Jeffrey Aaron Miller
Jeffrey Aaron Miller
With his axe, Thoma hacked off another slab of planet-flesh, caught it in his free hand as it fell, and tossed it into the plastic bin in his lap.
“Quit with the fancy tricks,” Carlo said, scowling from his platform atop the pit. “If you drop a piece down there, you’re gonna have to climb down and get it. But maybe that’s what you want, eh? Is that what you want?”
Thoma shook his head and resumed hacking away at the edge of the pit. The surface of the planet was hard and crumbly, rather like a pie shell made of grit, but just beneath the crust was the flesh, yards and yards of orange-red flesh, moist and pungent. It separated under the blade with a satisfying wet thunk, like a heavy fruit rind parting. Thoma kept hacking off slabs and tossing them into his basket until the basket was overfull, then he slid the axe into the loop on his belt, grabbed the handle of the basket, and rose to his feet. Beneath him, on broad steps carved into the pit, two dozen others worked feverishly to fill their baskets. Down and down the pit went, forty feet and more, and always there was more flesh to carve out.
Thoma approached the viewing platform and tilted his basket. Carlo, leaning his heavy frame on the metal railing, stooped down to inspect.
“That’s good enough,” he said, his craggy face and bad teeth all too close. “Store it and take a break.”
Thoma hurried past the platform toward the cool of the storage tent. His aunt, Mari, met him just inside. She watched over the shelves while others in the back cut slabs of planet-flesh into edible portions. Mari was old, stooped, hair like a long silver rope pulled over one shoulder.
“First to finish,” she noted, as Thoma set his basket on the lowest shelf. “I don’t suppose he noticed.”
“He didn’t say anything about it,” Thoma replied, rinsing his hands in a trough of water and drying them on a bit of rag.
“Of course not,” Mari said. “Don’t let it get to you. He’s still upset about his brother, but it wasn’t your fault, and he’ll realize that sooner or later.”
“I don’t think so,” Thoma said. “He’s made everyone hate me.”
Mari patted him on the shoulder as he headed out of the tent. She meant well, and she tried to make him feel better, but it didn’t help. Thoma slipped the axe out of its belt loop and dropped it in the toolbox beside the tent. He meant to head back to his room to change clothes and wash up before dinner--the moist flesh left a sticky film on everything it touched--but he only managed a couple of steps before he came to a stop.
The sun had risen above the distant horizon, burning like a band of super-heated gold in the thin atmosphere of Crassos. The light dipped into the flesh pit, filling the translucent pulp along the rim with a deep crimson glow. Thoma thought it made the pit look like an open sore. It was a shame, really, the great ugly divot carved into the planet’s surface, but he mostly kept his thoughts on the matter to himself these days. He had done what he could to encourage exploration, and what had it gotten him?
His gaze turned northward, to the perimeter fence made of welded tent poles that ran along the rim of Fool’s Canyon (as they had taken to calling it). The fence wasn’t for security, Carlo had made that clear. It was more of a mission statement: we exist to dig in the pit and eat, not to roam the world.
Other workers had filled their morning quota of food and clambered out of the pit. They now trudged toward the storage tent bearing heavy baskets. Thoma slipped away before any of them got close enough to speak to him and hurried to his room.
The klaxon above the administration tent announced meal time. Pilgrims poured out of tents all over the city and made their way to the dining hall, where many long tables had been set up and covered with platters of prepared planet-flesh. Thoma took his seat at the far end of the last table, nearest the corner, and waited for the meal to begin.
Carlo, flanked by his servants, entered the dining hall with great flourish, sweeping his cloak out on either side of him, and made his way to the dais in the center of the room, where his elevated seat and private table awaited. The servants pulled his chair back, so he could sit, but before he did, he raised his hands, patted the air and said, “This world, our new home, once again is life to us. Eat.”
At that, the feasting began. Thoma reached for the nearest bowl and scooped cubes of planet-flesh onto his plate. He liked it best in small portions. The flesh had a savory but bitter taste, somewhat like sweetened vinegar, and Thoma found it a bit overwhelming in large bites.
“Not hungry?” Mari sat across from him. She was the only one left who dared to talk to him in front of Carlo.
“I’m plenty hungry,” Thoma said. “Just tired of eating this flesh from the pit.”
Mari frowned. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” she said, ladling thick flesh-steaks onto her plate. “Of all the planets we might have landed on, we find ourselves on a world with an endless supply of food. We are very fortunate and very blessed. I know you’re upset with Carlo and the others, and you have a right to be. The expedition’s failure was not your fault, but you shouldn’t speak ill of our good fortune.” She nodded, gave him a half-hearted smile, and turned her attention to the heap of steaks on her plate.
