It was their third week outside the city, and from their watchtower on the wall they looked out upon the Great Grey Waste and waited for the first of the day’s migrants to arrive. A pale feather of dust rose from the far edge of the plain. Benef lifted the binoculars to her eyes.
“An hour, I reckon,” she said.
“Let me see,” said Kal. He took the eyeglasses from her and brought them to rest upon the distant figures. “More like two.”
“They took an hour yesterday.”
“There are children today.”
Benef squinted out at the rising plume of dust. The pitiless wind that heaped sand at the base of the wall dragged it westwards, over the plains towards the salt pans where the lakes used to be.
“I don’t think I can remember what happiness feels like,” said Kal.
Of course you remember,” said Benef.
“It’s only been three weeks. You remember it, you just aren’t feeling it right now.”
Kal turned away from the barren landscape and turned his binoculars on the city that they had been charged to protect.
Viewed from outside, Velead seemed impossible: an entire city and all its inhabitants contained within a translucent dome dozens of miles high and hundreds of miles across. It swelled up from the plains at the eastern haunch of the Great Grey Waste like a blister, and when the migrants crossed the mountains and first set eyes on it they would catch their breaths and ask one another whether what they were seeing was real or a dream.
Kal swung the binoculars from building to building, mapping out the life that he himself had been living until his military service had begun: the pristine apartments of plastics and metals, the parks and gardens, the rivers and lakes, the vast hydroponics towers rising like cut glass and bursting with fruits and vegetables long extinct. And at its centre, set like a pearl on Prosperity Hill, the white steeples and vaulting arches of the House of the Matriarch. Each building in the city of Velead seemed to gleam, and the silvery filaments that ran across every surface shone like fire in the boldening sun.
“You need to find something else to think about,” said Benef, “Or this is going to be a long year for you.”
“They don’t know how lucky they are,” said Kal.
“Before you know it, all this will be nothing but a pleasant memory. You’ve heard the old folks talk about their time on the walls. It’s nostalgia for them.”
“Nostalgia doesn’t keep this damn dust out of my eyes.”
Benef remembered how elated she’d felt when she’d received the letter from the office of the Matriarch summoning her for her year’s service on the wall. She remembered reading it out loud to her parents over breakfast, recalled their smiles and embraces and their assurances that it had been the happiest time of their lives.
The sun flared on the arc of the dome, its polished curvature peeling off bright petals of light. Benef screwed her eyes closed and turned away.
“You have a point, though,” she said, “Being out here has made me wonder why everyone in there is so happy all the time.”
“Being in there instead of out here is exactly why they’re happy,” said Kal.
“I mean, I feel happy out here from time to time. I enjoy things like food, conversation, even watching the sun set through that haze of dust. Those things make me happy. Then afterwards, the feeling goes. I don’t remember that ever happening when we were inside the dome.”
“It’s not proper happiness,” Kal focused the binoculars on one of the transmutation stations and watched the people trickle out laden with brightly coloured boxes, “Not out here. It doesn’t compare to what you feel when you’re inside.”
Benef leaned on the parapet of the watchtower and looked out at the bleached plains that stretched away unbroken until they ran up against the crumpled mountains in the north and which still bore on their backs the scars of forgotten roads, a ghostly geometry plotted by hands lost to time. She eased herself forward onto her elbows and looked down at the migrant camp that clung to the base of the wall. “Quiet down there today,” she said.
Far beneath them the chaos of improvised dwellings cascaded along the wall in a careless, knotted sprawl. As migrants had arrived and been barred entry they had thrown up shelters using whatever materials they had been able to scavenge on their journey—cloth, plastic sheets, fragments of rock and masonry, metal rods and plates scavenged from rotting machinery—and over time the collection of makeshift dwellings had become a semi-permanent settlement, though its ragged fractal edges seemed to shift and reform every day. From the watchtower above it looked like a scab.
