Mary of the Aether
“Someone’s at the door,” Mary said, leaning in close.
Papa blinked and his eyes focused on her. “At the door? Yes, all right. Give me a moment to get up and get presentable.”
“I’m not sure—”
And then there came a knock so violent it rattled the door in its frame and echoed down the hallway like a thunderclap. Mary screamed and stumbled backward, clapping a hand over her mouth.
“Oh my,” Papa said, struggling to sit up. “Mary, you best call the police. Go.”
Mary raced out of Papa’s room and back to the kitchen. As she reached for the phone, she heard someone jostling the doorknob, trying to force it to turn. She attempted to dial 911, but her trembling fingers kept missing the buttons.
Another knock, forceful and angry, and Mary heard the crack of wood. She glanced into the living room and saw that part of the door frame had broken loose. She turned back to the phone, held it close to her face and dialed the numbers, forcing herself to go slowly so she would not miss. Then she pressed the phone to her ear.
A click followed by a voice. “911 Emergency. How can I help you?”
“There’s someone at our door—”
The whole house shook with the force of the next blow. Pictures fell from the walls, and the windows rattled. Mary dropped the phone and covered her head as bits of plaster rained down from the ceiling. Before she could recover, there came another crash, and she heard the door splinter. Mary looked down the hallway and saw the front door bowed inward, split right down the middle, jagged edges sticking out like broken bones. A final blow ripped the door hinges out of the frame, tore the bolts loose and sent the door flying into the living room in pieces.
As the pieces settled, Mary saw a man standing in the jagged opening, a tall man in a gray cloak and hood. She ducked back into the kitchen and retrieved the phone, but in her panic, she accidentally hit the ‘Talk’ button and hung it up. She heard the stranger’s feet crunching wood as he entered the house. Mary dropped the phone again and glanced back into the living room to see the stranger sweep his long cloak off his shoulders and stride into Papa’s room.
“Get out of here,” Papa said, trying to shout but managing only a hoarse croak. “There’s nothing for you here.”
“Nothing for me?” The stranger’s voice sounded surprisingly calm and deep. “Are you certain of that, old man? I’ll tell you what I think, I think you’ve got a secret.”
Children of the Mechanism
Kuo sank his hands into the meat trough and scooped up a large mound of the damp, gray paste. He brought it up to the lid of the trough and dumped it into the plastic bucket on the floor between his feet. Some of it slopped onto the floor, but Kuo was careful to pick up every little bit and flick it into the bucket. The grease ran between his fingers and dripped onto his feet, tickling his toes. When the bucket was full, he grabbed the rope handle in both hands, set his feet farther apart, and rose. The bucket was heavy, but Kuo was strong. The only risk was losing his balance.
Kuo turned, saw the line of feeders moving across the room, saw the Watchers beyond them with their mouthless faces and bent arms. Oh, the Watchers were always nearby, weren’t they? Always staring, staring, staring, and sometimes Kuo thought he knew what they were thinking. They looked past the other feeders and fixed their black eyes on Kuo alone.
"I know what you’re doing,” Kuo muttered. “I can read your minds. I know you’re playing the game with me.”
He glared at them to make sure they got the point. Then Kuo turned toward the Grong. It filled most of the large room, the vast heap of it rising up to the ceiling a hundred feet above. A monstrous mound of flesh piled up in mottled folds like numerous fat bellies, it had no arms or legs, no head or neck or hair, just fat and meat and quivering pale skin. The feeders approaching the bottom looked like ants. All along the surface, the folds of the Grong hung heavy, as if the whole thing were slowly melting into the floor.
Kuo moved to the back of the line of feeders and shuffled forward, clutching his bucket between his knees. The metal floor transitioned to the soft padding that served as a kind of permanent bed for the Grong. It had a bit of give to it, and Kuo sighed. He liked how the soft floor felt beneath his feet.
A face peeked out of the line ahead of him. Big brown eyes, a curly forelock of black hair, a small and crooked mouth that was smiling, as always.
“Oh, Rel, I see you there,” Kuo shouted. “I see you!”
The feeder in front of him spun around and made a shushing noise. Kuo scowled at the man until he turned away. He might have punched him right in his face, but a Watcher moved up beside him.
“No shouting during the working day,” it said. “Loud noises lead to punishment. Work quietly. Work diligently. Keep your voice down.”
“Voice down,” Kuo said, ducking his head. “Yes, voice down.”
The Watcher turned and went back to its place, and Kuo sent hateful thoughts in its direction. When it was gone, Kuo whipped back around and looked for Rel, but Rel had melted into the crowd.
“I’ll find you,” Kuo muttered. “You can’t hide all the time, Rel. Just you wait and see.”