‘Respite Time’, Eric Del Carlo

Illustration © 2009 Paul Downes

 [ The Golden Engines; © 2009, Paul Downes ] Deep in the Plant, far beneath the great gyrating golden engines that dominated the breathable upper levels where Craddic labored, the gong sound of the explosion originated. It was massive and felt in the boot soles. Thirty-nine years had taught Craddic all the tricks of gauging, and he knew the subsonic thud and the vibration-ripples and the first hollow taste of deafening noise meant that major calamity had occurred in the bowels of the Plant.

He poked Loder next to him with an elbow. He made the hand sign for "concussion suit" to his colleague as he himself was already opening the crisis pack strapped to his midriff, ahead of the alarms that now shrilled out across the teeming concourse.

Loder moved with the short violent movements of repressed panic, and Craddic helped him with the final securing of his gear. The resonance from below was worsening, a vast rich roaring of upset space, a shaking, a shrieking. People were tumbling off their feet all around. Craddic adjusted Loder into the proper stance, gave the younger man's faceplate a reassuring pat and got ready for the full upward-hurtling impact himself.

They died by the thousands in the waybelow. Craddic had done his share down there, but he had toughed his way through, done the time, worked as others could not or would not work; and some of those habits had followed him up into the sweet air of these lofty reaches, where the golden engines danced and danced and the chances of being killed on one's shift were too measly to seriously contemplate.

He surrendered the glossy silver for the bright rubbery yellow, with the thicker soled boots and the hefty gloves that reached almost to his elbows. He traded regulator cartridges for the elegant medley of maintenance tools. The shift change was its usual model of coordinated transferral, even after the Blue Situation below of earlier. Loder was beside Craddic, standing in the flash-clean stall, then with a jolly wink he had vanished, off to the Null or the Rec or the Mess or the Jewel or whatever else these fallows did with their time. Not that Craddic didn't like Loder; and not even that he frowned on the younger man's off-shift practices. It was larger than that in Craddic's mind. It was the overall idea. Off-shift...off-shift. What was that, really?

As always when he donned a new shift suit, the readout blinked across his faceplate, that caution, that automatic reminder of his accumulated respite time. He had noted those numbers decade after decade. He had watched their accruing. It was by now a prodigious tally.

Craddic finished locking up the yellow suit and carried his tools toward the mouth of the gangway, which would lead him out to within reach of those spinning, cavorting golden engines. He met each task he was allotted at the Plant with equal single-mindedness and competence, but there was something secretly special about servicing these gigantic wonders. It was as near as he had ever come to an actual enjoyment.

The manifest seriousness was there in the appearance of the Overseer, in person. In a career such as Craddic had had, he'd seen such figures before. They came weighted with the solemn opulence of folk legend, so that it didn't matter if they were tall or squat, robust or feeble; they appeared formidable, forbidding.

This one in her white robe and cowl strode toward him as he was shedding the rubbery yellow shell, still feeling the marvelous swing and swoop of the golden engines, as if he were still clinging to their gleaming sides. Without looking directly at her he saw her approach him, halt, touch the flesh of his upper arm with a black wand, then pause to study the reading it displayed on its base.

She hooked a thumb into the cowl and peeled it back. It was another shift change, and this one was being disrupted by the ogling, by the excited murmuring, by the stir the Overseer's presence was causing.

"Your respite time is in excess," she said. Her face had a creaminess, her eyes a clearness. Craddic inhaled her odor. It was cool, very clean, but not antiseptic.

"Dayn't nee' respa time."

"You're a Manipulate."

She didn't ask, but he nodded anyway.

"You don't require sleep. Your food is intra every ninth shift cycle."

"Yay." He was aware of all the other eyes watching. A thousand donnings and sheddings of suits being made with deliberate slowness. Loitering that would never have been permitted in the Plant's lower levels.

"But you are still entitled to your respite." Her tone was smooth, flowing. He didn't know what to read into it. The inflections were unfamiliar, the enunciation fabulously crisp.

"Dayn't wan' it," he said. He wanted to step into the waiting flash-clean, take away the shift's greasy sweat, then suit himself into the black cloak, the communications helmet, and be off to his next task. He was trained for a myriad of functions.

