A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
Jareb grew tired of cleaning. Not just tired. Fed up. He slopped the sewal into the cob and dragged it along behind him. Outside the night swarmed hot and his throat felt full of grit. He wiped the sleeve of his tunic across his forehead and pushed his corded twists back under his cap.
Slobs, the lot of them. Smiling and laughing. Carefree and careless. Leaving it to the Vindalines to clean up after their messes.
The cob’s wheels squeaked along the floor, echoing through the empty hall. Jareb licked his lips and whistled a dry tune, the one he’d heard the scallic boy singing from the rafters just after pranton, midday. He couldn’t remember it all. Just the starting notes and the bit that rose and fell again. Words, something about the feral stars of the Hobastion Belt. A place he’d surely never see. Not moving sewals and wiping slop. He whistled the song through again, filling in the empty spaces with snatches from the pheran songs he’d learned in his days before the migration.
He slicked the sewal along the floor where the footfalls tracked in sand from outside the airlocks. He lined up his foot alongside one of the prints. Counting the frayed bits at the toe of his boot, his matched up. His stride longer. His gate strong. Not limp or gnarled or monstrous as some would guess. No different at all, to be true. And why should it be? Because his craft lagged behind others his age? Because his mother fled to the Vindals to bear him? The thought left his throat thick, his shoulders tight. He wiped away the dusty prints. Erased them as those who left them would have him erased. Lost himself in the movement of the sewal and the moonglint in the shiny places.
Only when his back boot knocked the jaberstand off its bearings did he see the gimlet. He’d have missed it entirely he was so lost in his thoughts. He glanced along the corridor before bending to pick up the treasure. He turned the stone over in his hand, held it up to the light of the sky domes. Blueshine and heartfire, its facets cast the starlight into his eyes.
Who had been so hapless as to lose such a rarity? Surely someone would be missing this beauty. He tossed it once in his palm, feeling its grace. With this, he could make a change. Do some damage. Open some eyes. But wielding it required creeda he’d never tried. Did he have the mettle?
The slightest sound, like the cooing of a pip, startled him and he clasped his fingers round the gimlet tight. He turned, using the motion to tuck the prize into his pocket and place his hand again to the sewal.
Her blue eyes and marble skin glistened from her efforts. Hers to care were the common rooms and millery caskets.
“Cast er inut, eh?” she said. The familiar greeting from their vindal pheran.
“Eh,” Jareb replied, wondering how long she’d been there, watching. Had she seen the stone? He fingered its smoothness safe in his pocket. “Farren sabit.”
He liked the way her dark curls rounded her face and fell about her shoulders. The way her tantor skimmed the floor as she moved. In another life, another station, he’d have drawn up the heart to ask her pavan. But here, with his lack of punt? His misshapen creeda? Despite her own lot, she would find better.
Effy bit her lip and spied him through her eyelashes. The same encounter each night. She’d blush and wave and be on with her work. He on with his.
“Effy,” Jareb said, feeling his heart knocking inside. He drew his fingers around the stone and pulled his hand forth for her to see.
“In the caskets. Had blackrot.”
Jareb nodded. Blackrotters got milled, that was the way of it. Otherwise they’d get up again, after they died, and spread their rot. He hated to think of Effy looking at such things, at scrubbing the flecks of bone from the millery caskets, but she was Vindaline, she was borne to bear it.
Effy shifted from foot to foot. “I can’t stay.”
“What he say?” Jareb asked her, feeling the weight of the gimlet in his hand.
“He was nutter,” said Effy, her curls rustling as she shook her head. “He said God sent him, he was an instrument of God and that he had hidden God’s instrument. In the dirt, he said, for the children of the dirt. For the children of dirt are the children of God.” She glanced around. “I should go.”
“Wait,” blurted Jareb, feeling the gimlet shudder in his clenched fist, vibrating into his bones. The heart of the scallic boy’s song came back to him in the rush of a broken memory-dam.