The inhabitants of the camp survived on what little they could harvest from the selfish plains of the Great Grey Waste. Fogs rolled in with the dawn, sustaining a harsh ecosystem built upon wiry plants and bushes that bristled with needle-sharp thorns. In the cracks and shadows there were lizards and snakes for those who were patient and skilled enough to catch them, and if you could read the signs then you might find one of the seams of dark, edible fungus that coursed through the earth a few inches below the surface. It was not a prosperous life, but it was a life.
Existence in the migrant camps was bleak, and it was inevitable that every now and then some desperate young man would foment a revolt and try to storm gates to the city that had not been opened in generations. This was when the army would roll into action, and they would put down the insurrection with brutal force, executing whole families without hesitation and piling up the ragged bodies to be picked clean by carrion birds.
When new migrants arrived they would pass by the desiccated corpses of those that had come before and they would realise that there was no succour to be found at Velead. The wiser ones might turn around and follow their own footsteps back again, but most would beat on the gate and beg to be let in until the young soldiers fired their ugly black rifles into the air above them, then they would drift like ghosts into the camp to fall into the holes left by those who had come before them.
From the watchtower Benef could make out people moving, flowing through the gaps between the shelters like insects swarming in a nest. She could sense an intensity growing in the camp, a chaotic tension building that she knew would need to be released. It was always the same when a fresh batch of migrants was about to arrive.
“They’re nearly here,” said Benef.
Kal pulled his attention from the city and sought out the migrants. Through the binoculars he counted around a dozen of them, and he could make out their faces now, dark and morose. They came like pallbearers, slowly and with their dead things on their backs. Even the children were bent beneath their loads.
As the migrants came near a figure emerged from the edge of the camp and walked out towards them across the parched earth. Kal put the binoculars on the parapet and raised his rifle to his shoulder. He rested the crosshairs of the scope on the centre of the man’s back and followed his progress as he went to meet the new arrivals.
When the man reached the head of the column of approaching migrants he spread his arms out wide, and the column stopped and coalesced before him. Kal slipped his finger into the trigger guard of his rifle.
“Wait and see what happens,” said Benef.
A woman with loose white hair emerged from the clump of migrants and walked out to meet the man. She and the man from the camp faced one another and spoke at length, and although from the watchtower neither Kal nor Benef could make out what they talked about, they could tell that the old woman was angry and that the man from the camp was trying to placate her. Eventually the two figures fell still, and it became clear even from a distance that the conversation was over.
“They’re going to attack him,” said Kal. He shifted his shoulder against the stock of his rifle.
“Wait and see what happens,” said Benef.
The man from the camp raised his arms in a conciliatory manner and took a step backwards, then he turned and walked slowly back towards the camp. The old woman turned and addressed the group of migrants, and when she had spoken they all began to follow in the man’s wake.
Kal tracked the man with his rifle, keeping the crosshairs trained on his chest. “What the hell just happened?” he asked.
“Welcoming committee,” said Benef, “Looks like we don’t even need to tell them that the gate’s shut any more.”
When the migrants reached the edge of the camp they melted into the tangle of shelters, and in a moment it was as though they had never existed. Kal swept his rifle left and right, looking for movement in the cracks between the tarpaulins and rotting sheets.
“Where did they go?” he asked.
“Into the camp.”
“Why would you come all this way and not try to get into the city?”
“The guy explained the situation, told them about us, told them we kill anyone who tries anything funny, and they worked out that it’s better make a shack than take a bullet in the chest.”
“No. Something weird is going on.”
Benef shrugged and stepped away from the parapet. She leaned against the wall and pulled her canteen from its pouch in her belt. She drank from it, then she splashed water on her face and wiped it with her hands. She looked out over the plains once more. The plume of dust that the migrants sent up had disappeared.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that up until the day we came out here we’d never experienced boredom, or resentment, or sadness?” she said, “That all we’d ever known was happiness?”
“I can’t believe you’re complaining about being happy.”
“I’d never thought about it before. It seems more natural for your mood to get better and worse, doesn’t it? Like it does out here? I don’t see why we never even considered that it might work that way.”
