by Resha Caner
|part 1 of 7|
In a world of tunnels where men live like ants, sound is sight and scents have color. To fend off overwhelming enemies, a Red Captain will need not only his own resourcefulness but entirely new senses. And to that end he needs allies...
Thirteen workers were crushed when a new cross tunnel collapsed. Tunnel life had its risks, and the race to the copper fields had inadvertently intersected competing tunnels from the Red and Black colonies, weakening the supports, giving way to death, and tempting war.
Clicks of pain and dying hisses rolled through the dusty air, sending the Red Diggers into a frenzy. They pointed accusing fingers at the Black Diggers who darted about on the other side of the breach. With Digger One of Thirteen buried in the collapse, no one was present to take charge of the situation. No one thought to call for extra help or heavy tools to dig survivors free from the rubble. Precious seconds were lost, and lives expired as the Red Diggers grew more agitated, and began to push into the breach, threatening a fight.
Red Soldiers arrived, drawn by the scent of foreigners. Yet, rather than escalating the conflict, they brought calm. They moved in to guard the exposed tunnel and directed Diggers to close the maw jeopardizing the safety of the colony. The Black had long held an advantage of numbers, and the Soldiers knew defense to be the better strategy.
By the time the Black organized for an assault into the Red tunnel, the Diggers had reduced the breach to an impassable hole.
The Red Soldiers swayed in a slow rhythm, disturbing the stygian air both to comfort the Diggers with their presence and to enlarge the sphere from which they drew a scent. As the strange vacillations from the exposed Black tunnel faded, one Red Soldier after another moved on to other duties.
Scouts arrived, and the Diggers were drawn away for other work. The copper fields must be seized, and new tunnels were needed to reach them. The Queen needed material to fuel her ambitions.
Nothing could be wasted, and Builders arrived, using torches to extract a now useless network of pipes that would have supplied the mines with water and fuel. They disassembled wooden scaffolding and carried it away.
Only one Soldier remained to watch the last Digger complete his gruesome task. The Builders and Scouts were gone, leaving the two to their lonely work amongst the hot smell of burnt fuel and molten metal.
The Soldier did not signal the Digger; he didn’t even seem aware of his presence, but the Digger took comfort in the protection. He had been bred to dig, and he loved his work; he took pride in it, as did all his fellow workers.
Yet the job had dangers, and cave-ins took many lives. The Queen often questioned the oath that no Digger, dead or alive, would ever be left behind. She only supported this effort to retrieve the bodies because she wanted the bundle carried by Digger One of Thirteen.
The lone Red Digger moved forward and studied the fall at the end of the tunnel. He made a clicking noise with his tongue, and then lowered a tool bundle from his back. Pawing through the bundle, his hands came upon an echo locater. He paused, turning his head back toward the Soldier with a sniff.
The old Diggers insisted ears alone were sufficient for locating buried objects, and only amateurs needed the new machines bought by the Queen from outsiders. The Digger didn’t want anyone observing his ignominious use of the echo locater.
Satisfied that the Soldier remained aloof, the Digger strapped the locater about his head, and turned it on. Adjusting the main dial to bring the color of sounds into focus, he selected a broad spade from his bundle and set to work, listening carefully to the locator in order to separate the bodies from the debris that encased them. One by one, parts of the thirteen lost were exposed from beneath the rubble. The Digger switched to a sharp pick, and chiseled with quiet precision until he freed the corpses.
Once the task was completed, the Digger stepped to the side, stowed his tools back in the bundle, and waited in silence.
The Soldier tilted his head to one side, activating a radio by the pressure of his chin. He gave a staccato pattern of clicks and whistles, and then stood among the makeshift morgue without any signal to the Digger.
Nurses responded to the Soldier’s hail, hustling in to wrap the bodies and carry them away for burial. Among them a Scout also came. As each body departed, he sniffed it with somber detachment. He released several bodies to the final rituals of the Nurses before he sensed One of Thirteen. Snapping his fingers, he extended his hand toward the Digger.
With an indignant grunt, the Digger refused to relinquish the requested instrument. He did not understand why the Scout would so lower himself. He needed only to make his request. The Digger would operate the tools.