“It’s just a shame.” Thoma stabbed a cube of flesh with his fork, started to put it in his mouth, then set it back on the plate. “We have no idea what’s out there. We’re chopping away at the planet and making a big mess of it, but what if there’s other food out there somewhere. What if there are forests or fields where we could plant the seeds we brought?”
“It’s a fungus,” Mari said. “That’s what the scientists tell us. Like a giant mushroom. It is likely that it covers the entire surface of the world.”
“Sure, that’s what they say,” Thoma replied. “They say whatever Carlo wants them to say, and you believe whatever he wants you to believe.”
Mari shook her head and continued to eat, and Thoma knew he had said too much. Even his beloved aunt had her limits. He sighed and picked at his food.
Everyone ate and kept eating until Carlo was finished. When, at last, he pushed his chair back, handed his dirty plate to one of his servants, and rose, every fork, every spoon dropped, every voice stilled.
“Afternoon shift at the pit in half an hour,” he said. “We work to eat, we eat to live.”
And with that, he swept his cloak off his shoulders and headed out of the tent.
* * *
The discovery happened during the afternoon shift. Thoma had resumed his position at the top of the pit, basket in his lap, while others worked on the levels beneath him. Carlo was on his platform, pacing, when two men at the bottom of the pit began shouting. It took Thoma a moment to figure out what they were saying.
“We broke through,” they said, echoing each other. “We broke through!”
Thoma set his axe in his basket and leaned over the edge of the pit. The workers at the bottom of the pit were dancing, waving their arms over their heads. On the ground between them, they had carved a space into the planet-flesh and revealed some kind of a whitish surface beneath.
Thoma felt a hand on his shoulder, fingers grinding into his collarbone. “Go down there and see what it is,” Carlo said.
Thoma set his basket aside and clambered down into the pit, careful not to lose his balance on all the moist flesh. Clusters of workers parted to let him pass. At the bottom of the pit, where the orange-pink sides rose up like great spongy walls, and the low-lying sun was obscured, he felt a terrible sense of claustrophobia. The two workers waved him over and led him to the center of the pit, where their latest excavation had, at last, sliced through the bottom of the planet-flesh. The surface beneath was coarse and pitted, and when Thoma stooped down to touch it, it felt warm against his fingers. It reminded him of an eggshell.
“Well, I guess we finally found the actual surface of the planet,” he said.
“We did it,” one of the workers said, as if they had managed some great achievement.
“Yes, you did,” Thoma replied with a sigh. “I’d better go tell Carlo.”
He climbed back up the pit, every eye on him, some whispering as he passed, “What is it?” He didn’t respond but kept climbing all the way to the top, then waited a moment to catch his breath as Carlo loomed over him.
“Well?” Carlo said.
“They’ve dug through the flesh and found another layer,” Thoma said. “Some kind of a hard surface, like rock, maybe the actual surface of the planet.”
Carlo nudged him out of the way and leaned over the edge. “I want everyone at the bottom,” he shouted. “Clear a space with your axes and chop through the layer of rock. We’ll see what lies beneath.”
All over the pit, workers traded glances, then began descending into the pit.
Carlo cuffed Thoma on the back of the head. “That means you, too,” he said. “Get down there and help them break through.”
“What’s the point?” Thoma said. “It’s a layer of rock. Do we have to make this big ugly scar of a pit even uglier?”
Carlo rounded on him slowly, teeth bared and bushy eyebrows drawn down. Thoma started to back away, but before he could move, Carlo lashed out, caught a fold of his shirt in one big meaty fist and drew him in close. “I will not have my authority challenged by you. Least of all, by you.” And with that he shoved Thoma away.
Thoma stumbled, flailing his arms, and fell. Carlo drew a foot back, as if he meant to kick him, then caught himself.
“This big ugly scar of a pit, as you call it, is how we live,” he said. “Now, get down there and help the others.”
Thoma picked himself up, backed a safe distance away from Carlo and shook his head. “It’s not my fault what happened to your brother, you know. He climbed down into the canyon before I had secured the safety rope.”
Carlo clenched his fists and came after him. “Don’t you speak about him.”
Thoma backed away but bumped up against the edge of the viewing platform. “He was right, though. We can’t just keep digging into this pit. We have to go see what’s out there.”
Carlo swung at him, but Thoma ducked and lurched to one side, and Carlo’s fist hit the metal rail. He swore loudly and grabbed his hand.
“Get out of my sight,” he cried. “Go back to your tent. I don’t want to see you the rest of the day. Not here, not at meal time.”
Thoma turned and strode away, his heart hammering in his chest. He heard Carlo, still cursing under his breath, step back to the edge of the pit and resume shouting at the workers.