"That doesn't matter," the Overseer said with what might have been vast calm. "Your respite time is compulsory. You have been in evasion. You will appear at the Jewel. Now."

Craddic did not have the chance to grab at any clothing. He went suitless, at the Overseer's command, the shift change depot vanishing around him; and the last sight that of the Overseer's creamy face and the inscrutable look in her clear eyes.

The Jewel was an endless chain of facets, and Craddic was underneath one of those reflective coverings. He was lying back, uncomfortably, on the deep spongy comfort of the table.

"You're a Manipulate, so? Early sequence. Thirty-nine years at the Plant--at the Righteous Labor Facility, I mean. Thirty-nine! One sees all manner of things on this job. But one waits and watches, and now and then something extraordinary comes along. The atypical statistic. The exaggerated case. Do you know the difficulty I'll have convincing anybody that a client of mine has worked successive shifts for nearly forty years? Fabulo! Well, it's not your problem. I find I am going to have to give you the virgin orientation, though the idea of prepping someone of your age is--is---"

"Dayn't wan' be a fallow." Craddic's voice sounded strange to his ears. He had already received his first dose of the procedure, and it was slowing him in some disagreeable unsettling way.

The Jewel operator was given to smiles. But he seemed perfectly competent with his equipment, with his feeds and leads and glowing apparatus.

"A fallow? That's that waybelow talk, isn't it? It's a Manipulate word. Curious, don't you think, that you and yours were thought to be the ultimate breed when you were first produced. But the Facility yield never rose significantly, not like those who crafted the line boasted it would. Most of your kind never made it up as far as you have. You're up here in the air. "

Above, as Craddic lay prone, was the echo of himself in the facet stretched out on the table. How inert he looked, lying there like that. Like he was already fallow.

The operator proceeded with the orientation. Craddic paid heed.

When it was over and the operator was convinced of Craddic's understanding, he offered up another smile, a thin pulling of thin lips, and said, "Now you have choices. Your respite time is, well, it's the most incredible amount of respite time I've ever seen! There are any number of patterns we can implement, any dividing up of this time---"

"Gim it all," Craddic said.

"You are aware of the amount of accumulated respite---"

"Wan' all. Now." He spoke the "now" like the Overseer had spoken it, deliberate distinct pronunciation.

The operator, however, iterated several points from the orientation. Craddic listened, knowing and appreciating that this man was doing his task. But he didn't waver; he wanted all his respite time now, all at once.

It was, after all, entirely his prerogative.

The slowing he had been feeling expanded through him, until it filled him and overflowed gelatinously.

Horses. Instant knowledge of the beasts. Dark cascading manes, great clopping hooves. Marvels of muscular motion, a team in harness, pulling a listing wagon over the packed earth of the street. A wind moved briskly, pouring air over him in slapdash manner. He was here, in this place. He was Craddic. He was where there was an impossible vault of blue-white for a ceiling. Houses with peaked roofs, tall narrow windows, intricate brickwork, lined the street. Birds were in flight. Flowers were in bloom in garden plots fronting the houses. The spectacle was peopled. People dressed in flounces, in ponderously impractical hats, in leathery leggings and embroidered vests. The person manning the wagon, a fist full of the bunched reins, raised his improbable hat from his shaggy-haired head and called, "Mistah Craddic, sah!" Enthused friendly greeting.

Craddic was backing away from the horses' jingling-jangling approach, reaction rising like uncontrollable bile in his throat. He had been warned.

His retreat was clumsy. Others on the street were now calling his name. A lady in lavender finery lifted an arching brow above an elegantly libidinous eye, a smile tightening one corner of her ivory-delicate mouth.

Craddic's feet tangled. He went down with a heavy awkward impact. His mental-bodily reaction was too extreme, threatening to come up out of his throat and swallow his head whole. There were people on all sides of him. Movement at every corner of his eyes. He scrabbled at the dirt, trying to regain his feet, seeking flight, seeking escape.

Horses. Again, horses. But this was different; they were at a distance, running free, without harness, without bridle, four of them in full recreational canter. Different too was this meadow, these undulating grasses, the crisp feel of the individual blades. He lay as he'd laid before, sprawled out. The overhead vault that was the sky was here an immense smear of pink and scarlet and radiant amber.

