What Comes Down the Chute
The rumbling overhead grows louder and the metal chute shakes more and more violently as the clamoring approaches. I fight to choke down my sense of anticipation when at last I can see that the penultimate tremors will finally deposit at my feet—an elongated gear, approximately 1/32 ratio—definitely not the ocular wiring I had punched in the code for.
“Once again, this is not the part I ordered!” I yell up into the vast system of thick, dirty chutes, dark, dusty hoses, and thin, snaking wires that seems to stretch into infinity above me. Not that the Overlords up there hear me. Or care. Just another prisoner complaining about the working conditions.
“I-I think that one may be mine.” peeps a voice from behind me far too sweet and timid for a Themurian labor camp.
I turn and find its owner is too beautiful as well. Trimmed in teal and burgundy, his vest marks him as a trained Isadrid and his loose harem pants are so clean and creamy and white that I actually gasp. But the thought I hope I have stifled before he is able to sense it is that I’ve never seen hands that look so soft before.
The twin tips of his ears seem to wiggle for a moment and pink stars blaze across the dark fields of his eyes.
With more composure, he asks, “Could it be for a Watcher? I was working on one’s treads and keyed in a gear to the control panel over there.”
Although he gestures off in the distance, past countless aisles of dimly lit computer banks, toward some remote terminal, I make no effort to look where he indicates. I take more notice of his arm than where he points. His pale green skin is flecked with gold and not encrusted with layers of grime from grit and dust and sweat.
“This can be used in some manner on half the bastards roaming around here, demanding our attention,” I say, smiling. “It’s a generic part; there’s no telling which chute they meant to send it down. It does no good to go wandering about, looking for bits of junk; you’ll just get lost. Key up what you need again and see what happens. Most of the time, it might as well be random anyway. Sometimes they get whatever part they need themselves.”
As I deposit the gear into his palm, I allow my fingertips a moment’s indulgent graze. It does not disappoint my expectations. In that instant, the softness there floods my mind with images of a life spent in the open air, his lungs stinging with salt-spray from some distant sea, his face warmed by a sun or two, his mind trained on constellations of stars I’ve never seen each night. Whether I’m projecting the images or he is, I have no hopes of keeping my thoughts from him this time. “Sometimes they don’t come back. They might find someone else, but they don’t come back.” The words tumble out in a whisper before he’s a whole finger’s breadth away, as if his magic distills something I didn’t know was still locked inside me and I exhale it as vapor, a miasma of hope for use only by others.
His hand jumps to protect the bright red blossom growing on his hip. Maybe the Watcher with the broken tread has already stung him. I cross my arms to keep from tracing the scars from any of the times I didn’t jump fast enough. My torrent of words is already destabilizing; any more unintentional displays of weaknesses will make me feel like I’m as new as he is.
“I’ll get lost? But I came from the computers next to the sleeping alcove.” He gestures behind him in protest but his voice is icy and absent because he knows he should trust what I say.
“There are recesses like that about every two hundred meters along the wall,” I say. The chute clatters and clangs up above us.
“But-” Blue streaks build in intensity, first inky, then royal, and finally bright cerulean as he surveys the cavernous space and the implications begin to sink in. He stares at endless rows of computer banks, separated into regular columns. The hard, concrete floor is caked with five centimeters of dirt and sediment that have accumulated in the unimaginable centuries since the Themurians decided that with the right temperament and labor force, their robots could handle their own repairs without wasting their masters’ time. The snaking system of metal and rubber coils up into the vastness above us like intestines growing in some giant, fleshless, unfeeling golem. They’re all identical, manufactured pieces, easy to replicate and tessellate in a nice, logical grid.
“Did you count how many aisles you crossed?” I ask, but I don’t have to be telepathic to know the answer.
His head shakes and he tries to blink away white flashes while the muscles in his neck flex as though he could swallow the rising panic.
“Then there’s no telling how far you came. It’s all the same, on and on, as far as I’ve ever made it,” I assure him. The banging gets louder and closer.
The ocular wiring I had keyed in falls to the bottom of the chute in front of us. As if it knows, the Seeker waiting for it wheels closer and beeps impatiently. Its open cranial cabinet glows ruby red with exposed circuitry, poised to strike without impediment from its blindness.