Touchwood: n. Material, such as decayed wood, that is used as tinder
When she flipped over a large piece of cardboard that had long ago succumbed to the rot and slime of their ocean climate to see a body underneath, Laera hardly paused. It was not the first corpse she'd stumbled across as the line wound its way through the narrow streets and alleys of the ninth ground sector, but it was definitely the freshest. She could not discern any degree of decomposition. Reaching forward to gingerly poke at her find, Laera wondered how the woman had made it all the way out here. Access to this sector was restricted to scrub crews until it was sanitized.
"What are you doing, Laera, you're not supposed to leave the—hey, don't touch that!" Winn's voice called out, horrified.
Laera glanced up at her friend, grinning as she always did at Winn's appearance. The woman had taken their regulation uniform and turned it into an edifice of security against the bitter onslaught of filth and germs. Heavy gloves were bound with strips of cloth at both wrists, while more rags tied the legs of her trousers tight against her boots. A small white mask covered her nose and mouth. Only her eyes, naked with fear of the outside world, remained uncovered. No matter genetic disposition, Laera thought, this was one woman not suited to her allotted line of work.
"Be careful, Winn," she warned lightly, "your head might explode."
Her friend was not amused. "We should get back to the line," she stressed.
Laera waved a dismissive hand and bent over the body once more. As she touched one shoulder in order to examine it more closely, it moved. Emitting a slight groan, the woman on the ground rolled to her back and lay still once more. Death had not yet claimed her, after all.
Amazed, Laera stared at the mountainous belly now exposed. It jutted up from her slender body like a dome. As she watched, the flesh beneath the woman's clothing clenched and strained as though an animal had crawled up there. Laera hardly noticed Winn coming forward curiously, looking up only when she spoke.
"What's wrong with her?" Winn asked, her gaze a mixture of fascination and disgust.
"She's sick," Laera responded. "See, something has collected in her gut."
Winn moved backward immediately. "We better report this to the Managers. They'll start looking for us."
Laera started to chastise her friend for her skittishness when she realized that the woman had awakened. Blue eyes dulled by illness and disease regarded her blandly. With interest, Laera noted that the woman's moaning increased as the muscles of her belly tightened once again.
"Help me," she wheezed, startling Laera. "The baby's coming." She whimpered in fear.
"Don't worry," Laera assured her, casting a glance behind her to be sure that the odd sounding creature had yet to make an appearance. "I won't let it near you."
The woman's face registered surprise, and she murmured, "Then you really don't know." She winced as her stomach pained her once again.
Laera sought out her friend once again. Winn had not run back to the Managers as she half-expected her to have. As fearful of their career track as she was, Winn was doubly scared of the Manager punishments for insubordination. So Laera could hardly fault the sweet mouse had she departed. However, she had suffered this discipline herself and found it not unbearable.
"Winn, I have been taken ill," she said firmly, watching the other woman shake her head in the negative even before she finished. "You decided not to accompany me to my quarters because of the afternoon quota, but you saw me head in that direction."
Winn looked as though she might cry. Her eyes were expressive enough to convey the emotion guarded by the mask covering her face. "You're still on probation for that rationing fraud," she whispered.
"She's a Purist," Laera said. She ignored Winn's cringe of fear. "There's no other explanation for her presence here. I'm taking her to safety before something terrible happens. You understand why I have to do this?"
Nodding miserably, Winn looked as though she wanted to say something, but instead turned and walked out of the alley to return to the line. Laera knew she would lie for her in her own way—somehow twisting the truth to fit some other framework. Winn's hesitation to fabricate outright made her dissembling all the more powerful, being imbedded with some version of reality.
The woman on the ground gazed up at her, befuddled by the pain. Laera knew sher would be terminated had any of the Managers found her. They did not have a care for the Purists—who shunned the use of machinery and technology. But Laera could not help but feel pity for any sign of suffering.
The Managers had punished her for gathering extra labor rations for Willet and Meryn when they were sick and unable to work. Nutrients were just as essential at such a time, perhaps more so than for a healthy person who'd performed all of his daily tasks. For some reason the Managers could not understand any form of logic with empathy at its base.