He sat up, looking out across the ocean of pale green grass at the family of horses. Sire, dam, colt, filly. The vocabulary was there, at the ready. There were no people here, just himself. The vastness of his solitude nearly overpowered him, but this time he held off the reaction, calling on instincts and discipline he'd learned on the lowest levels of the Plant.

The plain was boundless, freer even than the area with the houses and street, terminating only because he could not see over the crescent of the far-off horizon. He got to his feet. He wasn't wearing any of the many suits he donned for his various tasks at the Plant. He was as unclothed as if he were about to flash-clean during a shift change. A breeze was in motion here too, riffling the grass, making patterns that expanded outward farther and farther, raising a great tranquil rustling. The air was ripe with the growing scents. He sucked it into himself, and his lungs stung with the purity. It invaded every suffocated little chamber throughout his body, every stale cell, every part of him that had gasped and choked and stingily apportioned every shallow inhalation of breath during his younger days in the Plant's waybelow. It soon made him dizzy, and he forced himself to slow his breathing.

The wind was cooling. A chill braced his flesh. He recalled all he had gathered from his orientation. He understood how to process these experiences, how to exploit the spectacles.

The array was unrestricted.

The horses banked in graceful unison, cut back across the plain. They were so heartbreakingly beautiful. With a final caching suck of clean air he abandoned the verdant plain.

Horses? No. These were without an instantaneously fabricated memory reference. These beasts had legs four meters in length and joints that moved with comical fluidity. They had bulbous horned heads. They galloped in reckless free style and bore riders, gibbering little monkey-men who wore wing-like capes of dark green leather. All this jubilee played out against a backdrop of cheerfully billowing purple. Craddic felt his mouth tugging, twitching. It was a smile. He was amused. This display was patently ridiculous. It was indiscriminate invention. He didn't linger here, but he counted the visit as rewarding.

He gave the new street a long sweeping look. It was an intricacy of vapor sculptures and turnip-shaped structures of exceptional charm. The stones of the street itself were the rugged shells of rust-colored crustaceans; the creatures were still alive inside, rising up on sidling legs to relocate now and then, evidently untroubled by the foot traffic that trod across their backs.

The street's pedestrians wore garments that most resembled the fine robes of the Overseers. They were in a constant state of dialogue, traveling in twos, threes, fives, dozens, none silent among them, each speaking over and under and around the incessant speech of the others. Yet none of these verbal mishmashes sounded argumentative to Craddic's ears. Every person within these mobile conversational clusters seemed to be getting in his or her full say. Every statement received total attention; every question was satisfied to its farthest extremity.

Craddic lifted a hand, saw his arm draped in fabric, realized he too wore a robe; and how silky and soothing the texture was.

A conversing throng marched past him. A female with protruding needles of white hair decorating her skull gave him a look of tender dismay. She was at the fringe of her cluster, and she did not interrupt her own speech as she swiveled her head to stare, stunned to see him standing alone, making discourse with no one at all. His own gaze lingered on the pleasing curve of her jawline, on the twinkling he detected in her eyes.

But he didn't go forward to merge himself with the group. Pleased with what he had seen, he departed.

Insects roared in the campfire-softened nighttime. A field of starlight was slathered overhead. One of the spent faces leaned forward, dancing light underscoring the bulging eye sockets, and a fresh hunk of gemfoam was tossed onto the stone-circled fire. Flames of ruby, of emerald, of sapphire leaped higher, raising the temperature a few degrees for the circumscribing assembly.

Craddic was a part of the group. He knew so immediately and felt a corresponding ease here, a cozy belonging. There were five, six, seven others here with him, merging shadows, ragged at every edge, fingers bony and scabbed, clothing castoff and reassembled into hobo costumes.

One among them was sawing at an instrument, raising sounds more melodic but not unlike the caterwauling of the insects that came from every direction of the wide weedy field.

"Gip a rest, widyuh?" the one with the longest beard said.

"Yak ant ear yuhsell tink," said another sitting next to Craddic, apparently agreeing.

"Git Breet belch out a song," the instrumentalist retorted.

They spoke waybelow! Well, no. Not exactly. But the ruggedness of speech was so familiar. It added to Craddic's warm feeling of fellowship. These men and women had odors about them, scents of mildew and misuse. But they did not reek of misery. Or bitterness. There was humor here. There was compassion.