Thoma made his way to the storage tent and dropped his axe in the tool box. Mari saw him and stepped outside.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He refused to look at her. “Told him the truth.”
“Thoma,” she said with a gasp. “You mustn’t speak disrespectfully to Carlo. It will only make things worse for you.”
“So I shouldn’t be honest? Mari, they’ve found another layer beneath the fungus, a layer of rock, and they mean to hack through it.”
Mari considered this, then shrugged. “Well, it might be worth seeing what lies beneath.”
“It’s all about that stupid pit,” Thoma said. “This whole stupid colony is a great big pit. Work to eat, eat to live. If that’s what you want, you can have it. All of you, you can have it. I want to see what’s out there.”
Mari started to speak, but he waved her off and turned away. Instead of walking back to his tent, however, he retrieved his axe, slid it into the loop on his belt, and turned northward.
“Thoma, what are you doing?” she asked.
“Enjoy your pit,” he said. “Keep digging down until the whole stupid colony falls right into it.”
And with that, he walked away from her, away from the storage tent, away from the whole colony. Mari called after him, but he ignored her and kept walking. In the distance, he heard Carlo shouting at the workers, “Clear a larger space, so you can see more of the rock! Now, dig. Dig!”
The perimeter fence on the northern edge of the colony was comprised of tent poles set at irregular intervals along the edge of Fool’s Canyon. It had been built in haste, poles lashed together in X’s and set far enough apart that they were largely useless, a symbolic gesture and nothing more. As he approached the fence, Thoma spared a glance over his shoulder at the sad array of tents that comprised the pilgrim colony. Their ship, broken and impaled in the planet’s surface, rose behind it all like a gray bone protruding from a broken limb. The only pilgrim in sight was Carlo, gesturing wildly at the edge of the pit. Everyone else was working either inside a tent or inside the pit, and even Mari had retreated, unwilling to watch him return to his folly. Nobody saw Thoma walk right up to the perimeter fence and slip through.
The wind in the canyon was gusting. It was wind that had been the problem, the strange gusts that came spilling over the northern lip of Fool’s Canyon and curled back up the southern face, forming a kind of sideways vortex. Carlo’s brother and two others in the expedition had begun their descent, using their work axes to dig into the spongy flesh, while the wind was gentle. Halfway down, a violent gust had come at them from below and picked up all three, sucking their axes out of the planet-flesh and flinging them up and out. Thoma had been tying the safety line to its poles when he heard the cries and crawled to the edge of the canyon in time to the see the three of them falling the remaining fifty feet to the canyon floor. He had then spent three agonizing hours retrieving the bodies, only to face a sea of blame and derision back in the colony.
Now, walking between the perimeter fence and the edge of the canyon, he was shocked to see the safety apparatus still in place, two long poles driven deep into the fleshy ground, a length of red nylon rope tied to both poles and dangling over the side. Nobody had bothered to remove it. Nobody had bothered to pull up the rope. Even when they had laid the perimeter fence, they had ignored the safety poles. Strange. He could only assume it had been left intentionally, perhaps by direct order of Carlo, as a permanent reminder of Thoma’s failure.
He walked over to the poles and tested the knots. They were still tight. He grabbed the rope, wrapped a couple of loops around his forearm, and leaned over the edge of the canyon. Down and down it went, a hundred feet, the sheer face dizzying. He was shocked to see blood stains at the bottom, three great splatters, now turned brown, on the canyon floor. But, of course, they were still there. Who would have cleaned them up?
Behind him, distantly, even over the howling of the wind, he heard Carlo shouting at the workers, though he could no longer make out the words. The real fool was not in Fool’s Canyon. The real fool was the craggy-faced madman leaning over that vast ugly pit.
Thoma grabbed the rope in both hands, sat down near the edge of the canyon, and lowered himself over the side. When his feet were dangling, he wrapped one leg around the rope and pinched it between his feet. Then it was a fairly simple matter of letting gravity do its work.
Ten feet down, a gust of wind pulled him away from the canyon wall and spun him in mid-air. He shut his eyes and held on for dear life, as the wind shrieked, pulling up his shirt and whipping his hair around his face. Then the wind died down, and he slammed into the side of the canyon so hard it knocked his feet free of the rope. He kicked wildly, felt the bands of nylon, made sweaty by his hands, slipping through his grasp, and he cried out, but his voice was lost in the wind.
He managed, after a frantic moment, to get one foot against the rope, snagging it between his toes. Then he wrapped his other leg around it and resumed his descent. And if he had fallen, if he had splattered himself on the canyon floor, would anyone have come looking for him? He doubted it. Would anyone have missed him? Mari perhaps, but no one else. Carlo might even have celebrated with an extra feast and speech.