The wind picked up, whipping sand across the parapet. Kal coughed and pulled his scarf up so that it covered his nose and mouth. “The outside’s getting to you,” he said, “This is exactly why they built the dome in the first place: to keep the misery out. Happiness is humanity’s natural state, they’ve proved that. It just took until the first Matriarch came along until we had the means to get rid of all the other emotions.”
“‘A life of plenty, a life of peace’,” Benef said under her breath, quoting the slogan almost without intending to. The posters still remained on the walls of public buildings, though the Matriarch’s transmutation technology had rendered propaganda unnecessary long ago.
“You should do what I do,” said Kal. “Keep reminding yourself what it is we’re here for.”
At dawn the next day when Kal and Benef reported to Exterior Command Post VII they were assigned to a patrol detachment. As the sun climbed over the blunted dunes to the west they set out with four other soldiers to comb through the camp, partly to look for illicit materials and partly also to demonstrate the force of arms that awaited the migrants if they attempted to force entry into the city.
Kal positioned himself at the rear of the detachment, behind Benef, and after a short while he began to slow his pace so that he fell behind. When Benef turned to speak to him she was just in time to see him slip between two of the shacks. She darted back to where he had disappeared and ducked in after him. She found him about to enter a dilapidated shack made of metal and blankets.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m going to find out what happened yesterday,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, but Kal had already pulled back the grubby plastic sheeting that served as a door and had stepped into the shack.
“You,” said Kal to the woman inside, “Get up. Stand to attention.”
The woman got quickly to her feet and faced the wall of the shack, placing her palms on the corrugated metal and looking down at the floor. She was familiar with the routine.
“Where are the migrants who arrived yesterday?” asked Kal.
The woman said something in a language that neither Kal nor Benef understood.
“Where are they?” repeated Kal.
“No understand,” the woman managed. Her voice sounded fragile.
“Who was the man who went to speak to the migrants yesterday? Where is he?”
“Please,” she said, “No understand.”
“I won’t ask you again.”
“You’re wasting your time,” said Benef, “She doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“She understands,” said Kal darkly, and he jabbed at the woman’s ribs with the barrel of his rifle. The woman shrieked and scrambled into the corner of the shack where she cowered like a child, waiting for the next blow. Kal stepped forward, but as he drew back his rifle to strike her again Benef caught hold of his arm. It was as hard and as rigid as carved wood, and when he span around to face her she saw hatred glittering in his eyes. She shook her head at him. She wondered for a moment whether he might turn on her, but to her relief instead he cursed and pushed past her out of the shack.
Despite Benef’s protests they continued to search, and eventually a terrified young mother gave them the information that Kal desired. They followed her directions to a lean-to of plastic and wood that clung weakly to the wall, and there they found the man lying on a bed made out of a wooden pallet.
Kal ordered him to his feet. He was tall, and may once have been handsome, but starvation and the sun had cracked him and hollowed him out, and his skin was thin and hung from his bones like rags. When he placed his palms against the wall and bowed his head he looked as much like a part of the shelter as its inhabitant.
“You’re the man who went out to meet the new migrants yesterday,” said Kal.
The man nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Where did you come from?”
“The north. The other side of the mountains.”
“No city, sir. I was born in the wastes.”
“You should have stayed there,” said Benef.
As Kal paced about the shack Reoh tried to steal glances over his shoulder at him.
“Keep your eyes forward,” said Kal, “Why didn’t you go to one of the other cities? Why Velead?”
“The other cities are very bad, sir. There is fighting. Some of them are no more than ruins. I could not take my daughter there. I had no choice.”
Benef looked over her shoulder. A small crowd had begun to clot behind them.
“What were you doing yesterday? With the new arrivals?” asked Kal.
“I met them. I greeted them.”
“What did you say?”
“I told them that there was no entry to the city. I told them that if they tried to enter then they would be turned away, and that if they used force then they would be killed. They said that they could not go back, they had children who would not survive the journey. I asked them whether they had supplies, or anything to trade. They had some things, but not much. Then I showed them where they could make shelters, where they would be safe.” When he finished speaking he twisted his head to see where Kal was.
