Up the Beanstalk

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Born into the simplicity of the field, I knew nothing of the tower of machinery surrounding it. Until the day I dared defy the men in black aprons which periodically come to take away the grownups.

Alex Beyman
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Up the Beanstalk

My earliest memories are of the field. The wilted brown grass, occasional dandelion and playing with the other children. I discovered early on by playing simple games in the mud with the others that I'm different.

My mother's different in the same way. She can make sounds with her mouth that mean something. Different mouth sounds for different things. Always with great caution to avoid notice, she would whisper these 'words' to me until I knew them.

“Field”. “Grass”. “Flowers”. “Man”. “Woman”. “Mother”. “Father”. She could also count, using mouth sounds to indicate how many dandelions she held, or how many others like us stood in a group.

Once old enough, I asked her who taught her to do this. It was my father, she said. Before he left. He was someone very special, who did not go naked as we do, but instead wore a body covering and spoke mouth sounds even better than mother.

Around the field is machinery. Stacked up so high I cannot see the end of it. We are in the center of a tower I think. I have often wondered what is outside. During my darkest moments I imagine it is a field like this one but boundless, where I might escape with mother, even the rest if they can be persuaded to follow.

This is how I began planning to escape. Idle fantasy at first, but it grew concrete on the day I learned where the grownups disappear to. The men in the shiny black aprons, goggles and masks come to take them. The hoop of wire on the end of their stick is looped around the neck, and the one they came for is herded through the gate in the outer wall. That’s the last I ever see of them.

Mother told me that they take the rowdy, disobedient ones. But there’s no pattern I can see in who is taken and who is left except age. When we grow up to about five or six heads tall, they come for us. I am four and a half heads tall. My mother is five.

She changes the subject whenever I bring it up. Hushes me if others are near. “They will not come for me. I am obedient” she whispers. Whether she believes it or simply hopes it will comfort me I do not know. What I know is that there is not much time left to save her. And if I mean to do that, they'll have to take me first.

I take one last look at the sky. A muddy brown haze, foul smelling but familiar. Then picked another about my size and hit him hard in the face. The rest turned to see what the commotion was. He climbed to his feet and lunged at me. I twisted out of his reach and kicked him in the back, sending him face first into the mud.

Another I recognized as his kin came to his defense, bellowing as she planted her fist in my stomach. I was sent staggering backwards but caught myself on the way down. The two approached me. “You fools!” I shouted. “Look around you! Can this last forever? One by one they take us. Will it never be you?”

They both stopped and stared at me, dumbfounded. Anger gave way to fear and they began to retreat. In the distance I heard the groan of the gates opening. The masses near them parted hurriedly to make way for the men in the shiny black aprons. Those nearest me withdrew and all pointed in my direction. My mother clung to me, bellowing and crying but speaking no mouth sounds as they pried me from her arms.

“Never seen one do that before” one of them said to the other, muffled by the mask. I could see nothing of their expressions behind the masks and goggles. Were they even like us? “Send him through with the rest but tag him, level 5 will want a look at his brain to make sure it’s not a parasite or something.”

They brought me deep into a tunnel of girders and bolts, before a third dressed as they were. The two held me still as the third raised some small machine to my ear. A loud impactful sound momentarily deafened me and after that subsided, the pain began. Hot, pulsating pain from my ear, shooting from there all over my head and down through my neck.

The superstructure around me was plainly vast and also decrepit. I once asked my mother how long it had been here, she said there was no time known to her when it was not. Various incomplete floors afforded gaps through which I could see others, naked as I was, performing various tasks.

“Alright, in you go” said one of them, as the other pushed me through the gate and shut it behind me. The entry was so narrow I couldn’t turn around to pry at the gate. It seemed designed so that I could only go forward. Someone else was pushed in behind me. Then soon after, another behind them and so on.

The line moved briskly, and in increments. It would stand still for a few seconds, then we’d all move forward a little. Over and over. I could hear the sound of buzzing in the distance, echoing through the narrow corridor I was in. All of it rusty, scraping at my arms as I advanced.

