Chapter Two: The Red Planet
I waited patiently as men and women filed past me, shoulders bent and eyes downcast. The smell of urine and sweat, mixed with the damp mustiness of being underground was overwhelming, but my nose was forced to grow accustomed. I pressed myself to the rocky wall and closed my eyes for a moment. My unit passed nearly in silence before I felt a rough hand on my shoulder. “Get moving, Scat.”
My eyes opened to see an ugly, bearded face with thick eyebrows and a nearly-bald head traced with a black tattoo. The Trapper pushed me roughly into the line and I stumbled into sync with the others. No one turned to look at me. They were all defeated.
I gripped my pickaxe tightly in my fingers, willing the Trapper to raise his Stinger to me. The short crook remained safely stowed, however, even though he caught my eyes on his belt where it lay. He simply smiled, and I quickly turned away before his attentions were brought to anything beyond a beating. The full treatment of slaves was no mystery to me.
I had been working in the tunnels with my ‘family’ now for almost four years. It took every ounce of self control to keep from giving in to the glassy-eyed stares that haunted most of the others. Jaimie helped maintain my sanity up until a year ago, when she was taken by two Trappers without warning or explanation. She went without a fight, but came back with a scar. Shortly after that, I was taken into Jonathan’s employ.
Before my sudden removal, we had spent the years underground sitting in our bunker when none of the Trappers were around, making up stories about what our lives would be like if we had been chosen by the Proprietor. Those chosen were given elite positions in the Empire. Elite, because they were not slaves. They could sleep in a bed at the end of the day. Even the Trappers were considered elite, although they were on the lowest rung. The Proprietor chose the dark, twisted ones for that job.
Jaimie wished to be a lawyer. That’s what Jonathan was. That was what I was training to be before they took me back to the red planet. They had given me one year of freedom to train. Every Tinker was given a chance to prove themselves for the elite after a few years underground. I had tried, and clearly failed. What frustrated me most was that I didn’t know if it was Jonathan who had given up on me, or if it had been a random selection by the Proprietor, or if I had been analyzed and deemed unworthy. One minute I had the yellow suns in my grasp, and now I was back to darkness in a single blink.
I also wondered if Jonathan knew that I had been pretending to love him. Perhaps that had set him off the edge. Regardless, there was nothing to be said for me. I was a Tinker, now, and that’s all I would ever be until my second death.
Jaimie had spent her year training before I was in the Second Level. She trained as a clerk because she could not find anyone to sponsor her as a lawyer. Even in this life there was racism, and it was very rare to see a black person, especially a black woman, in any elite position. She had been less than enthusiastic in her role, and was punished with a lifetime of servitude in the darkness for it. That’s where I met her.
Secretly, my desire was to become a bookkeeper. I wanted to have the same power as Acros. I already knew I was capable of Silimency. I had even tried leaking my thoughts into a Trapper’s once, and I was able to manipulate her into scooping me an extra portion of bran meal for supper one evening. But, even if I had been thought to qualify, only men could fill the position of bookkeeper, and the Proprietor himself tested and trained them.
If I was a bookkeeper, I could use my abilities to escape the prison that was the Second Level, and hope to God that the Third Level was not nearly as bad. I had heard horrifying stories, but I suspected they were meant to deter Tinker’s from attempting suicide and a quick escape. Instead, though, I told Jaimie that I wanted to be a lawyer. It seemed a believable lie, and she never once doubted my fantasies.
I could almost believe the lies myself.
We had used up our one year, give or take a few weeks, and there were no second chances given, ever. We would be Tinker’s until the day we died. For this, I had contemplated suicide more than once, and there was only one thing stopping me. Something else Jonathan had told me abut the Levels…
Five months later
Jonathan held up the papers for the third time that hour and realigned them so they were stacked perfectly against one another. He was bored, and it seemed the meeting would never come to a close. He had been through the same cyclical arguments with different levels of authorities for the past five months.
“…and so, you can see, of course, that there would be no possible way to return the Tinker back to the Upper. She failed her personality examination.”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this all before,” he waved his hand, irritated. “What I’m saying is that I did not send her back. She was excellent at her job. We were in the middle of a trial, and your bookkeeper took her to the red planet without my consent or proper preparation.”
“It’s not up to you who is chosen by the Proprietor, and who is not.”
“What would the Proprietor possibly find lacking in that woman? Did he personally monitor her?”
The man did not look at Jonathan, but rather stood and made for the door. “That is none of your concern, Mister Swift.”
