‘Avatar on the Belts 2: Eros’, William J. Piovano

Illustration © 2008 G. Edwin Taylor


(Previous chapter: Avatar on the Belts 1: Tartaros)


 [ Aphrodite -- © 2008, G. Edwin Taylor ] Her head was shaved like all the rest, just another bobbing scalp. But the body, and the features—She stood out like a Goddess amongst a worshipping rabble. Indeed, many swarmed around her, bees orbiting the honey pot, and like a true Goddess She gave them the scraps of attention they needed. The moment I saw her, I stopped, and my eyes drank in her figure, that breast swelling and female gentleness which oil and blood had destroyed on the women of the conveyor belts. When she met my gaze, I knew I was hooked, a helpless fish on the line. The eyes, nothing like the blank whiteness of the anesthetic, gazed back, and I felt lust.

I crouched in the penumbra, the border between the pools of yellow light and the sea of obscurity. I waited there for a long time, watching Her shuffle towards the steaming porridge barrels. Every few steps she would turn and look at me. And then she smiled. A warm knot clenched in my stomach, and somehow my own lips climbed over the cheeks into a smile of my own. It felt wonderful to smile, and to be smiled at. The light of the bulbs seemed to glow on the skin of her face.

I trembled all the way back. As I crawled my fingers shivered, the extremity of my excitement, and I was afraid I might snap the thread which was my only way home. I was blind and my imagination raced. Usually, in the dark, I pictured the world around me; it is a human thing, to fill the void. I knew there was an infinite maze starting inches from my face, and yet I couldn't see my hands. In my mind's eye I would gaze upon the millions of belts crossing each other like metal spiderwebs, never-ending, carrying sagging bodies sprawled like sacks of dead meat in their soiled seats. But not this time. This time I only saw a smile.

The belts hummed above and below, never sleeping. Covered in oil and flakes of forgotten rust, I groped on.

Because of my lingering, I almost missed the beginning of my next shift. I reached my sector, panting, rolling up the last of my thread, just as the groggy workers returned to their posts, snaking through the web of conveyor belts which carried newborns from other active areas. A hundred thousand cubicles, manned by sober male and pregnant woman. One empty. I hurried to fill the gap. Routine and similarity, I remembered, routine and similarity. The copper cones hung still above my head. The Red Men watched from their cages.

I should have stayed in that night, should have rested to avoid exhaustion. My body was tolerating work less, those recent months, but my desire to see her again drove me like no whip ever could. A shadow in darkness, I crept out as the rest collapsed in their bunks. It took me almost an hour, crawling under the myriad crossings of belts, forcing my breath out quietly for fear I might be lying directly under a Red Man's hanging cage.

The area was under shift this time, so I waited until the break. Never had I experienced such impatience, crouched behind a belt, as I did searching for that girl. From behind, it was difficult to tell one from the other. Scrawny hands bathed globs of squirming flesh into green tanks, and conveyor belts carried them away. When the workers broke for porridge, I spotted her immediately.

My courage had grown out of proportion by then, and I hopped out from behind my cover and mingled with the crowd, taking care to adjust my speed to fall in line with the girl. The first thing I noticed was that many were trying to do the same thing. I began to despair when a human wall formed around her approach, but then She pushed through, She did, and came to stand by me.

"You're not from here," she said, coming to stand beside me in line. When others pressed close, she glowered at them and they receded like a circle of wolves from brandished flame.

"No," I said, suddenly unable to look at her directly. I was particularly aware of her female form, of her skin's texture, and most of all her smell. Sweat, chemical and pungent, but with a particular twist. It was a maddening twist.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

I shrugged. "I'm looking for someone."

"Who?"

"A one-eyed man."

She frowned at that. How could she not. I thought she would turn and leave, but she remained with me in line. We did not speak until the porridge was served, and in that time I thought about the Gods, and whether she was indeed one of them placed amongst us. A lesser God, but one nevertheless. I couldn't decide, and it bothered me.

It occurred to me then that the girl must be barren. She had no physical imperfections, and all non-protein-positive women without handicaps eventually turned up on the belts to deliver their own offspring. Barren or not, She was enthralling, and I basked in her presence until time demanded my leave.

"I have to go," I said, after watching her finish her porridge. I hadn't touched mine.