Finally the corridor emptied into a small room. Ahead, a vertical sliding door. It opened, the line advanced, the one in front was pushed through and the door slid down behind him. I heard a loud crack, then the thump of something falling to the floor. A light next to the sliding door, red until then, turned green and it slid open once more.

The line moved. I panicked. Still unable to turn around, those behind me pushing me forward step by step, and I knew I wasn’t going to like whatever was on the other side of the sliding door ahead. Another was pushed through. The door slid down, the light turned red. A loud crack echoed through the room and down the corridor behind me. Followed by a thump.

Seconds passed. The door slid open, the light turned green and the next of us was forced in by the advance of those behind him. Anxiety overtook me. I called out to the man in the black apron working the lever which I determined controlled the sliding door. “I'm scared, and want out of here! I do not want to go forward!”

He looked around for the source of the noise. Never at me, as if that were an impossibility. He shrugged, and pulled the lever. The door slid open. The line advanced, I was forced forward a bit and the fellow at the front went through the door. It slid shut, the light turned red, then another loud crack followed by a thump.

When the fellow in front of me arrived at the door and went through, I could see for the first time that it did not slide all the way down. So that once closed I could still see his feet and legs, almost up to the knee. The light turned red. The crack, louder than ever, sounded. Now I could see what happened. He quivered violently then fell to the ground, red water pooling around him. Some unseen force then dragged him away.

I was next. There was no way to go back. I struggled violently to turn around or inch myself backwards but when the light changed the line would advance and there was no place left to go. I teared up, thinking of my mother. I couldn’t save her, and soon she’d have her turn on the other side of that door.

Only, the door didn’t open. The light stayed red. “What’s the hold up?” one of the goggled, aproned men shouted. “This is a big’un, there’s a blockage.” He stood up from his seat at the lever. “How can there be a blockage? I oiled the chute myself two days ago.” He vanished through a flap of some kind, back behind the door and I could hear muffled argument.

I am afraid of what happens on the other side of that door. I can’t go backwards. But I won’t go forwards. If I am going to escape, it will have to be now. So I wriggle myself up a bit by the shoulders. The walls on either side are only a bit taller than us. I can shimmy up this way and use my toes to climb as well.

The one behind me is murmuring nervously. I’m doing something he knows I am not allowed to. Even now he believes obedience will save him. Like my mother. Soon I am at chest height. Now my arms are free! This is when the apron man emerges from behind the flap. He spots me immediately.

“Motherfucker! How’d you do that? Get your ass back down there and through the door.” He leans over the wall and grabs me. I put my fist in his face. Red water streams from his nose holes. He gets up, shouting anger words and disappears behind the flap. When he returns he has some small machine in his hand. I do not like the look of it.

It is a shiny metal tube with a handle. Out of the back comes a long flexible black hose leading to a much larger metal cylinder he lugs behind him. I think I know what made the loud noises earlier. “Goodnight sweet prince” he cackles, and tries to put the tube up against my head.

Something deep in my belly tells me I don’t want that. I seize his arm and bend it until I hear a sickening snap. He screams and claws at my face. I take the metal tube machine from his hand, find the little lever, and once I have it against his head I pull it.

The familiar loud crack. Red water gushes from his head where the tube was and he goes limp against me. I have never seen someone go to sleep so quickly. But I hear the other one call out, asking what has happened. I know he will come investigate soon. So I climb up over the limp apron man and onto the platform where his lever is.

As I do so the others in line bellow mournfully at me. I look at them and feel heart pain. I cannot leave them here to go through the sliding door. I find a flap at the other end of the room and once past it, there is a passage which runs alongside the corridor with slits looking into it. At the very end there is a metal wheel.

When I turn it, the gate moves up. I can hear someone call out in fear behind me. The apron man’s friend has found him. They will find me soon, I’m sure of it. But I keep turning. I want to run but I don’t, and I do not know why. Eventually the gate is high enough that the ones at the rear of the line can back out. The ones ahead of them back out next.

