’49 – Kol

It was cold in the Box. Kol knew it was always cold, and he sniffed to see if something was making it seem colder. His stomach growled, and if he had smelled food he could not reach that would have been colder. There was the faint scent of smoke and burn, which made his spine cold, but that wasn’t new. The Workers had been smelling smoke for more than the day. Gray light filtered in through the cracks of the Box. The light did make Kol cold. It was a bad light. A pain light.

Pain was very cold.

He pressed closer to his workmates for warmth. Kol was on the outside of the nestle, so he was colder than those further in. Kol knew he was among the biggest of the Workers. He could force his way closer to the center of the nestle if he wanted to. Maybe not the very middle – the Workers would complain, and while no one Worker was stronger than him, Workers together could do more than a Worker alone. The Bright Lady had taught all the Workers this truth, and Kol had seen the truth himself.

Thinking of the Bright Lady made Kol warmer for a moment, but when he realized she wasn’t in the Box, he became the coldest he could recall being. Of course the Bright Lady didn’t sit in Boxes. But knowing she was not nearby drew away his heat. His head sunk down, and a soft moan escaped his lips.

Gris, the Worker to Kol’s knife-side, placed a hand on Kol’s shoulder, then brushed the back of his hand past Kol’s cheek. Kol took the hand, and pressed it to his face. It was cool, but warmer than Kol’s face. That Gris would offer the comfort was warmer, still.

Together, Workers were stronger than apart.

The Box had a pattern. A sway to one side. Two kathunks, one louder than the other. A sway back. It was all the Box offered. Sway. KATHUNK, ka-thunk. Sway. The Workers swayed with the Box, and sometimes nodded with its kathunks. It wasn’t warm, but it was something to do. They knew the Box. They understood it. It was when it changed the Workers were unsure what to do. Sometimes change was warm.

But not often.

Thunder echoed in the distance, and may of the smaller Workers near the middle of the nestle whimpered and one, Kol thought it might have been little Ys, cried. Kol wanted to cry, too, but he felt the chill growing over all the Workers. If he cried, he who was among the strongest Workers with the biggest hands, then all the Workers would feel the chill that fire could not drive away. He knew he had to ignore the cold, and ignore the thunder. He snorted, derisively, then gave a soft grunt. Several Workers near him chuckled at his grunt, and the whimpering grew softer. Gris grinned at Kol, baring both slashing-teeth, and thumped Kol’s side with the back of a hand. Kol grinned back.

Workers were stronger than cold.

Workers had to Work, but that was okay. The Bright Lady gave them Work, and told them they were all equal. She was a Planner, one of those whose Work was more than others, and who made sure Work was not wasted. The Bright Lady was the first smell Kol remembered, from his time in the First Place. Like all his workmates, Kol had been taught to talk, and to use voice sounds to emulate talking. She had given him his uniform, and his knife. She had taught him how to hate the Bourj, and how to use his knife to free the Bourj’s slaves. That Work always made Kol sad. A Bourj slave looked a lot like a Worker once you freed them, except for the blood.

Not all Workers could do the Work. But Kol, and his workmates in the Box, had been praised and rewarded by the Bright lady many times. They had, she said, earned the right to have Rifles, as gifts from the Father.

Kol looked forward to meeting the Father. But apparently the Father lived far way. They had been in the Box a long time, waiting to get to the Father.

From outside the Box, the metal screams warned of a sudden jerk. No Worker liked the metal screams, but Kol had learned they sometimes meant change. And the Box was cold, so change might be good. When food came, it was after a jerk. And the quiet time was always after a jerk.

The metal scream weakened, and the sway and kathunks became uneven. Many Workers chittered their unease. None liked the Box, but steady was better than uneven. Kol did not chitter. He disliked uneven, but this always happened after a long metal scream. It was a kind of even, just one few Workers knew.

No kathunk. No sway.

The thunder continued, sometimes louder, sometimes not. There were pops as well, and slams, and sizzles. The smoke smell was stronger, and had many different smokes. Wood smoke, Kol knew that one well. Oil smoke, too. And hair. And flesh.

Kol did not think this change from the Box would be warm.

The silence in the Box was colder than the swaying kathunks. Kol could hear Planners make voice noises outside, and Tall Workers. They were not calm. When Planners were not calm, it meant a plan had gone wrong. Planners could not fix bad plans. All they could do was tell Workers and Tall Workers how to fix it. Tall Workers didn’t work as well as Workers, and many thought they were Planners, too. But they didn’t have the Brights the Planners did, and their plans were often bad for Workers.

Real plans were bad for Workers too, sometimes, but that couldn’t be helped. It was important for other Workers that each Worker try to finish a plan.

The side of the Box growled, and slid away. The gray light flooded in, and the nestle broke apart as other Workers moved away from the colder air. Kol was near the open side, and did not move away. He turned, to look out of the box.

Four Tall Workers, one with a rifle, stood in the open side of the Box. They were voice noising, loudly. Kol knew he knew the words, but he didn’t care yet. Beyond the Box were many Tall Workers, and they chattered. Some had a Bright marking them as little Planners, and these yelled at the Tall Workers without Brights. Kol realized there were many Boxes, rows and rows of them, sitting on the metal lines that carried them. They stretched out as far as he could see. Boxes. Tall Workers. Little Planners. Yelling, shoving rifles into Tall Workers hands. If there was a plan here, it had already gone bad. Kol felt his lips peeling back from his slashing-teeth. Bad plans were very, very cold.