"Can you walk?" Laera asked, stooping. They had to move quickly, for when Winn reappeared without her a Manager would surely come looking.
"I—I think so," the woman said.
With Laera's assistance she made it to her feet. It was a short distance to the Corridor—a traveling system linking the sectors together. Her quarters would have to suffice for the moment. Laera planned to have Brenna look her over. The healer would be the only one other than the Overmechs who might be able to help the woman.
Laera would keep the Purist's presence unknown to the Overmechs and the Managers for as long as she could. Hopefully she would survive long enough to be able to leave on her own accord. A Purist would not rest easy in a world with such mechanical comforts.
Laera paused when she was close enough to the city walls to see the sentries staring down at her. On either side of the road were well-tended rows of greenery. They had neither bright colors nor fragrant odors, and she wondered at their usefulness as decoration.
The strange creature was fussing again. It surely did find misery in all things. She opened the pouch strapped across her chest to peer inside. Red-faced, the creature…the baby…opened its toothless mouth to let loose a wavering scream.
Hairless, weak, and unable to care for itself, this baby was as useless a being as Laera had ever come across. Perhaps the Purists collected them, since Kitiara had somehow stored it inside of herself. At any rate, they would keep it or dispose of it and it would be her trial no more. She couldn't even get it to eat the rations she'd stolen before departing the compound.
Winn had sobbed when she made ready to leave. The death of the Purist had weakened her sympathies, and Laera's plan to break code again by leaving the compound had nearly pushed her over. But Winn was much stronger than she allowed herself to contemplate, and Laera had no fears for her.
"What is your business here, Kindling?" a female voice asked suddenly, causing her to look up.
A Purist female glared down at her from the wall, the sentries close at her sides. From this distance, Laera could see little of her features. But the threat was clear from her tone of voice. Reaching into the pouch, she carefully pulled out the baby and held it aloft. Face puckering anew at the coolness of the air against its skin, it began crying in earnest, waving its arms and legs furiously.
"I know nothing of this kindling," Laera announced, "but this creature is the possession of your Kitiara."
There was a brief flurry of whispers, liberally laced with the sputtering of curses. The woman pulled away from the edge of the wall. Laera tucked the baby against her body once again, for it seemed reassured by the proximity. It could not even sit up on its own, and she had learned to line her arm against its back and neck so as to give it support. Again, she wondered why anyone would keep such a useless creature.
Moments later, the wide doors blocking access to the city were slowly opened. Laera found herself facing the same Purist woman on the other side. Stepping forward cautiously, she kept an eye on the others crowding around them as she approached. Their hostility was not something easily hidden—even the baby seemed to sense it.
The woman was most strange, she discovered. She stood hunched, as if the weight of the air itself was too much for her fragile shoulders to bear. Her hair was ashen, and her face lined with sagging skin. There was a faint white pallor drawn across the depths of her eyes. It was no wonder the Purists lived in isolation, Laera decided. They were deformed.
"Give him to me," the woman demanded, thrusting her arms forward.
Laera hesitated. She did not seem strong enough to hold the baby. What if she dropped him? His weakened body would surely shatter against the stone ground. A man pushed up against her side and poked her harshly with the butt of his weapon.
"Do as the Mab says, Kindling," he hissed.
She was a little shocked by his forcefulness. No one at the compound would have dared touch another person without their express consent. To cause harm for such little reason was grounds for public ostracism. Afraid to defy them, she held the baby out for the woman to take.
"You could not even find it in your heart to clothe him?" she said, her voice bitter.
"He was not properly introduced to my sector," Laera answered, confused. "He could not wear the uniform otherwise."
The woman frowned at her. "Where is Kitiara?"
Hanging her head, Laera whispered her response, fearful of another attack. "She did not survive the creature's emergence. I fear it was a very inconvenient place in which to carry him."
To her surprise, a round of snickers followed her comment. "Send her back to her ignorant kin," someone urged.
The woman shook her head sharply and the laughter faded. An expression of sadness had crossed her face, and Laera sensed that some of this was reserved for her. "You may feast with us if you wish," she said. "For returning Kitiara's child to us."
