About The Laws of Space
The Laws of Space
Chapter 19 Continued:
… By midday, ten Regulars had been culled on Lerner’s terrace alone. The sun was hotter still; it seemed to penetrate the lungs, stunting his breathing. The spate of vileness affected all the Regulars differently, but they were all affected. A true sea change—the System, their bosom, their saving grace, was now a monster picking them off one by one in what seemed an arbitrary game. Every so often a Mech would creep up behind you, all bulky cumbersome metal, turning you inside out with its sensors and scanners. A citizen of the Five Cities learned to live with the machines, but that was co-existence.
This felt more like slavery. Some had that very thought, though the word slave did not exist in the System lexicon.
It was not a thought to be having—the Mechs and the Sky Eyes could read your brain waves, your thought patterns. They could see which areas of the mind were firing off; the synapses signaling rebellion and agitation were ones that needed suppressing if one was to survive the Culling.
This being the case, the Breathers were at a great advantage on the hillside and everywhere else in the Five Cities. The term Breathers was not an official label, nor Hopers, but every Regular was one or the other. Breathers were more or less resigned to the status quo, moving along through their life at a pace that allowed survival and not much else. Hopers, conversely, had more in their step, so to speak—drive to rise above their Level. This meant extra work for extra credits, and more importantly, it meant an extra desire for Space and a certain degree of self-determination. If anyone had the brains to figure it out, they would realize that the Culling served to exacerbate the very problem Pope claimed it would solve.
The weak and submissive were more likely to survive.
The stronger, higher producing Regulars ran a high risk of being culled.
Lerner Merchant, L1 was a life-long Breather, but his recent friendship with Alder Tate and the recent jaunt into the world of the Ones Between had changed things, namely his heart and his mind.
Merchant and a cohort of shovel hands had been working the same terrace for hours now, and it was time to move up to the next section of the hill, a freshly pummeled area where the pickings would be loose and ready for extraction. A narrow, make-shift walkway was provided for their ascent, but the footing was shoddy where it wasn’t treacherous. He and his co-workers clung to a coarse rope as they climbed single file. Boots with missing or worn down heels were all most people could afford—not exactly ideal accouterments for mountaineering.
Lerner could hear the man behind him grumbling, going on about the Culling, the job, the endless toil. He made a quick turn and gave a stern look, hoping it would quiet him.
It didn’t. The grumbler was a weathered little man, with a coat and sweater just a bit dirtier and more frayed than everybody else. The grumbling continued, and as the little old man concentrated his mind on life, he forgot about his own, stepping off the path to rub arthritic toes with arthritic fingers. Merchant looked back as everyone else continued up the path and onto the next terrace.
“Come on, you!” Lerner yelled out, holding up the line. “There’s a Mech at the top of the hill. You got a death wish?”
“Stay out of it,” he said, now lying against the hill on his back. Merchant looked up and saw a Sky Eye circling overhead, probably scanning the old-timer and readying itself for another culling. The men and women at his back pleaded with Lerner to keep moving. They had good reason: the path was too narrow to walk around him and they didn’t want to be blown up for loafing on the job.
“All right!” Lerner screamed, fed up with their shrill whimpering. He stepped to his left and off the path, sliding on uneasy ground toward the disgruntled shovel hand.
“Get out of here kid,” he said, feeling Lerner’s approach. “Stay out of it.”
“Enough with the ‘stay out of it,’ okay? Enough. You sound like a little one. Get your boots back on and let’s get up this hill before we get fragged. You pick this day to literally lie down on the job?”
“Fifty-eight years is long enough.”
“So you just give up because you’re fifty-eight?”
“No kid,” he answered, sitting up slightly, resting on his elbows. “I’m sixty-six, so I’ve been on this hill or one just like it for fifty-eight years.” The man’s tone was no longer caustic, and on another day Lerner might have been interested in his biography, but this was no time for the folksy reminiscing of a geriatric. Merchant looked up and saw the Sky Eye. Its orbit was becoming shallower by the second, directly above their location on the hill. If I could just grab this geezer, Lerner thought.
“Mister, I know it’s been a long day, but let’s just get through a few more hours. I really think you want to listen to me on this one. Just a few more hours, and we’ll be back at the Doms—I’ll bring the bottle. We can complain all night long, get drunk, and try again tomorrow. This thing won’t go on forever, right?”