"Do you want that?" she asked, pointing at my bowl. I offered it to her, and she devoured it.

"I'll be back," I said. "Tomorrow." The search for my brother had waited fifteen years; it could hold another night.

"I know you will."

"You do?"

She smiled at me, but there was less of it in the eyes than there had been before. "Everyone comes back to me."

I nodded, though I did not understand, and took my leave. Ducking under a belt, I looked back to see her standing amongst a group of men. She took one by the hand and they walked off, climbing together into the same cot.

The following shift in my sector was a true test of nerves. I delivered the babies with lightning speed and precision, as if that would somehow accelerate time. It did poor job of distracting my head. Time never stops, and eventually the break did come. I lost no time, ignoring even the porridge dispensing. The way was now familiar, and it took me less time to wind my way through the obstacles.

As expected, the shift was on. She met me right after, in the usual line.

"I'm back," I said, almost sheepishly.

"I told you." She eyed me askew. "You speak very well, better than others."

I fumbled for an answer. If I didn't satisfy her quickly, she might leave. "I read… to myself, a lot."

"You read? I never read."

"You should try. There's a lot to learn."

"Why don't you stay," She said.

It took me a moment to reply, lost as I was in the eyes. There was something magnetic of Her, which tugged at my muscles.

"I cannot leave my shift," I said, and when disappointment clouded Her, I hated myself.

"I want you to stay."

There was nothing I could say, just like there was nothing I could do, so I remained quiet and sat with her as she ate. Again I gave her my porridge, again she ate it and watched me leave before going to rest with a man—a different one this time—in her cot.

Creep. Crawl. Her face sensual in the darkness. I had stretched my time, lingering with Her, and had to scramble back, nearly snapping the thread in the process. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to calm, to hold back aching image of her and her body until I reached safety once again.

When I returned to my stool, exhaustion sagged from my limbs and throbbed in my head. The woman sitting before me blurred. I needed rest, direly, and was faced instead with fourteen hours of work. I thought of Her, and of my one-eyed Brother, until sleep snuck up on me.

My spoon saved me, clattering to the ground before I could. I awoke with a start, reeling off my stool, but straightened immediately. I was far too afraid, after that, to doze off again. Adrenaline had replaced blood in my veins. When the end of the shift did come, however, I carried my porridge to my cot and crumpled into the deepest sleep with food still sloshing in my mouth.

The next day I had residue of tiredness, and fortunately my wisdom still had the better of my lust. I rested in the bed for the first two hours, knowing that She would be working her shift during that time anyway. Excitement prevented full sleep, and so I read. I searched the pages for the Gods, and the Gods for Her. I paused before the painting on the top left corner of a page. A naked woman, with full waterfall of black hair, but in all other ways identical. Aphrodite, Goddess of love.

Aphrodite was sulking upon my return.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"I had to sleep…"

"I want you to stay."

"I can't leave my shift. The Red Men…"

But she meant it, and a Goddess always gets what she wants. "You will work here," she said, and without waiting for an answer she gestured to one of the men. A lanky individual, younger than me and with eyes only for Aphrodite, stepped forward. She placed a hand on his cheek and said, rather sweetly, "Follow this man, when he leaves, and take his place."

"Yes," replied the man, unblinking. I wondered what had taken over him. Soon enough I'd find out.

And as simply as that, it was done.

Aphrodite turned a satisfied look on me, including a smile which swallowed me whole. It evoked in me a novel feeling, what could only be love. She reached out and took my hand, and I felt myself stir.

"Let's go," she said, and took me to her cot.

That day I experienced first hand one of the more popular concepts described in my books: the union of man and woman, in body, mind and soul. The Gods I had read of were fond of procreation, and they sought and practiced it freely. Zeus had a wife Hera, and many mistresses, and his kinsmen too reveled in the conquest of the opposite sex. But I had never quite envisaged the process. Nor had I thought that fornication was the act my Aphrodite had been performing with the men in her cot every day. I was not her first, but that made no difference to me. My heart pounded so hard in my chest when we climbed in, I was afraid she might hear the drum roll.