Jonathan was done with the games. He was done with pretending to be cool and collected. “She was going to be my wife, dammit.” He slammed his hand down on the table hard. The man remained stoic, one hand on the glass door. Slowly, he turned back.
“Ali Oswald is none of your concern. Whatever has been done with her is decided by the Proprietor. Don’t forget, young man, that the Proprietor owns you as well.” He pushed open the door, and with a stern look he said. “I suggest you watch yourself more closely, Jonathan. You never know who might be watching.” His eyes shifted upwards momentarily before he exited.
The door issued an airy sound as it closed with a click. The man was gone before Jonathan could think of a response. Finally, after a few minutes, he removed his sticky palm from the surface of the table, picked up his briefcase, and rushed from the room.
The stack of papers remained behind.
The transitioning between levels was a curious event experienced by every human being upon the earth, with no recognition of religion nor creed. What was especially curious, though, was the fact that no one remembered the level before. Any feelings of similarity or origin of personality were chalked up to deja vu. It was not simply fate, then, that a few humans were chosen to remember every level they experienced. They had the ability to question why their lives started in the middle of everything, and why there was never a single pregnant woman to exist after the first level. In fact, none but the chosen few knew from where the newcomers emerged.
Marianne was miserable as she crossed the cramped corridors and monitored the Tinker’s as they slept. Each of their wearied faces looked upon her as she passed, their eyes too dead to show any of the fear that was once prominent in each of them. Her Stinger hung at her belt, unused except for a singular occasion. Every morning when she awoke and strapped that thing to her side, she felt a sickening twinge in her gut. Every night before she fell asleep, she could picture the twelve-year-old boy with the brown hair, whom she had killed with one-too-many blows from that very crook. Blood had leaked from his nostrils, and his cold, dead eyes were black and accusatory. She never meant to kill, and she never planned to kill again.
She told none of her fellow Trapper’s that it haunted her, even three years after the incident. She couldn’t let them see her weakness, because many of them boasted for the very same thing that broke her down inside.
More than once, Marianne wondered why the Proprietor had chosen her for this job. She was nothing like the others. Sometimes, at her lowest points, she wished that she were a Tinker. That way her burdens would be simpler, and her death would be sooner.
As she walked past the fourty-third cell, she felt a strange presence flicker in the periphery of her mind. She stopped dead in her tracks and turned swiftly to look through the barred window. The tiny room held six Tinkers. All were lying on their bunks, seemingly unconscious, except for one. She sat on the ground, leaning up against the wall, legs crossed. Her dark eyes were staring intensely ahead, her thick eyebrows drawn together in concentration. When Marianne looked in, the woman glanced up at her, suddenly fearful.
The woman’s eyes were not dead like the others. Some took a while to break, and Marianne did not doubt this woman’s strength. This group of Tinker’s had been underground on the red planet for years, with not even a glimpse of the sun. How the woman had kept her sanity thus far, Marianne did not know.
The presence in her mind dissipated quickly, and she wondered if she had imagined it. The woman’s gaze was making her uncomfortable and she turned to leave, but the woman said “wait.”
For some reason, she listened. Marianne looked back at the woman, who stretched her legs out slowly and walked toward the barred window. The woman’s pale blonde hair hung stiffly to the length of her ears. “Stay back,” Marianne warned, trying to keep the sudden fear from surfacing.
The woman didn’t speak. She just kept staring.
“What do you want?” Marianne demanded, a quiver in her voice. She glanced down the hallway in either direction to see if anyone else was watching the exchange. There was no one, and the rest of the Tinker’s still slept in their beds.
“Get me out of here,” the woman said, but the words did not issue from her mouth. They echoed inside Marianne’s head as if they were her own thoughts.
“Who are you?” The Trapper whispered.
“I am Ali Oswald, and you’re going to help me escape,” the Tinker replied noiselessly. As she continued to stare at her captor, she dug her long thumbnail into her neck where her tag was buried, and ripped it free from her skin. She barely even flinched from the pain. Blood issued from the area just below her ear, and an alarm sounded. Marianne swiped her card and opened the door, grabbing the woman’s arm.
“Come with me,” she heard herself say frantically, and they raced down the empty corridor together, making for the stairs. Despite her fear, Marianne’s mind felt free.
The Proprietor smiled and directed his gaze to the lawyer who asked too many questions: Jonathan Swift. The man was screaming in pain as a Sufran stood over his breaking body and fired up the drill. With a cruel smile, the Sufran raised the thick metal drill to the man’s head and began drilling. The metal bit ground against the bone with a satisfying crunch as the screams became more desperate.
To be continued…