“I told you to keep your eyes forward,” said Kal.
“This camp can’t sustain any more people,” said Benef, “They’ll die. Or you will.”
“I couldn’t leave them,” said Reoh, “I was in their place once. My daughter was in their place.”
“You were talking for too long for that,” said Kal, “What did you really say?”
“Nothing more than I have told you already, sir. I swear.”
“You were recruiting them. You were going to lead another attack on the gate.”
“I wasn’t. Please believe me, sir.”
Outside the shack the crowd began to get restless. Benef ordered them to disperse, and although at her command a few of them drifted back into the camp, the majority remained.
“There’s an atmosphere building up out here, Kal. I’m calling in the rest of the unit,” she said.
Kal paid her no attention. “Admit it, you were going to make another attempt on the gate,” he said.
“No, no,” said Reoh, looking back at Kal, “Please, sir.”
“If you don’t keep your damn eyes forward I’ll put a bullet in you,” said Kal, and he kicked the wooden pallet with the sole of his boot. It skidded across the ground, and as it did so it cut a strange dark scar in the dry earth. Kal stopped and looked at it. “What is that?” he asked.
“Sir, please—” said Reoh, and he darted away from the wall and tried to pull the pallet back into place. As he did so Kal raised his rifle to his shoulder and shouted at him to step back. Reoh paused, his hands on the pallet.
Kal repeated the order. Under other circumstances perhaps Reoh might have risked launching himself at Kal, perhaps might have tried to disarm him, but he understood that only if he complied was there a chance that his daughter might escape the fate to which he had already resigned himself. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and withdrew his hand from the pallet. He got slowly to his feet, raised his arms and took a step back.
Kal kept his rifle trained on Reoh’s sternum and told Benef to take a look at the mark on the floor. She went over to the pallet and got down on one knee. She rubbed at the dirt and the dark scar grew beneath her fingers.
“It looks like plastic buried under a layer of dirt,” she said. She cleared away the dirt with her hands, and when she found an edge she worked her fingers underneath it. She prised up a large square panel of plastic, beneath which was a hole.
“What is that?” Kal asked Reoh.
“I don’t know,” he said, tears welling in his eyes, “Please, sir.”
“Don’t give me that. What is it? An illegal store? A cache? Do you have weapons down there?”
“I don’t think it’s a store,” said Benef. She shone her torch down into the darkness. “I think it’s a tunnel.”
The mighty city of Velead had stood for thousands of years before the first Matriarch came to change its future. It had been a trading outpost, a market town, a seat of administration, and by the time of the Matriarchs it was a large and vibrant city.
Though it was prosperous, like every city Velead had its problems. There was homelessness and hunger. There was inequality and social injustice. There was sickness and debt. The people committed crimes of fury and avarice and envy.
But all that came to an end when the first Matriarch developed the technology to reorder and reshape matter.
She’d been Dr Saria Mallen back then, and she’d taken her first transmutation device and used it to develop a series of unprecedented miracle materials that quickly earned her the fortune that she used to enter politics. At the apex of her election campaign she promised that if she were elected then she would use her technology to end Velead’s problems, and this promise swept her to victory on a landslide.
She was true to her word: she licensed her transmutation device to scientists who, under her direction and limited only by their imaginations, developed new materials and new technologies that had never before been seen. The device enabled scientists to take the fundamental particles of any material and rearrange them into any other material that they could conceive of, and with it they changed everything. They built banks of biomimetic solar panels and carried the electricity through the city on synthetic alloys that conducted electricity at nearly one hundred per cent efficiency. They created new soils that increased crop yields tenfold. They eliminated all forms of waste, using the fundamental particles of refuse as raw materials to create marble floors or fertilisers or the beautiful silvery filaments that Dr Mallen had ordered be set into every surface.