When she removed her linens and lay before me in her nakedness, I saw something completely different to the millions of females which had rolled on the belts before me all my life. There was no bloated belly, no clammy flesh and ivory stare. Instead there was life, and sweaty heat, and eyes which saw. It was an image from one of my books; Aphrodite, all inviting curves, the intoxicating scent, and skin smooth and so very warm to the touch. I didn't know what to do, but when she pulled me down, I know I did it right.

So did I begin a new life, and though the area of work was exactly the same with its cluster of cots, its webs of belts and the million cubicles before the pregnant women, it was also completely different. Aphrodite came to stand by me in the porridge line, to the envy of many, and ate with me. And when the time came, surrounded by hopeful attendants, she chose me every time, and we would walk away hand in hand to lie together entwined as mortal and Goddess.

For weeks which faded into a blur, I had no need to ask where my cot was. The other men offered her their porridges, and everything else though they had nothing more. I did not confront them directly, just stood with my stare to my feet, my throat clogged by the fear that I'd look up to see her walking off with someone else. I did not understand my feeling, but it was there. It was the clearest thing I had ever felt.

And like with all coveted possessions, came the fear of losing it.

Aphrodite ate and lounged like a queen, consuming her supplicant's offers while ignoring them coldly. Some of the men began to treat me with a near level of worship, only to get to her. One man even begged me to step down, and when I did not reply, contorted his face and limbs with the deepest bitterness.

"Do you really think you're her chosen?" he said, and the anguish in his voice warped his words like twisted metal. "You're not the first to come here from the dark. People have seen her and she has picked them, but they never last."

Again, I said nothing, and he pounced to his feet, taking me by the linen shirt.

"Soon you'll be one of us, and understand." His breath was so close and hot, smelling of porridge and infection. His scowl flashed a checkered array of teeth. It all reminded me of the wild-eyed man, and his confessed secret—except this was less shocking, and more puzzling. Was I just one of many, I wondered, and doomed to be scrapped meat?

Aphrodite appeared behind me, then, and the man dropped into a pitiful grovel of repentance. Repentance to the Gods, I thought. Almost I pitied him, but she was there, her hand in mine, and my world narrowed to contour her shape, blotting out the rest.

They all wanted Aphrodite, as I did. Who did she want; that was the real question. For now, me. Later? Who knew. She took everything she wanted from her would-be suitors—demanded it if it wasn't already on offer—and then retired to vent her lust—a ragged, angered lust—with mine. I yearned for nothing more.

And again, there was nothing I feared more to lose.

So one day, holding her naked body sweaty and drowsy in my arms, I conceded to her my thirty-year old secret.

"Have you ever thought of the Outside?" I asked, feeling my voice rumble into the ear which rested gently on my chest.

"Outside where?" came the groggy response.

"Outside of this place." I gazed out of the cot's opening to the belts, the grates and cages and the darkness beyond which held only more of the same. The darkness which had once frightened me so much. "You know… where they take the protein-positives. If you take that belt, on and on, past everything and into the tunnel with the light, what would you eventually see?"

"I never thought about it," she said. "They just disappear in there and that's that."

"What if I told you I knew?"

"I wouldn't believe you," she said, snuggling closer.

"Someone did tell me," I said. "There is a great space with no metal, no belts, only light. Think of light like a million lamps and more, and everything as soft as a cot feathers and as sweet as porridge. An infinity of that is what the Outside is."

"What?" Her response was taut with attention.

"A man died in my sector, many years ago, and he claimed to have seen the Outside. Briefly, but enough to describe it to me. A fascinating place, where one can rest his entire life," I ran a hand down her body, "with the person he desires."

For once, she did not respond to my touch. I had aroused something far deeper. I knew it that next moment, by the way she looked up at me, and the wonder in her voice.

"Do you think there is a place like that?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said in all honesty. "That's what he said. Whatever it is, it's right beyond that tunnel, at the end of the belt. No more machines, or oil or blood, only soft rest, in a place where the roof is higher than any thousand levels and made purely of light."

Her eyes widened.

"A dwelling fit for Gods," I said, more to myself, and thought of Mount Olympus, trying to picture a great mountain in the dark where the sons and daughters of the Protogenoi first-born dwelled in their immortality.

"Gods?" Aphrodite propped herself up on an elbow. "Why do they not let us go…? Why only let the protein-positives? Are they Gods?" Aphrodite had never understood the concept of mythology. I might have corrected her, taught her the truth of it, but I feared she might lose interest.