Another gust of wind caught him near the bottom, but he heard it coming and braced himself. Again it pulled him away from the canyon wall and spun him in midair, but this time he didn’t close his eyes, though the blur of canyon, floor, and sky twisting around him made him sick to his stomach. When the wind died down, he saw the canyon wall coming toward him and managed to maintain his hold through the impact. From there, it was a short trip the rest of the way to the bottom. He slid onto the canyon floor and stepped away from the rope.
The sound of the wind had a peculiar thunderous quality at the bottom of the canyon, like being inside a giant bass drum in a storm. And still he thought he could hear, however faintly, Carlo’s damned voice shouting into the pit, like a memory that wouldn’t be forgotten.
He hurried across the canyon floor, careful to avoid the large blood stains, and made his way to the far side. Now, of course, he had no safety rope, only the axe in his belt, and after his trouble with the gusts of wind, he had no desire to attempt the climb. He stood for long minutes, undecided, wondering if he should go back. Only Mari would know that he had snuck through the perimeter fence, and she wouldn’t tell the others. It would be an easy thing, he knew, to sneak back into the colony, slip into his room inside the workers’ tent and pretend like none of this had happened.
But then what? Back to work tomorrow in the pit, hacking away at rock and flesh under the ever-hateful glare of Carlo? No, he couldn’t go back to that. He had walked away from it, and he meant to keep walking away from it.
He looked left and right, gazing down the length of the canyon. On either side, it curved gradually to the north, out of sight. He chose a direction at random and resumed walking, following the course of the canyon to the east. He stumbled occasionally when the wind picked up, even falling once and landing painfully on the handle of his axe. After that, he pulled the axe out and carried it as he walked. On and on he went, as the canyon took a gentle curve to the north, and after what might have been an hour, he perceived that the ground was sloping upward, rising to meet the top of the canyon walls.
He was well beyond the perimeter fence and quite a distance from the colony when he came out of the end of the canyon and found himself standing on a vast plain, the thin crust of the planet’s surface stretching out in all directions. As he scanned the horizon, he spied two low hills back to the northwest and headed toward them, hoping to get a better view from on top. He expected another long walk, but the first of the hills proved to be much closer than he had guessed. It was maybe fifty feet across, a strangely symmetrical bump on the otherwise flat landscape, as tall as it was wide, and on its surface, there was no crust, only the smooth, orange-red planet-flesh, as if it had been swept clean.
He climbed to the top of the hill with considerable effort, struggling for purchase on the moist flesh. Though he considered using the axe to chop handholds for himself, he decided against it; it reminded too much of working in the pit. Once at the top, he turned back in the direction of Fool’s Canyon and thought he could see a hint of the perimeter fence, gleaming in the low sunlight, and perhaps even the tops of colony tents beyond, though it might have been a trick of the light. Thoma marveled at how happy he felt to be away from it all, to be away from the pit which had become everything, to be so far from the incessant hoarse shouting of Carlo. He had a vision of building a place for himself here atop this hill, though he wasn’t sure what he would build it from, and maybe, in time, other pilgrims would leave the colony, disgusted by the pointless grind of life there, and they would come to live with him. Theirs would be a colony devoted to discovery, to knowing the world, not carving it like meat from bones. And he saw himself, a benevolent and brave leader, never shouting, guiding his new colony into a better future.
Yes, he could see it clearly.
And then the ground shifted beneath him, and his feet were pulled out from under him. He fell on his side, dropping his axe in the process, which slid out of reach. He grabbed at the slick ground, but his fumbling fingers couldn’t take hold, and the ground moving beneath him dragged him down.
He looked to the top of the hill and saw that it had split open from end to end, drawing back on both sides to reveal a black and shiny surface beneath, like some giant, polished stone. And a sound came to him then, carried on the wind, the sound of voices, not just Carlo this time, but many voices, dozens or hundreds, perhaps every pilgrim on Crassos, all screaming.
He turned toward the village and saw a geyser of dark crimson gushing hundreds of feet into the air, like blood from a rent artery. At last the workers had chopped their way through the eggshell surface beneath the soft flesh, hacking away with ruthless determination as Carlo urged them on.
“It’s not a planet,” Thoma whispered.
The eye, the great black eye, wet and shining, rolled in its socket above him, as blood from the pit gushed three hundred, four hundred feet into the air. And the world--not a planet but a living creature--shuddered beneath him, as the fountain of blood swept over the colony, washing it all away like fleas from a dog’s back.
And the wind in the canyon, like a voice, howled and howled.