By the time she had placed a transmutation station on every block and a miniaturised transmutation unit in every home, sadness and hunger and fear were nothing but memories, happiness was universal and unbroken, and the people had lost their appetite for elections. Dr Mallen remained Velead’s leader until her death, at which point her daughter stepped into her place. She was as intelligent and as ambitious as Dr Mallen had been; her first act upon becoming Velead’s leader was to bestow upon her mother the posthumous title of Matriarch, and her second act was to decree that the title was hereditary on the female line. Thus was established in Velead the dynasty of the Matriarchs.
The Catastrophe struck not long after that, and as the world outside crumbled and devoured itself Velead stood untouched and unblemished, and it became precious to the migrants that began to pour out from the conflicts that sprouted from the ruins of the world.
The Matriarch’s scientists advised her that even with the transmutation technology supply and demand existed in delicate equilibrium, so she decreed that a wall be built around the city, ten metres thick and made of an impossibly durable material that she named Veleadite, and on top of this wall she had built the huge impenetrable dome that encased the city and protected it from all sides. A vast gate was set into the wall, but it was kept for emergency use only and would not be opened in a century, for the people of Velead neither needed nor wanted anything from outside their walls.
Despite the protection afforded by the wall and the dome, as the migrants trickled across the Great Grey Waste and began to congeal outside the city an army was commissioned and stationed outside the city, and the Matriarch decreed that every citizen would spend one year in military service. There was no need for an army inside the city, because inside there was nothing but happiness, but the happiness that they had been commissioned to protect ended abruptly as the citizens passed outside the dome.
At first the army had kept watch over the migrants from watchtowers set into the outside of the wall, but as the camp had grown and new migrants had brought insurrection and ingenuity to the community outside the wall, the commanders had instigated daily patrols through the camp itself. Over time these patrols had uncovered illicit weapons, armour, explosives and even crude siege devices, but Kal and Benef were the first to discover a tunnel.
A rope made of knotted cloth had been fixed into a metal rod in the vertical side of the shaft, and when the rest of the patrol arrived to secure the entrance Benef and Kal used it to climb down into the tunnel. The passage had been cut roughly from the earth, and the ceiling was low enough that they had to stoop to proceed. Here and there the walls had been reinforced with planks of wood or bars of metal, but mostly the floor, walls and ceiling of the tunnel had been left bare. They gave the impression that they could collapse in at any moment.
Kal and Benef edged forward through the tunnel, their torches fixed to the forestocks of their rifles, which they held at the ready. The uneven surfaces threw shadows that raced ahead of them down into the darkness, as though desperate to escape the light. The air was hot, and it carried on its breath a dried, ancient smell of something that had been buried deep.
“Do you think there’s anyone down here?” asked Benef.
Kal shook his head. “It was covered over. They’d suffocate.”
“At least we know what he said to the migrants now. Think about what all those extra pairs of hands could do.”
“We should have shot him the minute we found it.”
The tunnel evidently had not been finished, as within a few minutes they reached its end. Kal scraped at a clump of loose earth, sending a cascade of powdery lumps onto the floor.
“Lucky for us you can’t dig fast when you’re starving,” he said, then looked up at the roof of the tunnel, “What do you think’s above us?”
“We can’t be far inside the wall,” said Benef, “Five Bells, maybe? I’d say maybe one of the parks.”
“My parents took us to Five Bells every autumn to see the leaves. I don’t think I was ever happier.”
“That’s because you weren’t happier. We’ve spent our whole lives feeling exactly as happy as you were at that moment.”
Kal sighed. “I don’t know how I’m going to last a whole year.”
“I actually think I’ll miss not being happy.”
“You won’t be saying that in a year’s time.”
“Exactly. I feel as though my head’s clear for maybe the first time.”
Kal grunted. “Suit yourself. Either way, there’s nothing else here. Let’s get back and arrange for it to be filled in.”
“Wait,” said Benef, “What’s that?”
The beam from her torch had fallen upon a shallow recess, illuminating a thin black fissure low down in the wall of the tunnel, too low for the migrants to have noticed as they cut the earth in the pure darkness. She knelt down and probed it with her finger. At her touch the dry earth crumbled and fell into the hole.