Laera kept her face carefully composed. She hardly understood what the woman was talking about, but knew an invitation when she heard one. The day was nearly dark already, and she didn't want to walk back to the compound on her own. The Managers most likely already knew she'd left, and she had some answering to do when she got back. Maybe she'd spend a little time here, in an effort to steel herself for that eventuality.
"Come, walk with me," the woman urged, handing the child off to another female nearby and reaching forward to grab Laera's arm. "You don't know much about the way we live, do you?"
Shaking her head, Laera caught the glares of the others around her. She was stunned at the anger directed her way. Even at their coldest, the Managers were never so scornful. They might not always understand the needs of their workers, but Laera had never felt any fear of them. She followed the woman through the crowd, cringing whenever one of them got too close.
"I'll take you around a bit, let you see how humans have survived without mechanical involvement. Do you know who I am?" she asked.
Laera shook her head once more, not glancing her way. She was fully engrossed in their surroundings. The compound was built high, thrusting up from the ground in endless levels, its sectors separated so the various classes did not intermingle. Only a few of them had ever been on the ground itself—the scrub crews were routinely there, sterilizing the areas filled with the garbage of previous generations. But the Purist city hunkered low like a dozing animal, spreading out in all directions. The tallest structure stood only a few levels high. They were built of stone, an inefficient method that must have required much upkeep.
"I am called the Mab—that's my title. It means I'm the leader here."
The woman said this without any tone of arrogance in her voice, making Laera glance at her curiously. "How can there be but one leader?" she finally asked. "The Overmechs share responsibility of the compound's ongoing needs."
An odd expression crossed the Mab's face. "Yes, the Overmechs," she murmured. "Tell me, do you ever see these creatures?"
Laera frowned. "I'm but a member of the scrub crew. No Overmech would venture down to the surface." This idea made her laugh.
"So you don't know what they look like?"
Laera shrugged. That had never been very important to any of them. The Overmechs simply existed, just as the Managers did. Just because they didn't see them didn't mean they weren't there, watching every proceeding. A thought occurred to her then, and she turned back toward the Mab to ask, "You don't think they exist, do you?"
"Oh, I most definitely know they do," the woman answered. "I'm just wondering at your understanding of them. You certainly did not fully perceive what happened to Kitiara."
"She was sick…the illness took her life," Laera explained. Would they accuse her of murdering their member?
"No," the Mab drawled, pausing. "She was pregnant. She had a child, and died because of it. I understand that you've never seen a baby before. Tell me, how do you think that people come to exist?"
Laera shook her head. "I don't understand the question."
"Where do new Kindlings come from? New members of your society."
There was that word again. They were calling members of the compound Kindlings for some reason she could not comprehend. It seemed an insult of sorts, and she didn't like it. Her tone was sharp as she replied, "They are introduced to their proper sector."
"But as adults." At her blank look, the Mab continued. "Where were they before they were fully grown—when they looked like Kitiara's baby, and not big like you?"
Finally Laera was beginning to understand what the woman was asking her. The Mab seemed to believe that the tiny creature she'd carried back to the city was somehow the same as she was, and Kitiara. It made her sad, the superstition that plagued the Purists. She sighed and shook her head, mournful that they'd allow themselves to live so deeply within their own mythology.
"It is as we worried it might be," the Mab said. "The machines are so fearful that you might take back your autonomy that they've deleted all knowledge of what it is to be human. Come, I have more to show you."
Several hours later, with night fully fallen and the feast fires burning brightly, Laera stood alone and watched the Purists in their revelry. They had donned their most colorful clothing to dance and sing around a raging bonfire. Food and wine flowed freely, staining the earth and bystanders as the more careless attempted to combine the two activities, flinging the matter in all directions with waving limbs. It was confusing, that they celebrated the death of one of their own, but no more confusing than everything else she'd seen on that day.
The Mab showed her members of their city in all forms of deformity. The baby was only one level of abnormality. There were Purists in all sizes—as tiny as the baby and all the way up to normal. The Mab had called them children, and explained that they were in the stages of growth that all humans must go through before reaching adulthood. Humans aged…they grew old like the Mab, and finally died of this peculiar state.