“The wheel turns and we are bound to it
Rise and fall, sun and moon, earth and sky
The wheel turns and we are crushed by it
And we die, and are born, and we die, and are born,
Again and again. There is no beginning and no end to time
And the children of dirt are the children of God.”
“You can remember,” said Effy, even paler now. “I thought I was the only one.” She inhaled through her teeth, a shuttering grasp at control. “I thought I was alone.”
“Of course I can remember,” said Jareb, surprised.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, not the tramp and stamp of Feds, but the soft patter pat of Maid-Mistress Gershu’s slippered feet. Jareb’s stomach flipped.
“Run,” he said, jamming the gimlet into his pocket.
“Remember,” said Effy, “Remember what I have told you every day. For three years.”
Effy spun on her heel. Not fast enough.
“Effy,” Gershu’s voice cracked down the hall. “There is dust in common room three.”
Gershu crooked a finger full of creeda, and Effy dropped to the ground, screaming in pain. Jareb fell to his knees next to her, knowing there was nothing he could do. Gershu pointed her finger, and Effy turned her head and vomited on the floor.
“You are a lazy slut,” said Mistress Gershu looming over them both, “And you do not ever learn. I think you are for The Brinks.”
“No!” Jareb cried.
Gershu pinned him with her eyes. “Two for The Brinks.” She snapped her fingers and Jareb and Effy both jumped to attention, held by her vice-like creeda. “You,” she said to Effy, “With me, now. And you. Clean this mess and then report to B Drop.”
Jared tried to speak as Gershu pattered away, Effy trailing helplessly after. He managed to grunt.
Gershu looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. “Don’t worry. I promise I’ll push you in together.”
Jareb leaned against the wall next to his propped sewal. The impulse to scrub screamed at him. He inched his fingers into his pocket and touched the blueshine gimlet.
“Cast er inut, eh?” Effy said. The familiar greeting from their vindal pheran.
“Eh,” Jareb replied, “Farren sabit.”
“They are stealing our creeda to make the blackrot.”
“Eh,” Jareb replied, “Farren sabit.”
“They will poison the stars. Everything will end. The wheel will never turn again.”
“Eh,” Jareb replied, “Farren sabit.”
“Damn you,” said Effy.
“Eh,” Jareb replied, “Farren sabit.”
Jareb blinked out of the heartshine trance. Sweat burned in his eyes, and mirrors shattered in his mind, as his heart broke and broke and broke.
It was time for the wheel to turn again.
Jareb gripped the sewal with both hands, Gershu’s creeda forcing him to clean. No. He’d cleaned enough, but his hands wouldn’t let go of the sewal. One end locked in his grip, the other submerged in the cob.
His foot falls felt like they was missing a step down. A stutter-stop motion that sent ripples through the murky cob water. His eyes focused on the cob water. The interior airlock only half sewaled and the water was a solid grey. Bits of sand swirled in the cob; tangle hairs, rainbow streaks of grease, gelatinous matter that could have been mold or vomit or blackrot for all he knew. All this he could see in the cob, but not one inch of the sewal below the water.
Corded twists of his hair fell from his cap and framed his view of the cob, his stutter-stop swagger now sloshing the contents back onto the floor. The Gershu’s creeda screamed at his being to slop it up.
He stopped and swayed, lifting the sewal from the cob. His pocket burned. The Gershu’s creeda cracked as his hand flew from the sewal to slap at his burning skids. No fire. One hand away and it was easier to pull his eyes from the cob.
He’d seen the Gen Master use his creeda to burn a hole trough a Vind’s boot and commanded him to finish stamping the lavreen plumes flat.
“Don’t fret about getting your blood on the plumes,” the Gen Master told the Vind. “The flesh has been singed shut. You’re welcome.”
No, there was no fire burning his skids. No hole anyway or the charred beginning of one. Just the lump in his pocket.