Soon they are all free. The shouting from the room behind me grows louder and more frantic. Suddenly a piercing wail sounds. It is no sound I have ever heard another like me make. Strobing, pulsating, and at once I intuit that it is meant to alert others. I back away and observe from the darkness as dozens of apron men emerge from the superstructure and chase down the escaped ones that I freed.

They will be busy with that for some time, I hope. So I retreat down the hallway. Finding the room with the lever and light empty, I pass through the opposite flap. There, the ground is covered in red water. There’s some on the walls, too. A chute to one side has a limp pair of legs hanging out of it. I pull on them, attempting to rouse him but he is fast asleep.

There is also a sign. “To level 2.” Whatever a level is, I know 2. Mother would draw numbers in the mud for me during the lessons. It's an increase from 1. I wanted to proceed deeper and find a way out, and this seemed a promising direction to go. I could not go back, anyway. The area outside the gate was now swarming with the apron men. And having done all of this, I could also not return to the field.

Up the stairs I went. A big rusty sign says “Level 2”. I can see those same men from before, but also what they are doing. Rows and rows of them sit on strange contraptions with two wheels and a seat, rotating a set of levers with their feet very quickly. I approach one of them. “What are you doing here?” He looks at me strangely, sweat running down his face. “He’s pedaling” said a voice behind me. I turned to see a man in a grey body covering.

“Who are you?” He declined to say, but did offer this: “None of them will be able to understand you. They are pedalers. Pedalers don’t need to know how to talk in order to pedal, so we don’t teach them. How did you get here? If you can speak, you were chosen for my station or a higher one. You should be there now, or receiving training.”

So not all of us are sent to the room with the light and lever after all? I ignored him and tried to pull one of the ‘pedalers’ off his machine. He howled in fear, fought me off and returned to pedaling. “Hey, that’s no good stranger. He cannot stop pedaling or I have to whip him, I don’t want to do that.”

I asked him why do it then, and he looked quizzically at me. “If I don’t whip the ones who stop pedaling, someone comes down from level 3 and whips me. You were supposed to learn how it works in training. Did you only begin today?” I worried he would find me out, so I pretended he was right and asked for directions back to my training.

After escorting me to another stairwell he smiled, waved, then returned to supervising the 'pedalers'. Level 3 was no less strange. Rows upon rows of seats, with surfaces in front of them and stacks of thin, flexible material with words on it. Everyone wearing a lighter grey covering, made of many pieces instead of one, hunched over and working furiously.

I approached one and asked what he was doing. “Go away, I’m behind quota. No time for talk.” So I approached another.“Paperwork, lad! Are you lost? What’s your station?” I told him I had only begun training. He laughed. “Well then you’re lost indeed! That’s on level 5.”

I asked what paperwork accomplishes. “Every aspect of production must be documented, boy! Intake, efficiency of processing, output, quality control, why it’s the biggest job there is if you ask me. But don’t let the pedalers know I said that!” He spoke as if all of this was the most natural state of affairs in the world. But increasingly I could tell things were only like this because long ago something had gone terribly wrong.

“How do I get out of here?” He stared and contemplated the question. “To the next level? Up the stairs.” My frustration flared up. “No! I mean outside of all of this.” He only looked more baffled. “Boy I am quite sure I do not know what you mean. Leave me, I have six warnings for work stoppage this week already, I do not want seven.”

I obliged and headed for the stairwell. Every new person I met seemed more deranged than the last. Who built all of this? When? Why? I probed to the outer wall and found no doors or windows, so I went up to level 4.

Apron men. My heart skipped a beat. Hundreds of them! With their goggles and masks off they looked no different from anyone else I’d seen so far. Racks along the walls held many spare aprons, goggles and masks. There were tall storage boxes with little fasteners on them and a different word printed on the lid to each.