But Laera found it hard to believe such a superstitious fable. How was it that all humans did this when she had never seen such a child in the compound? New introductions all looked much like the rest of them did—adults, Mab called them. Mind spinning, Laera retreated while the feasting commenced, deciding that silence was what she needed then.
She was still pondering this new information when someone came up behind her and grabbed her around the waist. "Hey now, little Kindling, why aren't you dancing with the others?"
Pulling away, she turned to see a group of males staring back at her. They were of the smaller version, and beardless. This meant they were younger than full-grown, she recalled. Still, many of them stood taller than she did, and she felt a small stir of fear.
"Don't think the Mab is going to let you stay here with us," one of them said, and she recognized his voice from earlier. "You don't even have a brain in your head—you're just a bit of tinder stored for the 'Great Society.'"
Laera scowled. "Why would I want to stay here?" she asked defiantly. "And be stricken with your abnormalities?"
What she thought was a grave insult only seemed to amuse them. They laughed at her statement, and their central figure stepped closer to her. She leaned back immediately, making him grin once again.
"She didn't even tell you the whole story," he said. "Because she thought you wouldn't want to go back there. But who wants to spare the feelings of Kindling? You're just a mule, did you know that? The machines use you to run their compound. And when you get too old to work, they'll kill you."
"You're lying," Laera hissed. "The Overmechs would never allow anyone to be harmed like that—"
He interrupted her. "Stupid!" he shouted directly in her face. "You're so stupid! The Overmechs are the machines! They created you. You weren't even born like a normal person."
Birth was something else the Mab had tried explaining. Kitiara had not simply been storing the baby inside of her. Her body had somehow formed it. When the proper time arose, the body expelled the child. This was supposed to be natural as well. It sounded archaic and dangerous to Laera.
But what they said about the Overmechs was not true. They ran the compound. They were people with the correct genetic disposition to maintain levels of leadership among their society. This was taught to all workers from the day of introduction. A small spasm of nausea burst through her middle, and she backed away from him.
"I don't believe you," she finally said, her voice weak. But somewhere deep in her mind she wondered if he wasn't telling her the truth. She thought of all the times she had pondered the cold aloofness presented by the Overmechs when they were faced with such small matters as illness and exhaustion.
Still, she wasn't about to give this creature the benefit of her questions. When he started forward to chide her again, she turned and ran, having to push her way through the small cluster of Purists gathered around. Laera caught the gaze of the Mab as she went. The sympathetic woman looked as though she wanted to stop her, but Laera didn't pause as she burst through the center of the city and toward the main doors.
As she approached, she felt her hysteria welling. The doors were closed, trapping her inside. Laera started screaming at the men there to open them, to let her out. They stared at her in shocked disbelief before finally turning to do as she asked. When she raced past the plants growing outside, recognizing them now as crops grown for sustenance, Laera wondered faintly how their rations had come into being. No one ever saw them created, only were there when they were distributed. It made her wonder what else about the compound they weren't allowed to see.
For the first time, she dreaded the punishment she was sure to receive upon returning home. If the Managers discovered that she had visited a Purist city, perhaps they might eliminate her as the creatures had taunted. The Mab declared that the machines didn't want them to know about their origins. She would hold the secret deep inside, imagining the reaction she'd receive from Winn if she told her what she'd learned.
In the end, what did the Purists know, anyway? The spread of fear and paranoia was most likely what kept their members among their ranks. For who otherwise would want to live in such a place, where death came so heavily and cruelty was conceived as completely commonplace? The more she considered it, the easier it was for Laera to return to the only home she'd known. There was a security at the compound, a common bond that kept her close.
Her footsteps slowed as her worry released her. Walking evenly now, Laera decided that the fools had merely been playing with her. They had discovered an easy explanation for their own deformities. Thinking on it further, she even laughed. Soon she'd return to the careful sanity of the compound, and forget this visit entirely. She and Winn would find ways around their quota, steal rations from the Managers, and all would be well again.