By the time Maebel was nearly done unleashing the cyclopes her skin ached for her Grief Pod. Her mind was growing fuzzy with data, base entropy worming through endless repetitions, begging for a nightmare to prune them. But the Grief Pods lay beyond the Lunching complex, and the Complex would accept none whose grids were unclean.
The rain had grown heavier, which had slowed Maebel’s work. She used to dream of a great sieve that could control even the weather that made her work unpredictable. It would ration the wind and the rain and the light so she could live each day without worry. But these dreams interfaced poorly with the Grief Pods, and in her sleep the Pod would gnash to retaliate, giving her sore bones upon waking. And so she learned to control these dreams, and nearly to forget them.
Still, some phantom of desire buzzed at the back of her brain while she hauled what should have been the second to last cyclops. This only made it worse as the cyclops proved difficult to haul up, and Maebel had to chide herself not to think treasons. The Plan, whatever it was, was perfect, weather be damned. It was known she could only have herself to blame.
So when the cyclops got stuck, it was Maebel’s fault that she yanked so hard, and it was Maebel’s fault when the cyclops popped all the way out in a sudden rush, and it was surely Maebel’s fault that for the first time in memory a cyclops was harvested with two eyes. The eyes didn’t gaze in unison; instead they twirled respectively clockwise and counterclockwise around some shifting focus.
She shrieked. Instinctively she fumbled with her taser but it slipped in her wet hands and clattered into the empty cell below. Maebel peered after it. A small hole had rusted in one of the razor-blade walls, allowing the flesh of two cyclopes to melt together.
Something stirred in Maebel as the cyclopes hung, scrotal and poorly bisected. She found herself in the cleft of the world, perceiving simultaneously how it was and how it should be, conceptual friction flaring in the flaws of the overlay. Panic began to set in. It was she who chose to start from the middle every day, saving the longest walk for when she needed the most rest between squares. She had been selfish, neglecting the walls between these two, letting the razors grow brittle.
There had been mistakes before. The haulers were trained to distrust each other, but that did not keep rumors from leaking through. At times they’d press their faces to the very bottom of the slaw troughs, where words could ring across the metal floor, muffled to the world above by the sound of collective munching. A mistake could be the end of a life-cycle, the signal for a Grief Pod to digest its dreamer.
Maebel couldn’t bear the thought of being Digested within her Grief-Pod. She had seen so many sun-rises and smelled so many slaws. Each day the recipe was the same yet the results never were, the mysterious organs of the Inner Kitchen making due with minute erosions of the mayonnaise pumps and head shredders. There had been a slaw, better than perfect, three cyclopean cycles and two days into the past. Wherever the Grief-Pod would channel her reconstituted matter, she was sure this memory would be lost.
And now it seemed that even her hands weren’t cooperating. They had taken her paddle in a white-knuckled grip, striking hard at the cyclopes’ connective tissue. The two halves crawled in opposite directions, stretching their skin tight before snapping back together, loose material flooding into the fissures of impact. Maebel yelped. She ceded to the will of her hands, trying to jam the paddle into the murky crease between the cyclopes, but found they were stuck more firmly together, refusing to budge in either direction.
Maebel began sobbing then. She was doubled down on the razor walls of the cyclopes grid, rain pounding on her back. This was not a fear she’d felt before, but it was a fear she understood. It had been waiting to wake inside her since she was decanted. It was the opposite of sustenance. It was the threat of a tomorrow unmoored from any kind of yesterday.
Mushy hands grabbed her by the eyelids and wrenched them open. The cyclopes were gripping her face tight, the fore-finger of each hand branching into another, tinier hand to pin her lashes in place. Their eyes searched hers while their mouths echoed first her sobbing sounds, then the sound of their un-synced sobs overlapping, devolving into a fractal susurrus.
They could not keep staring forever. The tall black hat of an Inspector came into view beyond the far side of the grid, bobbing in time with the strides of his long and bloody stilts.