Some were naked like me in a section of the room lined with shiny wet tiles. Water fell from spouts in the ceiling and they used it to get mud, sweat and the red water off of their bodies and out of their head fur. I saw my chance and headed for the falling water room.

“You look like you must’ve been tangled up in that little breakout earlier”. The voice came from just behind me. I jumped a little, and searched for words which would not give me away. “Y-yes. Many got loose. But not for long.” He raised an eyebrow. “You sound funny. If you need a break I know a utility chamber some of us go to for sleep. We’re ahead of production overall so discipline is unlikely.”

I thanked him but said that I needed to clean off first. He seemed to accept that and walked off. The falling water felt incredible. Some unseen source heated it and there was a slippery piece of stuff on a little shelf I saw others using which, when applied to my skin, became a delightful foam. I cried tears of happiness.

“Look at that one. Really likes his showers I guess” I heard one of them chuckle. I did not reply. If I did not sound right, there was no reason to speak more than necessary. Once cleaned off I took a set of undercoverings, but not the black apron, goggles or mask. I still fear them, if I am honest.

Level 5 was quite the departure. Everywhere it was clean and white, the surfaces shiny like the tiles from the falling water room, but dry. Men in white clothing hurried past, taking notice of me only in passing. All around were men operating machines that went from the floor to the ceiling, with little round parts that lit up, rows and rows of glass tubes and pairs of turning wheels with black glossy material passing from one wheel to the other.

“What are you doing out of uniform? Do you even belong on this level?” one of them barked at me. I turned to face him. He was immaculately clean, his head fur very short and close to his head, clad in white as the others were. “My training started today. I am lost.” He scowled. “You should never have left the group. Come with me.”

I dutifully followed him past rows of men dressed in white peering into cylinders at small transparent squares. What could be so interesting about them? Soon we arrived at a door. Inside were shelves of body coverings. “Put this on. I don’t know how you lost the one you were given but don’t do it again.”

I slid into the leg coverings first, then the top half. It came with a set of cases for my feet as well as little fabric pockets my feet went into before the cases went on. I was already learning new things! He smiled once or twice as he watched me dress. “Am I funny?” I asked. He then pretended not to notice. Once I finished he took me to another door. Inside were rows of seats and raised surfaces like on level 3 but made of the same white material as everything else I’d seen up here so far.

“This one wandered off somehow. I advise you to keep closer watch on your charges. I will not write you up this time but see that it does not reoccur.” The squat little man at the front of the room looked alarmed but before he could say anything in his defense, the man who brought me here had left.

“Well sit down then” the little man muttered. He had no fur on his head. It was somewhat amusing. I took a seat near the back. The others stared at me until the little furless man in front demanded their attention. “Following the aptitude test, each of you will be assigned a station. Do not bemoan the choice. If you’re here at all, you are the lucky ones. You have the opportunity for a long, fulfilling life in service of maintaining smooth operations, uninterrupted production with minimal work stoppage, and meeting or exceeding quota!”

The others around me were smiling. Did that really excite them? Did they really know what happens on level 1? Sheets of the flimsy material were handed out to us along with a little rod that I soon discovered could create black marks when pressed against a flat surface. I understood perhaps every third word on the page from mother’s lessons.

“You will have one hour to complete the aptitude test. If you finish early, turn it over and place your pencil over it. Do not speak to the others, sit silently and wait for them to finish or go over your answers to ensure you are satisfied with them. Begin.”

Everyone immediately set to making little marks on the sheet with their marking rods. I looked at it. There were numbers in sequence, and under each strange symbols and some words. “How many squares can you make with the lines shown here?” What is a square? What is a line? I looked at other questions for clues. One asked how many squares were shown. It was a cluster of adjacent four sided shapes.

So I counted the ‘lines’ and thought about how many fours I could make with that number, then wrote that down. So with the other questions, wherever I didn’t understand something I looked at other questions for clues. There must have been lessons here before this test that I missed. But I did not encounter serious trouble.