The Digger stepped forward, drawing a pair of scissors from his tool bundle. With a quick snip, he cut a cord binding a bundle to One of Thirteen, and handed it to the Soldier.
The Scout snorted and growled. Diggers were not to express independent thought. They were to obey every order without question. One of Thirteen had been the best and most experienced of Diggers, near a promotion to Scout, and had been allowed to carry the Queen’s mark on this job as preparation for his elevation. For any other Digger to touch the Queen’s mark without permission could not be forgiven.
The stamping of the Scout increased in intensity, demanding action from the Soldier, and the Nurses stepped away, leaving the Digger by himself.
The Soldier drew a pistol from his side and put a hole through the middle of the Digger’s head. The Nurses had a fourteenth body to carry away.
A steady rhythm marked the Soldier’s steps as he marched down the tunnel to where his Captain waited. He could sense his commander’s presence, for the Captain stood taller and broader than any soldier in his troop. He nearly blocked the entrance to the tunnel, stifling the flow of air and creating a black hole in the Soldier’s field of hearing. His ability to plant himself in absolute silence, soaking up the sounds and signals from every direction while creating no disturbance of his own was an art learned from decades of earnest discipline.
The Captain could sense his men from great distances and amongst a confusion of other Reds. He could identify a specific Soldier even amongst a swarm of Blacks, Browns, or any other creature who moved within the tunnels.
When the Soldier arrived, he barked. The Soldier twitched at receiving the order, and made a reverent bow to place the bundle before the Captain. A slow double click sent the Soldier off to rejoin the remainder of the troop, and the Captain took the bundle on to its destination.
The tunnels of the Red Colony were clean. No rats, cobwebs, or debris littered the way as in the outer reaches, allowing him swift movement toward his destination. All gave way to him. They knew his precedence and stepped aside in rippling waves as if an invisible shield marched before him, pressing them against the walls of the tunnels.
On one occasion a stranger from the outside — an odd creature selling amusements to the children — failed to yield, but a Supervisor took swift action, guiding him and his bulky cart of wares out of the center path.
The Captain sneered as he passed by. He had witnessed how technology made killing in war more efficient, and he blamed the outsiders. He took every opportunity to reject their entry into the Colony, but today duty demanded he pass on and deliver his cargo.
Soon he stood near the center with only the Templars blocking the path between himself and the chamber of the Sixteenth Queen of the Red Colony. He could feel her presence; his body vibrated with her energy. The merest disposition of fate stood between his status as a Captain and the Templars who guarded her person. They were given the privilege of understanding her speech and responding in kind, while his abilities were limited to the most basic sounds.
Therefore, in proper servitude, he bowed to deliver the bundle from One of Thirteen to the Third Templar. Instead, the Third Templar stepped aside. He left the gate open, and his form no longer shielded the Queen.
Though the Captain had been allowed several times before to approach the entry, he was never given the faintest glimpse of what lay inside. The mark he carried inside the bundle was the closest he had ever been to the Queen, and the empty air lying between him and the royal person left him stupefied.
Instinct left him immobile, making him nearly invisible even to the Templars. Not until the Queen herself stamped with impatience did he dare to enter the chamber.
With one step it felt as if the ceiling soared away and disappeared. Never in his life had a rock roof been more than a meter above the Captain’s head, yet the crown of the Sixteenth Queen’s chamber stood so far above him he could not sense it. Fear pierced his heart, tempting him to cry out in an attempt to echo-locate. Only when the scream began to roll across his tongue did he manage to swallow it.
The Captain went to his knees a mere step inside the door, and laid the bundle on the floor. The Queen uttered a strange, indiscernible sound. The Captain struggled to understand, sensing the noises were directed at him, but he could not put a meaning to them. Could it be the Queen was using “speech,” the holy communications reserved to her and the court?
One of the Priestesses, whom the Captain had failed to sense in his fear and confusion, stepped forward to take his hand. Her skin was soft and smooth, and he heard the swishing of long skirts about her hips. As she bent to lift him up, a wisp of hair fell from behind her ear and brushed across the Captain’s face. In a moment he was ready to declare himself forever to this Priestess, but her other hand went to his lips, and the signal died. Next she touched his ears, and the Captain was amazed to find he could understand their speech.