"The man said there was this great sickness which spread from other creatures. He said there were things which could float in the air, flap their arms and soar high towards the light. Things with feathers, like these, instead of skin." I plucked a feather from the mattress tear, ran it smooth and weightless down Aphrodite's nose. Those feathered creatures, perhaps, had been Gods. "We men lived alongside them—and fed on them too—until one day a sickness struck them and killed them all. And almost all of us. The man told me that only those with the Protein could resist; all others died." I held the feather above my nose. Dead Gods for dead men, I thought. Seeing Aphrodite's eyes probing mine, I continued, "But this Protein only appears rarely, and so the survivors began to search continually, here in this place, for those few who are born with it and can live in the Outside." I paused for a moment, added, "That's what the man told me, anyway."

She remained silent for a long time, staring off into nothingness. I dared not interrupt her thoughts, and basked instead in the comfort of her presence. After a while she pulled closer to me, nuzzling under my chin.

"Tell me more about the Outside," she said.

The man had told me nothing more. I spoke for hours.

It became a routine. After every shift we would eat, she would take what she wanted from whomever she wanted, then we would retire to our cots, make love, and I would talk to her of the Outside until her light snoring let me know I was allowed to doze off as well. There was nothing left to recount of the wild-eyed man's tale, of course, but over the years which followed his account, I had often speculated about the nature of the Outside. Aphrodite did not know it was my imagination spinning the great mountains with their green expanses and warm glowing forges. I saw no reason why she should. Speaking of it continually meant I often dreamt of it, too. Normal dreams—my own mind's fabrications, that is—which helped me in crafting greater detail, filling in the picture in Aphrodite's head which kept her eyes wide and her body in my embrace.

But every time I closed my eyes, I could hear the Red Men coming to take me away. For some reason I knew only one person was allowed to know that secret, the truth of the Outside where the Gods still dwelled.

It all continued unchanging until the day I had another dream.

It was one of those dreams. I felt my awareness, my presence within its ethereal walls. But this time it was someone else's awareness. I stared down a cone of vision, and I saw a swaying light above an anesthetized woman, saw my own hands reach down. But there was something wrong with it, something askew. It took me a few moments to realize I watched through a tunnel, a single eye.

My eyes flew open. In front of me, the mattress and its strands. Had that dream been what I thought it was? Rolling off the bed, my back scraped on some sharp edge in the mattress. Absently I reached down to extract the offender from the soft feather collection and saw it was in fact the spoon, stashed deep into the mattress long ago and surfaced only by the continuous friction of lovers' bodies. Having read all too much mythology, I came to regard this as a sign, a reminder of my one-eyed Brother, my kin who waited unknowing somewhere in the belted dark.

I confronted Aphrodite with the news that same day, after the shift. My porridge bowl trembled slightly as I spoke. I feared a rebuke, or worse, an abandonment.

"I have to search for someone," I said.

Her eyes narrowed. "Who?"

"Someone I knew. It doesn't matter. I just wanted to tell you that I won't be here during rest."

"Only today?"

"Every other day," I said, forcing the air from my throat. "Until I find him."

"What? Why? I want you here, with me."

"I want to be here, too," I said. "But I have to find him. I abandoned him, and now I must find him."

"How could you abandon him?" She rolled past the question, "you don't know where he is? At all?"

I shook my head, and she surely thought I was crazy.

"How are you supposed to find him?" she asked. "This place is infinite."

"He will be close by," I said. "I know it. He has to be."

"No, you don't know it. And I want you here."

She was right, I didn't know it. I hoped it.

"I've decided already. I'm going, but I'll be here tomorrow…" The urge to take it all back, to run back to the cot with her and have her as mine, almost broke me. I clenched the spoon in my hand.

Her frown caved into a scowl. "Is this about your Gods? Look around, there's nothing of them here." She might have been right.

I did not reply to that, simply stood and said, "I'll see you in a few hours." What my mind was screaming was don't pick anyone else! Again I forced emotions back down. It was better that way, a show of strength. Again, I hoped.