I turned the sheet over and placed the marking rod on it. Those nearest me looked surprised. So did the squat man at the front of the room. “Very funny. Resume your test.” I sat quietly as he’d told me before. So he came and looked at my sheet. I studied his face for some sign of anger, or fear, or anything I recognized. His eyes grew wide.

He returned to his desk and compared it with another sheet next to it. Then sat back, stared at the sheet, then at me, then back at the sheet, then at me again. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to step outside. I will be back before the test period ends. Please continue in my absence.” He headed for the door, not breaking eye contact with me until he left through it.

I sat there wondering what I’d done wrong. But as I sat there I thought of my mother and regretted letting myself get sucked into all of this. There was simply no time for “tests”, or “pedaling” or “paperwork”. I still hadn’t discovered a way out. So even as others whispered harshly to sit back down, I got out of my seat and left the classroom.

I heard the voice of the squat furless man around the corner, so I pressed myself up against the wall just short of it to follow what he was saying. “You don’t understand, nobody gets one hundred percent. The test is conventional, designed to natural human abilities. Either he made a long series of very lucky guesses or his limiter isn’t working.”

I next heard the voice of the man in white who led me here. “Nonsense. If he was taken from a breeding pool intended for manual labor, he must simply have been lucky. Their limiters aren’t the most severe, but at least two standard deviations below baseline.”

The squat man objected. “It’s mutation again isn’t it? I’m not the one who dropped the ball here. It’s your job to maintain the limiters at the correct levels for each breeding pool. During the last meeting you said you’d solved the mutation problem.”

I could tell it was becoming tense and intuited that they were worried where blame would fall. Would they be sent to the corridor? “Mutation cannot explain results like this. Whoever gave these answers isn’t inhibited in the least. These would be surprising results even for our level.”

The two bickered a bit more, then headed their separate ways. I flattened myself as much as I could as the stout furless man passed, breathing a sigh of relief that he did not notice me. But not for long. The others in the ‘classroom’ would tell him I’d left. I headed for a door in the outer wall and found a room with stacks of white robes in it. Surely this would get me places I could not enter otherwise?

Even the smallest size hung from my body like a tent. My stomach growled. I’d not been fed since that morning in the field. I searched for the usual trough with the metal tubes that dispensed gelatinous nourishment but found nothing like it. Instead the closest thing I could identify as food related was a box against the wall with a window in it and various colorfully wrapped morsels sitting on shelves inside.

“Try the nut clusters, good stuff.” Another white robed man came up beside me. I looked on in apparent confusion. “No money? Let me treat you. You can get me back if I ever forget to bring lunch money, haha.” With that he withdrew a small metal disc which he placed into a slot on the front of the box. One of the colorful treats then fell within reach of an opening at the bottom.

I took it, peeled away the outer casing and eagerly consumed the contents. “Woah there” he chuckled. “Don’t work so hard you forget to eat. Anyway, see you around.” I followed him at a distance hoping to make sense of this floor. What went on here?

One of the floor to ceiling machines had words on it I knew how to sound out. “Biomass separation”. Underneath it, labels reading “Nitrogen”, “Calcium”, “Carbon” and so on. Names, possibly? A little glowing sign bore words reading “Thermal depolymerization at 89% efficiency. Plasma gasification unit 491 requires servicing.”

I tried to say some of the bigger words out loud but stumbled over my own tongue in the attempt. I turned to see another white robed man staring at me with a look of concern. “Oh hello other man. I must go now. See you around.” Ad libbing, as best I could, some of what the last fellow had said. But he grabbed my arm.

“Not so fast. Say depolymerization.” I tried, but fumbled the sounds again. “Say gasification”. Again, I couldn’t quite do it. He seized my ear. Still sore from earlier, the pain returned in full force when he grabbed it. I pushed him away. A look of terror overcame him. He ran down the row of machines and turned the corner. My cue to leave.