“I can feel a draught,” she said.
“It’s just an animal burrow,” said Kal, “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“It sounds like there’s space on the other side.”
She began to enlarge the hole with her hands. The earth was loose and came away easily, and she quickly opened the fissure into an aperture large enough to fit through. She aimed her rifle into the darkness, and the torch illuminated a narrow cleft that ran between two dark rock walls and sloped down away from them.
“I want to take a look,” she said, and she stepped through the hole.
“Are you out of your mind? We found the one place that’s worse than sitting on that wall, and you want to spend more time here?”
Benef ignored him and began walking down the slope, sweeping the beam of her torch left and right as she went. Kal looked back towards the tunnel entrance, then he muttered a curse and stalked after her.
The passage had been cut into the rock by water that stopped flowing long ago, and it afforded barely enough room for someone to walk. The forgotten water had carved and scalloped the walls of the cleft into strange shapes and alien patterns, and here and there the rock assumed the form of veins or fins as though they were walking through the innards of an ancient petrified giant. As they descended the air became hotter, and a fetid smell blossomed on the air.
“We’re heading for the sewers,” said Kal. His words spiralled away into secret fissures in the rock.
“That’s not a sewer,” said Benef, then she stopped in her tracks.
“What is it?”
“Do you hear that?”
They held themselves still and listened. Somewhere far away they could just make out a low moaning sound that rose and fell, echoing off the rocks and bouncing all around them.
“Pipes?” said Kal, answering the question that Benef hadn’t asked, “Power lines?”
“Power lines don’t sound like that.”
They continued on down the passage, in silence now, their ears attuned to the sound. With every step they took the sound became louder, and as it grew they began to detect an animal timbre to it.
“Whatever it is, it’s right up ahead,” said Benef.
The passageway kinked to the right then turned sharply to the left, then the walls fell away to blackness and they realised that they had entered what must have been a huge cavern. As they took their first steps into the cavern and poked the beams of their torches into the darkness the moaning sound stopped.
“What did you do?” asked Kal.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Benef, “It just stopped.”
They edged forward, sweeping their torches before them, probing the darkness and the ground ahead. Then Benef’s torch picked out the edge of something pale, and she was struck by a stench of decay so powerful that it felt like walking into a solid object. She stopped and raised her torch, and when it revealed what was hidden there in the darkness she nearly fell to her knees.
“Kal,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, “Look at this.”
Before them was a low metal dais, upon which a man was laid on his back. He was chained to the dais at the elbows, the ankles and the knees with thick bonds of Veleadite, and where his hands should have been there were only dark, wrinkled stumps. He was naked and completely hairless, and his unnaturally pale skin was stained with continents of dark, poisonous-looking blotches. His abdomen was vast and bloated like the egg sac of an enormous spider, the waxy skin stretched painfully tight. Thin, silvery tubes ran in bunches up into the darkness from his arms, his neck and his sides, and another, thicker tube tumbled upwards from a heavy rubber apparatus that covered his nose. Kal aimed his torch at the man’s face, but when the beam fell upon them the man screwed his eyes shut.
“It’s too bright for him,” said Benef. She reached over and lowered the barrel of Kal’s rifle.
“What the hell are you?” said Kal, “What are you doing down here?”
The man turned his head away from them.
“Was that you we heard?” asked Benef, “Was it you making that noise?”
The man gave a kind of wet, strangled sound, then replied: “Yes”.
“Are you in pain?”
“Why are you here?”
The man turned to face them for the first time, and in the indirect light of the torch Benef caught sight of two milky, subterranean eyes that would have been more at home on some bony deep-sea fish. He drew back his lips and licked black teeth with a sliver of a tongue.
“I have not heard a voice for so long,” he said eventually, “I almost don’t recognise it.”
“Who are you?” asked Benef.
“I have never had a name.”