But these people were... fallows. It was true. They did not labor. They had little choice in the matter, however; there simply wasn't work available.

How fantastic a concept that was.

"Ere, Craddic, hap a bango."

A fat marshy container was passed into his hands. His mates made shadowy chuckles as he grappled with it, finally settling its springy mass properly and putting his lips to the nozzle. It blasted his mouth full of stinging tartness, and he swallowed.

As he handed off the container, he was already experiencing the effects. They weren't unpleasant. Breet finally consented to sing, and the rest of this merry band took it up on the second verse, Craddic too. He was awash in camaraderie. He was glutted with goodwill. It was all very agreeable. He enjoyed every moment, and then he became unconscious.

He stirred among silkiness. Cool sighing fabric. The lighting, when he squinted open his eyes, was subtle. The space was sumptuously appointed, a great grand bed adrift in a huge chamber of abundant luxuriousness. He felt sluggish, but the feeling was memory, the pleasantly debilitating effects of that tart liquid he had drunk.

He wasn't alone in the bed.

The smooth body squirmed up against him, and breath spilled over his bare shoulder.

"My love, my Craddic, my beautiful love..."

He turned, joined with her; and it ended rather abruptly. After, he felt a keen urge to relocate himself.

Other women. Other bodies. He felt compelled to try the act again, and again. More bodies. More women. He was soon celebrating the frolicsome variants of the female form, as he deliberately directed his experiences for the first time. It was as the operator had said it would be during the orientation. Craddic conjured up one after the other. The arch of hips, the plumpness of breasts, the inviting warmths and wetnesses. How diverse they could be. Sizes, shapes, textures. He was engrossed. It was enjoyment such as he'd never known.

Then, eventually, inevitably, as the possibilities truly took hold, he had them in pairs, in trios, in great orgiastic waves. Thirty-nine years of labor at the Plant had put him through a vast variety of tasks, and he applied that adaptability to this new exertion.

He glutted himself.

From all this, perhaps, arose a new sensation. Craddic felt hunger.

He ate at tables. He ate cheeses, some as dense as rubber, some that crumbled at his touch. He ate in banquet halls, tended to by a phalanx of stewards. He devoured raw meats, broiled fish, braised fowl. He ate at a hundred restaurants from a score of eras. He consumed dishes that oozed sauces, that crackled with spices, that were shrouded in aromatic steam. He ate off the tines of crystal forks, off the rough wood of a huntsman's table, off the bare belly of a blue-skinned female.

His mouth had a new life. He seared himself with curries, chilled his tongue with frozen desserts. His taste buds erupted. His stomach was warmed, filled. But he was always able to eat more.

He knew even as he bit into the brittle-soft black shell of an Ikkêgi tango crab that he was receiving intra on his table in the Jewel and that this was the only nutrition he had ever received and all he required. These... tastes were as fantastic as the women had been.

It was all new. It was all so new.

He swam in icy greenness and befriended the furry dark darting creatures who called the patch of ocean home.

The Mirror Fountain and what he saw therein.

The forest which burned in reverse.

Nights and nights with a woman named Auggua.

Horses. Still marvels to him.

All the wonders within and without reality. He had access. He could manipulate; and that was ironic because he was a Manipulate. Sometimes he crafted the spectacles as he wanted them to be. Other times he allowed their flow.

It went on and on and on. The most incredible amount of respite time the operator at the Jewel had ever seen.

He also slept, and that was the last of the fundamental human conditions he had never before undergone. It was a blissfully melancholic state, a sweet quietude, and when his first dreams came, they were instructive.

Craddic looked upon the Plant. He looked upon it from the outside. And as astounding and mind-boggling as his new wealth of experiences had been, this was perhaps the most unnerving. The Plant was not something one thought of as being anywhere, as having a contained location. The Plant was the Plant. It was all. Its inexhaustible scope didn't allow one to imagine its boundaries or even the possibility of such limits.

He had of course spent his entire Manipulate life within the Plant.

But here it was now. The view was from above, from great altitude, the only way to actually see the Righteous Labor Facility in one take, in its entirety. It hulked over the land, vast and dominating and forbidding. But... there it stood. And it was a place. Contained. Finite. No matter that it eclipsed a continent and threw a great swath of the world into shadow.