“I said move!”

One of the Tall Workers standing in the side of the box grabbed Ys, and began hauling her out of the Box. Ys’s closest brother Yan, grabbed at her. No Worker would try to separate Ys and Yan, but the Tall Worker didn’t know better. Gris moved forward, using his hands to quickly flash a few words of explanation. Kol began to use his voice sounds to make words, to remind Gris most Tall Workers couldn’t communicate properly.

Then the Tall Worker hit Gris with the butt of his rifle. Gris was surprised, and fell, raising one long arm to protect himself.

“Get away from me, you freaks! And move out now!”

Kol felt his face furrow. Tall Workers and Workers didn’t hit each other, unless the ones being hit were breaking the Law. The Bright Lady had taught them that over and over. She had spoken of making sure Workers never hit Tall Workers, but obviously the rule went both ways. They were all Workers. They were all equal. They’d been told this.

The Workers behind Kol shuddered. Other Tall Workers grabbed Ys and dragged her away from the Box, throwing her down on the ground by the metal line. Blood leaked from her cheek, matting the soft hair covering her face. The red color and iron smell immediately warmed Kol. When a Worker bled, other Workers made it stop.

The Tall Workers grabbed Gris’s foot, and began to drag him out too. Kol didn’t know if these were actually Bourj, or if the rule against Workers hitting Workers was gone, but it didn’t matter. He knew how to stop Tall ones from hurting his Workmates. His hand dropped to his long knife, and he bared his slashing-teeth. Behind him, he heard the sound of three dozen palms slapping on knife-handles.

“Idiots! Stop this right NOW!”

The Bright Lady leaped over Ys, and into the Box. Her long coat was not as clean, and its many Brights were not as shiny, but Kol knew her scent and sound immediately. As she used her voice sounds on the Tall Workers, her hands spoke to Kol and his workmates. Wait, beloved Workers. She flashed with one firm hand.

If she’s said to stop, Kol wasn’t sure if he would have. Not even for the beloved Bright Lady. Not once blood was in the air. But she’d saved them many times by having them wait. Wait until night, when the Tall ones don’t see as well. Wait until the Bourj slaves walk past, then drop on their backs. Wait until the spoiled Planner is gone, then go back to doing things the right way.

Wait was a warm word. Kol waited, hand on his knife, and focused on her Voice.

“ …closer to death than you’ll ever know. Get back, and leave this to me.”

“Ye… yes commissar. We didn’t think… ”

“Obviously!” The Bright Lady’s voice was full of scorn. Kol knew the shame that Voice could bring, and the Tall Workers hung their heads with cold disgrace. They were, Kol thought, not that different from his workmates.

As the Tall Workers moved away from the Box, the Bright Lady’s knife-hand told Gris to pick up Ys, and bring her close. Her other hand flashed words to the Workers in the Box.

“Our Great Father is threatened, and this is why we are here. The Bourj and their slaves attack and burn his home. You can smell it now! He wanted you to have homes here, but the Bourj have burned your homes!”

Kol felt warm anger slowly fill him. The Great Father loved them so much! And if it weren’t for the Bourj, the workers could have lived here, with the Tall Workers. And then the Tall Workers would learn to work with them, as they worked with each other.

Gris brought Ys to the Bright Lady, who crouched and cradled the small worker to her. Other Tall Workers often turned their heads, and avoided touched the hair on a Worker’s face or arms, but the Bright Lady stroked Ys, and cooed at her while keeping her hand talking.

“Good Workers, it is time to fight. We do not want to fight, but we know we must, for all Workers everywhere. You were promised rifles for this fight, but the Bourj took them. We do not have enough rifles for all. And the Tall Workers, they are weak, and afraid. This is why they lashed out at you, in confusion and fear. You all know their weaknesses. They cannot climb as you do, or do red Work with their knives. We will let them have the few rifles here, for they are too fragile without them. We will forgive them for their weakness.”

Kol had only fired a rifle a few times, in training, but he had looked forward to having his own. When the Bright Lady took them to do red work and Bourj had rifles, they would hurt workers. Kill them.  But the Bright Lady was right. Tall Workers were not as good with knives as Kol, or any of his workmates. And if they were afraid… Kol felt badly for the Tall Workers.

The Bright Lady kept her hand talking.

“Bourj slaves are attacking our Father’s city right now. The Tall workers can hear the fight, but we can smell it. The city may… “ she paused. “The Father’s place is threatened. The Bourj want to make all of this a Bad Place.”

Kol found himself exposing his slashing-teeth again. Only a Bourj would make a bad place.

“But we will stop them! You, and I, my dear, dear workmates. The Bourj slaves have rifles, rifles meant for you. We will scent them out. We will find them, and do the red Work. And then, their rifles will be ours! And the Father will be pleased, and we will be honored!”

Kol slapped his knife, as did every workmate. Even little Ys, laying in the Bright lady’s lap, slapped the handle of her knife.

Kol felt very warm. There was WORK to be done.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on September 23, 2016, in Diesel Pulp, Short Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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