“Everyone has a name,” said Kal, “This is some kind of punishment, right? It has to be. Why are you down here? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Benef took a step toward the dais and the man flinched, his atrophied muscles squirming like worms beneath his skin. She paused, lowering her gun to indicate that she meant him no harm.
“Tell us why you’re here,” she asked, “We may be able to help.”
The man let out a laugh that sounded like bone cracking. “If you help me then it’s over,” he said, “Everything is over.”
Kal stepped forward alongside Benef. “Just tell us what you’re doing here,” he said, his voice growing until it filled the cavern. Benef glared at him and raised her hand to indicate that he should back down. She waited for the echoes of Kal’s voice to die away, then she asked the man to tell them whatever he could. He looked at her for a time, then he licked his teeth and took a deep breath.
“I will tell you just what they told me when I was young,” he said. “When the Matriarch built Velead she wanted to make a place where there was only happiness, and with the transmutation units she was able to provide everyone with everything they could ever desire. But even when everyone had everything they could ever need people were still somehow jealous, resentful and angry.
“So she set her scientists to work, and they discovered that one of their new miracle materials was attuned to human emotions in the same way that a radio antenna is attuned to radio waves. So she made these antennae and she laid them everywhere, all throughout the city. That’s what the silver filaments are: emotional receivers, receiving negative emotions and conducting them away, leaving behind only happiness.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Benef.
“No, it makes sense,” said Kal, “The filaments are only inside the dome. That’s why it’s so happy inside and so miserable outside on the wall.”
“But her scientists found that human emotions are like an equation that has to be balanced,” said the man, “They found that you can’t draw off all the negative emotions and simply fire them into space. In order to balance they have to be experienced by a human.”
Benef’s eyes widened. “And you—”
“Why you? What did you do?”
“They told me that I was bred for it. They engineered me and raised me until the age of sixteen, they took away my hands so that I was dependent upon them, then they put me here. I have known nothing else.”
“How long have you been here? How old are you?”
“I don’t know, but I know I am not the first. There was one here before me. I assume there will be another after I’m gone.”
The man coughed, and his abdomen trembled. Where the bundles of silver filaments entered his skin the dark blotches seemed to pulse and squirm as though alive.
“It’s poisoning you,” said Benef.
“The emotions are burning me, rotting me on the inside. I can feel it. I know that eventually they will kill me.”
Benef turned to Kal. “I knew it wasn’t real,” she said, “None of the happiness is real. We’re only living half a life up there.”
“We’re living the good half,” said Kal.
“But is it worth it?”
“Is what worth it?”
“For one person to suffer so that everyone else can be happy. Look at him: is this the price we have to pay?”
Kal chewed at his lip. “We need to get back.”
“And do what? We can’t just leave him here like this. We have to help him.”
The man groaned and spat a string of saliva that glistened blackly as it slunk to the floor. “If you want to help me you can kill me.” He looked up at Benef with pleading eyes.
“Look at him, Kal,” she said, “We can’t just walk away.”
“Yes we can,” said Kal, “Once you get back inside the city you won’t even feel bad about it. It’ll be an entertaining anecdote, like the old people tell.”
“If we kill him then all the toxic emotions will flood back up into Velead. The city will tear itself apart.”
“It can’t be worth this.”
The bundles of silver filaments that ran into the man’s abdomen trembled and he stifled a cry. “Please,” he managed.
“Kal, we have to,” said Benef.
Kal sighed and shook his head. Benef raised her rifle and aimed it at the man’s temple. He closed his eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said.
In that subterranean place the rifle shot was like a thunderclap, and the cavern walls magnified it and sent out in all directions until it seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. It rang in the air for a long time, and when it finally died it felt as though it were lingering still just beyond the edge of hearing.
When the sound had gone the man on the dais opened his eyes. He looked at the blue ribbon of smoke coiling up from the barrel of Kal’s rifle, and then he looked down at where Benef’s body lay like bundled rags.
“What have you done?” he asked.
Kal turned and began to walk back towards the cleft.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “But it is worth it.”