He reached in. The Gershu’s creeda that had continued to crack shattered as his finger brushed against the gimlet. Shattered as sure as his heart had in a murkier mess than the cob.
He stopped walking. Jareb didn’t remember walking again, but he must have. When he stopped, he looked up to and into the B Drop. Gershu stood with a finger crooked over Effy.
“That was quick,” she said without looking away from the prostrate form of Effy. “Good. Then you can help your slut finish the floors in here. Her tongue doesn’t appear to do as a good a job as your sewal, even though I had her stomach emptied before starting.”
Her finger stiffened with more creeda and twitched in Jareb’s direction.
He clenched his fists waiting for the creeda to grip him as sure as he gripped the sewal. Whether it was his own nails or an edge of gimlet, he never knew. One or the other pierced his palm and he felt it.
The fire entered his palm and traveled the veins up his arm. They were blue. It shone through his skin as bright as the inner dome lamps.
Jareb looked at Gershu. Her eyes were wide, but that damned finger still crooked at him. He could see the creeda, too. Never in his life had he even known it possible to view, but there it was jetting from her finger in a black mist. From the position of her finger it should have come straight at him, but it fell at his feet before his blueshine.
The sight of her sent something roiling through him. He cocked his head to the right, and Gershu’s finger snapped, the flow of creeda ceasing.
“Enough,” Jareb’s voice sounded oddly fuller than it had. “Never again.”
The end of the sewal snapped, leaving the head in the cob. His footing was sure now, and he advanced on Gershu.
Effy’s voice rasped like an opening airlock.
“Yes, Jareb. Listen to the slut.”
Gershu brought up both hands, nine of ten fingers writhing with creeda. The tenth dangled uselessly. The creeda didn’t come for Jareb or Effy. It shot down the hall in both directions.
“Just remember you made me do this. I only hope there’ll be enough left of you to clean up once it’s over.”
Gershu smiled and softly shuffled in her slippers. She danced in place as her creeda poured from her. Jareb saw her inner well of creeda start to dry up when he heard movement at the end of the corridor.
Jareb’s stomach dropped.
A hoard of Vindaline moved toward him in a slide-step gate, faster than he felt they should have been able to manage. Hard to manage because they were covered in black welts wherever he could see skin. Blackrot.
Jareb stepped in front of Effy, still on the floor. The handle of the sewal seemed useless against this mob of dead flesh, yet he held tight and ready to strike.
Gershu laughed and shuffled.
“The Vinds lack the ability to learn. There place is so far below, why we even allow them to be seen, I’ll never know.”
The blueshine flickered. He was to die here. This was it. Effy grabbed hold of Jareb’s skids and buried her face in the back of his leg.
The mob would kill them. Kill them, but not kill them dead. The blackrot would take their flesh, and Gershu and her creeda would puppet them like the rest of the mob.
The Vindaline closest to him looked to open his jaw. Looked because it didn’t stop opening. Its jaw unhinged and fell to ground with a rotten smack. Jareb could see the Vind’s eyes. He didn’t know him, but he knew the stare.
He sees the stare in most Vinds he meets, Effy excluded. That stare said, “Please. Please, make them stop.”
He wouldn’t end this way. He wouldn’t let Effy end this way either. His will resolved and the blueshine no longer wavered.
Gershu’s laughing dance didn’t stop. It continued as Jareb threw the sewal handle at the control panel by the airlock. Her slippers shuffled as the handle struck the Emergency Evac. Her fingers tittered even as the doors opened and the air, Vinds, and everything untethered rushed into open space.
Jareb and Effy watched all of this from inside the blueshine. The Emergency Evac counted down from ten and shut the doors once more. Not so much as a single corded twist moved on Jareb’s head.
Something burned in his chest and Jareb knew. A chard of his heart mended in the fire of the blueshine. And if a single chard could be fixed, the whole of his heart could be too. He held his hand out to Effy.
“I believe we’re to see the Gen Master.”