youngest of us ever to do so. It is the just reward for hard work to which we all aspire, Freda.’
Freda’s nose cracked as she wrinkled it. ‘I don’t like the sun-metal, Norfred. It frightens and blinds me. And it hurts to touch.’
‘It’s just the way it glows, Freda, that’s all. Your eyes aren’t used to it. But many think it is as beautiful as it is rare, and the Overlords need it to make their weapons for the war they fight on our behalf. There is nothing stronger than sun-metal, you see, and it burns our dark foes terribly. We supply the sun-metal to the Overlords, and in return they make great sacrifices above to ensure that we remain safe down here. And they will often go without food to ensure we eat properly.’
Freda nodded, although she didn’t understand much of what Norfred said. He’d talked of such things many times before and it seemed important to him that she understood and agreed. But she didn’t eat the food of the others because it made her feel weak – she was far happier with the slurry that came from the thickness. It meant her bones were never soft or breaking, unlike the bones of the others.
‘So, you see, the sun-metal is important, and you are a blessing to all of us. And you are a blessing to me in my old age, Freda, for I’d never thought to have anything like a wife or child again. But the Overlords have been kind, for I have lived long enough to see the day.’
Freda was very familiar with the idea of children, for there were always some of them running and playing about the main home chamber, and the larger ones tended to work side by side with the adults. And there seemed to be two types of adults: husbands and wives. They tended to stay in pairs, for companionship and to look after a child or two. Freda was not sure she would know how to look after a child, though.
‘What happened to your wife and child from before?’ she asked curiously.
Through the gauze over her eyes, she saw Norfred scrunch up his face in a way she associated with him being unhappy.
‘The rock blight took my dear Tasha, but our son Jan was done the great honour of being chosen for the army of the Overlords. He’s a handsome and strapping lad, you see, and those like him are often selected by the Overseers. There was a great celebration in the home chamber, for a whole level of the mine takes pride when one of its own is taken like that.’
But Norfred’s voice sounded sad rather than proud. ‘Are you sorry you do not see and touch him any more?’
Norfred smiled. ‘Of course, Freda. I miss him dreadfully, even though he was taken so many years ago. I fear that the fighting is bad, I wonder where he is and I imagine he has a wife and a child of his own now. A grandchild, you see. And maybe that grandchild looks like my dear Tasha. Ah, but listen to me going on. It’s nothing but fanciful talk, best not dwelt upon.’
‘Maybe we can go and look for him if that will make you happy, Norfred.’
‘What are you saying, Freda? There is a terrible war up there. It would be far too dangerous. And every miner must work as long and as hard as they can to find sun-metal. If they were all to go off looking for their children, there would be no sun-metal, no weapons and no army. All would be lost, Freda! The Overlords depend on us. If I were to go off, all the other miners would have to work harder, but they already work as hard as they can, so it would break some of them, and I cannot have that on my conscience, truly I can’t. Besides, the Overseers and the miners of the levels above guard the way and wouldn’t let us up.’
Freda puzzled and then said tentatively, ‘We can go our own way up. I can take us through the rock like I did with the cave-in. We can go now.’
Norfred became tense now, as if upset. In a low voice, he said, ‘I … This is my home, Freda. I was born here, like my father before me.’
‘Are you scared, Norfred?’ she asked in confusion. She’d thought he wanted to see his son more than anything else. And she only wanted to make him happy.
‘Freda, I …’ He paused for a long moment. ‘I have never been above this level, let alone all the way up. What you’re suggesting is …’ He gave up again. ‘I am at this lowest of levels because it is my place. When I have worked long and hard, then I will ascend. Even that is not certain, because I am weak. But we don’t know what’s up there.’
‘You’re weak because of the poor food you eat, and your son is up there.’
‘Wait, wait. Freda, we’re happy here. You’re happy here, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, Norfred. I am happy when with you. You will be happier with your son, though, will you not?’
‘Enough, Freda! I don’t want to talk about it any more. I’ll think about it later, but I don’t have time right now. You heard the bell – we have to go and start work with the gang. We don’t want to be late.’
‘Yes, Norfred,’ she said miserably. ‘Don’t be angry with Freda, please.’
He sighed and patted her arm again. ‘I’m sorry, Freda. I’ll think about it, I promise I will. Come on, let’s see if we can find enough sun-metal to make even Darus smile. Now that would be a thing to see, eh?’
‘Yes, Norfred,’ she said more happily.
‘It’s not enough!’ Darus spat at Norfred.
Norfred frowned. ‘But it’s more sun-metal than we’ve ever collected. In just one shift we’ve found more than we did all of last year!’
‘Just because we’ve finally found a rich vein doesn’t mean we can slacken off and waste our time with celebration! Quite the opposite! We should be inspired to work even harder now that our efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit. We have kept the Overlords desperately short for far too long. We need to get the sun-metal to them as quickly as possible, so it can save us all, and perhaps even tip the balance of the war in favour of the Overlords. So stop your selfish and shameful whining, Norfred, and get that brute back to the workface.’
Norfred placed himself between Freda and the Gang-leader. ‘She’s exhausted! You’ve had her working two shifts straight. Push her any further and she’ll become ill. Then where will we be? Don’t risk all we’ve achieved for the short-term!’
‘Are you forgetting who is Gang-leader here, old man?’ Darus sneered. ‘Are you becoming addled in your dotage? Do you forget who instructs who?’
‘It’s a-al-all right, I can work for a little more,’ Freda groaned.
Norfred ignored her and drew himself up to his full height. Freda knew his back would suffer for it later. ‘Darus,’ Norfred rasped, ‘I am not so addled as to forget when I dandled you as a babe on my knee. I am not so addled as to forget having to tan your hide for stealing apples from the stores when you were a mere boy. I am not so addled as to forget you asking my advice when you were made a Gang-leader not so long ago. And I am not so addled that I cannot see when a man’s better judgement has been undone by his selfish ambition to ascend!’