As the Priestess drew the Captain forward toward the circle, the Queen spoke. The strange skill of processing words came slowly, and a moment passed before he realized she was not speaking to him. That she would invite him in and then ignore him confused the Captain, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that the infinite wisdom and ways of the Queen were not something he should attempt to grasp.
“News from the new copper mine, Priestess One.”
“Six Scouts lead Diggers to find a new route, Your Highness.”
“News from the Black Queen, Priestess Five.”
“None yet, Your Highness. Messengers have been sent.”
“Her silence bothers me. She is aggressive. The Black Queen is always aggressive. If she does not speak, and does not make demands, then she moves. But where? Toward us or away? Priestess Seven, send Scouts to the border. I must know in which direction she moves.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The Templars parted to let the Priestess exit through a sacred, restricted passageway, and the Queen moved on to other business.
“What are our numbers, Priestess Two?”
“Five thousand as you apportioned them, Your Highness, with two thousand Gatherers....”
“I did not ask the apportionment, Priestess!” the Queen thundered. “Do you think I am unaware of my own mind? I asked you only to number the current population.”
“Your pardon, My Queen.”
The Queen paused for a moment’s thought. “No, Priestess. My apologies.”
The brief moment of embarrassment put the Captain into motion, and he started to withdraw.
“Do not go, Captain. I understand your shock. When has a Queen ever apologized to a Priestess? She apologizes when an apology must be made. I spoke from frustration because it is obvious our situation is untenable. Come forward.”
The Captain lifted the bundle and approached. Placing it before his Queen, he clapped his hands, bowed, and clicked his heels to indicate the completion of his task.
“No, this is not for me.” The Queen waved for the Captain to retrieve the bundle.
The Captain’s arms shook as he checked the location of the package, for it lay near the foot of the Queen, and he could sense the graceful curve of her leg. A sudden silence enforced her order with a terrifying harshness, and he bent as if his will no longer controlled his body. He laid a hand on the package, but remained bowed at her feet, unable to rise.
“Select a girl from the nursery — it does not matter which — and bind my mark to her.”
Again the circle of Priestesses shuddered in confusion.
“Do you not understand?” The Queen asked. “Have I been so poor in my instructions? The Black Queen has ten times our numbers. She knows the copper mine is hers, and she knows a lesser Queen is on her border. She will attack and destroy this colony. The Scouts I have sent are only diversions. She will read these moves, and the varied missions will confuse her response. The delay will save me.
“And, though I grieve my decision, the poor one you choose is also a diversion, Captain. She will carry my mark, and the Black will think you are stealing a new Queen away to safety. Yet one day I will return, and we will continue toward Convergence.”
Convergence. Amongst the newness of words, this one alone he did not understand. He desired to ask her the meaning of this unknown thing, but the presence of her majesty pressed down upon him, and he bowed his head in silence.
The Queen ordered the Captain to stand. Then she moved forward, and kissed him on the cheek. “You have a question? Then speak, good Captain.”
The Captain stuttered. Miracle piled upon miracle, and his mind drew near to breaking. “My Queen,” he said as he tried to shrink his large body. He did not know what amazed him more: being in the chamber, being kissed by the Queen, or speaking words after forty years among the mute lower classes.
Even though her patience extended to a few seconds, he found himself unable to muster the courage to ask his question about Convergence. With a soft laugh, she took the initiative from him.
“Do you grieve the hard task I have given you, Captain? Do not think me heartless toward the poor soul you choose. Given my kiss, she will follow you in her infancy, thinking you have been assigned to train her. I therefore charge you to stand with her to the end.”
The Queen slowed her movements and looked out toward the entrance of her chamber. “The numbers who fall when the Black raid comes must be sufficient to convince. All but the Templars, the Priestesses, and a hundred each of the Diggers and Gatherers will stand by the Captain to the end. Bring her here, and here defend her. I leave to make a site for the new colony.”
The Captain lifted the bundle of One of Thirteen and retreated without a sound.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Resha Caner