Creep. Crawl. Coughs stifled in the dust. Troubled as I was during my return to exploration of the conveyor webs, I garnered a fine collection of bruises. I tripped often, cursing myself for sounds which might alert the Red Men. What truly ached was my heart, with a sickening worry. I pictured Aphrodite walking back to her cot with other men. Why was I splitting nails on metal grates, dragging shaking muscles over a hundred years of slippery grime, when I could by all rights be lying with Aphrodite? Was I insane to make such a choice? I clutched the wrapped spoon. More than once I turned back, crawled a few feet towards my Goddess, until my grip on the spoon hardened and resolve returned. In those long lonely hours I examined a dozen sectors and found nothing, saw no sign of the one-eyed man. With a little less hope, I crawled back home.

It seemed like a lifetime before I arrived.

I cannot express the relief I felt when I peered into the cot and saw Aphrodite lying alone and asleep. There was little time left, so I squeezed in beside her. She mumbled something but did not return my advances, so I slept with her until the next shift began.

The next day saw me return to my routine, and my lust was famished. After I let it feed to its satisfaction, it was Aphrodite's turn to be hungry—for more knowledge of the Outside, that is. Languid in my release, I let my mind speak of the wonders of Mount Olympus, unaware that Aphrodite's eyes watched my words like twin discuses and assimilated every syllable as divine truth.

For a very long time did I continue my dual existence, wreaking fatigue upon my body. I had found something special; Aphrodite had filled some emptiness within me, but a different hollowness still remained. It belonged to my Brother. I knew I had to find him, and I was determined to continue my search until my last breath wisped through the grate floor. Fortunately it did not come to death in the end.

Or, in a sense, it did.

It was the final proof that the Gods are dead in this place. None of the beings described in my readings would have poisoned my joy with such vile bitterness. If there is a God here, then he is envious (though the reason eludes me) of our existence, and chooses not to grant us more than one blessing at a time.

I was lying under a belt, listening absently to its hum and searching with no great concentration the porridge lines of yet another sector. I remember comparing the porridge dispensers to Gods, more than the Red Men, for the Red Men were only feared, not revered. Such thoughts were obliterated from my mind in an instant, with the glimpse of a Cyclops. Only this one here did not have a single central eye, but one of a pair left open where the other sagged closed beneath a rugged scar. That single eye, that scar, was all the clue I could ever have, and the only one I'd ever need.

The excitement exploded only briefly, culminating in a collected calm, an extremely rational state of mind which guided my actions in slow-motion. The only thing I could relate it to is the day I discovered my first (and last) protein-positive child: incredulity, a truth too unlikely to be true, and yet unmistakably there before your eyes.

Casually I approached the porridge line, lingering in the midst but not joining it, until my Brother got his bowlful and walked off to sit on a belt. Nobody sat with him, talked to him, or even looked at him. He ate with his fingers, head bowed, feet dangling off the edge of the belt. I was suddenly afraid of having crafted, with my hands, a tortured soul.

He noticed me as I approached, and I saw fear and diffidence in his eyes. I raised my hands in gesture of innocuousness, slowed my walk. It was all I could do not to run and embrace him. I knew better.

The first thing that struck me was how young he looked. A young man, beardless, barely past the stage of a boy. It could have been no other way, for he had been born some fifteen to twenty years before, but in the long wait I had grown to picture him almost my same age.

Young or no, he had all the apparent maturity of my age.

"Why have you come to bother me?" he asked, holding his bowl protectively against his chest. "What do you want?" His one eye scanned me, a tunnel vision…

"I'm not here to bother you," I said, looking at the scar. Diagonal, from center forehead to outer cheek, as I remembered slashing. "You don't know me, but I know you."

He brought a hand to the scar, as if protecting that too from my gaze. "You know me?" The suspicion was writ plain upon his face. This man lacked in peace of mind, that was obvious. "I've never seen you here," he said.

How to explain? 'You're my brother, from a different mother?' 'I put out your eye, so I would have a way to find you?' How absurd, how cruel, would that sound? And yet it was nothing but the truth.

"I am from another sector," I said, but I saw the word meant nothing to him. "Another place like this, far out."

He said nothing, turning slightly away. "Leave me be."

I had never imagined it to be so difficult, always seen it as a mutual joy of discovery.