Craddic closed his eyes. And opened them. He was donning the bright yellow, the rubbery gloves, the thick-soled boots. He collected his tools and headed for the gangway.

The air in these lofty reaches of the Plant, which had tasted so sweet, was as flat as spoiled wine on his tongue. He had breathed the glories of fertile forests, sucked seaborne winds into his lungs. But this air, this Plant air here at these levels, was air he had once craved to breathe. Toward that end he had striven to rise up through the menial ranks by dint of his steadfast labor, seeking promotion to the higher levels, knowing that death would eventually and inevitably claim him in the waybelow. Certainly he could never rise higher than he had. But his accomplishments, as a Manipulate, were extraordinary.

He walked the gangway until the great golden engines came into view, reeling and romping through their orbits. With a practiced ease he stepped aboard one as it swooped past. That old delicious sense of gaiety came over him, as it always did. Despite the wonders he had experienced, this was still thrilling. The awesomeness of the engines was undeniable. These powered the Plant, and the Plant powered this world. And Craddic, who had been manufactured in this same Plant to serve its most lowly and hazardous tasks, was permitted to service these giant engines.

The gyrating movements carried him along. He edged his way across one of the outer faces. Below was the concourse, teeming with the many colors of the many suits, the figures so tiny. Craddic came to the array of triangular knobs, the toothed slots, the winking display-plates. He set down his tools, picked the first from the bunch.

With a smile distorting his features he went to work.

Alarms were flashing throughout the Jewel. But, no. Only in his own area, the facet above the table where he lay blinking an urgent green. The operator looking down on him with an expression of disgusted pity wasn't the same one who had been here when Craddic had arrived.

"Too bad," the operator said, disconnecting the feeds, consulting her equipment. "Looked like you were having a jolly time of it. But that last was a violation. It was explained to you in your orientation? Of course it was. Serious breach. You're going to get collared. What it must've been like, though...all that time! Quite a respite. That's going to have to hold you for, well, for a long, long while."

The operator's face of pitying disgust was replaced a few moments later by the visage of a cowled Overseer. Craddic was just starting to feel minimal control of his body return to him. Echoing impulses of his experiences frazzled through his limbs, causing muscular twitches; but these would pass.

The Overseer told him what the operator had correctly predicted, what Craddic himself had known before he'd initiated that final spectacle. But he had needed to have that experience. He needed to know how it would be to disable those golden engines.

For his violation he was indeed to be collared. And sent back down.

Sweat slimed his body beneath the slick crimson coveralls. Goo bubbled its blackness over his gloves as he stirred the vat's contents with a steel oar. The heat was blinding, but he was not quite blinded; the atmosphere was suffocating, but he drank what tiny tastes of air he could find amongst all that suffocation. He endured the rigors, the ever-imminent threat of a Blue Situation which was just as likely to kill him and several hundred of his humble colleagues as it had been when he had served down here in his younger days.

The waybelow was as Craddic remembered it, just as foul, just as treacherous.

At the shift's end he trudged with the others, surrounded by hollowed hopeless eyes, by bodies wrung with exhaustion and desperate for any off-shift lull. Along the way to the flash-clean stalls the Taskmasters in their gray armor prodded the slower ones along with spark-spitting goads. Craddic had nearly forgotten about the Taskmasters.

After a few seconds in the inadequate stall, still aching from exertion, he was rousted out. He went immediately to suit up in dull green, donning visor and suction pads, and taking up the heavy scythe-like implement he would need. The job he had just done and the one he was about to undertake were both categorically more dangerous and demanding than any task he'd performed in all the years he had spent in the Plant's lofty reaches.

They weren't Manipulates, those that had decided his punishment, that was certain. But neither was he different, not in those characteristics that had delivered him up out of these depths once before. He was still capable of working shift after shift, trading one suit for another, never tiring, never hungering, never balking at any task. He would, simply, do as he had done before.

He would survive. He would outlast. Those that had put this loyalty collar on him would never find reason to deliver the disciplinary charges it was designed for; and eventually, inevitably, it would be removed, and he would rise. Slower than before no doubt. He would be watched; he would be regarded suspiciously. But his singular diligence would pay off. He would rise.

When, a century from now, Craddic again reached the dancing golden engines, there would come a respite time for all.

© 2009 Eric Del Carlo

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