My mouth hung open for a moment, and suddenly I knew what I had to say. "I had a dream, of you. I saw through the single vision of a one-eyed man, and I knew we were tied. So I came to find you…" Again, truth, though not nearly all of it.

My Brother (to my amazement) turned back and tilted his head. "A dream? I've had dreams too…"

That was when I knew those dreams were truly special. Reassured, I pressed on, "I knew it meant I had to find you, and the clue it gave me was your single eye."

To my amazement, he accepted this with a nod of his head. Just then I learned why.

"I've dreamt through the eyes of another, too," he said. "So it is true, then."

His words took me aback. I had not thought my dream would have made any sense to him—they did little enough to me—and yet here I was faced with another mysterious link. Another sign of fate, I took it.

"So what now?" he asked.

I blinked, frowned. "I don't know." He was right; what now? After more than a dozen years of search and hope… what came at the end, what came with the success?

"I don't know," I said again. What did this all mean, to me, to him? "I have to return to my sector, but I'll return, I can promise you that."

"To what end? What does this mean?"

I could offer only the same answer. I knew why I had marked him, implicitly—to know something unique, diversify to give meaning, grow to gain an emotional attachment—but then I didn't really know why.

My Brother extended a hand and brought a index fingers close to the wrappings of the spoon in my hand. "What is that?" he asked, coming close but not touching.

I hesitated. "It's an old tool. Which helped me find you."

Again, he nodded, and so did I, saying, "I'll be back after your next shift, or perhaps the one after."

Thoughts of Aphrodite avalanched back into my head. Anxiety, lust, jealousy; a broth of incompatible ingredients. I had quite a while left before my shift started, but I ached to return to her. I had no reason to stay, now that my search was complete. My mind stretched toward my Brother, my body towards my lover, and my heart lay torn. There would be time, I told myself at length, time to speak to my Brother. For now we both had to digest our meeting.

I gave my farewell again, along with another promise, and began to trek back to my sector.

Creep. Crawl. Bleeding fingers begging to be spared. The desire for my Aphrodite drowned all pain away, however, and in the darkness there was a great light only I could see, calling me back. And, for the first time, there was one behind me too. Never had the darkness, even under the dead belts, seemed so bright.

Alas, what is that renowned saying? The higher you fly, the harder you fall.

The discovery of my one-eyed Brother became that day my curse, sending me back earlier than I anticipated—earlier than Aphrodite had anticipated. I skipped, quite literally, to her cot. I flung myself to the edge, a grin splitting my face wide enough to swallow my ears. Plans and hopes had already formed on my lips; bringing my brother to this sector, so that she could meet him. My Brother and my Goddess, brought together. It would be wonderful.

I found her moaning.

The first thing I saw was a red-streaked back. A pale expanse of foreign skin lashed by nails which for months had raked only my skin. Four legs, entwined—four. Not a scrap of linen between them. The sweaty smell of lust.

In truth I could not have pictured it worse in my head, and the horror of it was like a hammer blow to the head, except instead of knocking me into merciful oblivion it transfixed me to stare at the scene unfolding. Her face swung to the side, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, exhaling with every ragged motion of her pale monstrous parasite. My Aphrodite's face, in bliss, without me.

I cannot say for sure how long I stared at that spectacle. It was a true example of masochism, a self-inflicted torture beyond anything I could ever have conceived for myself. I only remember that at one point, in a suspension of time, Aphrodite's barely parted eyelids fluttered open, hovered in their narrowness, in their disbelief, and then burst open with the hammer's hit.

She cursed, pushing that mass off of herself. She scrambled towards me on her knees. I would have howled and bitten that impostor to death, surely, had anything but my naked Goddess lain beside him. A thick sickness curdled in my stomach, and all things reeled. Suddenly I was aware of the grate floor inches from my face, and a great deal of liquid gushing from gaps in my clenched teeth. Sick porridge. In the distance, barred beyond the confines of my hearing, her voice was a fairy's whisper drowned by raving machinery.

My stomach continued to heave for a long while, choking me, but my legs acquired a singular strength born of more than simple adrenaline. I ran far and fast in no particular direction, until that fairy's voice died. My world shriveled into me, and nothing was left but the beating chorus.

Jealousy, the death of lust.


Next chapter: Avatar on the Belts 3: Aither


© 2008, William J. Piovano

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