As I shed the white robe and headed for the stairwell, the wailing sound from level 1 returned. But this time accompanied by a voice. “Remain calm. There is an irregular on your level disguised as a researcher or technician. He has an identifying tag attached to his earlobe. If you see him, do not attempt to subdue him yourself. Block the exits and wait for a team of enforcers to reach your level.”

There was nothing else to do. It stung terribly but I reached up and yanked on the tag. It came off, but accompanied by lots of red water. The pain was blinding but, discarding the tag, I forged ahead to the stairwell. A group of the white robed men stood there blocking it. They scrutinized me. I improvised.

“The fucking thing bit me! I was at my station, checking nitrogen output when it rounded the corner and demanded my robe. I tried to fight but it bit my fucking ear!” My best hasty impression of their strange accent and lingo. For a few seconds I was unsure of whether they would accept it, but they did. One removed a small white box with a red cross on it from the wall and produced from within it a roll of soft, flexible fabric.

To my surprise it was sticky on one side and he soon bundled my ear with in in such a way as to hold in the red water. “Thanks”, I said. “Don’t work so hard you forget to eat!” He initially smiled, but then looked confused as I passed him and headed up the stairs.

An entire floor above that was packed with some kind of foam. I understood why when I approached the level above it. It was painfully noisy. I went up one level to check, and again found a floor above it packed with foam, to block all the noise I figured. Descending to the middle floor I covered my ears and entered. To one side of the doorway there were ear coverings on hooks. How useful! I took one of them and put it on, making it vastly more tolerable once the ringing in my ears died down.

There were spinning mechanical shafts overhead, linkages, wheels with teeth which turned other wheels with teeth next to them, thumping vertical shafts and all manner of both motion and commotion. Quite overwhelming. Also a pervasive stink in the air. A sign read “Floor 6: Waste recapture”. Everyone here wore grey single piece body coverings. A picture on the wall showed a long tube running from level 1 up to level 6.

“Remember: If you complete your assigned duties before the end of your work period, you are to descend to level 2 and supervise the pedalers. If there are any unoccupied cycles, consider exercising. Staying in good shape improves both health and production efficiency!” A black outline below depicted a man on one of the odd two wheeled contraptions I’d seen several floors down.

This level had windows along the inner wall! A dizzying distance below I spied the grassy field. Somewhere down there, my mother waited and worried. A pipe passing through the inner wall spewed brown vapor outside. I recognized it as the haze I assumed before was just what the sky looks like.

Ascending past the floor of sound blocking foam above it, I arrived at level 7. I don’t know what else I could have done but keep climbing. Even so I wished immediately that I’d never come this far. I longed for the simplicity of the field, regretted ever starting that fight and only opened my eyes again for fear of discovery.

It was a vast open floor with overhead metal tracks snaking all over the place. Moving hooks suspended from these tracks held what I recognized to be men and women. But not asleep. They were taken apart. Some missing their head. Others missing legs or arms, or their skin. All covered in the red water.

I knelt and emptied my stomach all over the top step. I thought I was done but then the smell hit me. I had no more in me to release so I just convulsed. Several minutes passed during which time I simply struggled to gather my thoughts. My vision was blurry and, upon wiping my face I discovered I was crying. I didn’t feel sad, just terribly afraid.

It made sense of the corridor on level 1. Of the room with the lever and light. The chute had to go somewhere. I spotted a shaft in the center as a caged platform rose from it, with piles of naked men and women laying still, covered in the red water. There were apron men here as well. They unloaded the platform and one by one lifted them onto the hooks.

I looked away, having already seen more than I could bear. Following the outer wall, I located a stairwell. I couldn’t very well go back down to level 3 for an apron, mask and goggles. And my instinctual fear of the apron men had still not left me. It took every measure of bravery within me to overcome one of them, but I absolutely could not imagine facing ten, or even two.

So I hurried along, avoiding eye contact until I found the next stairwell. The layout had no rhyme or reason to it. Who designed this? Why is it here? When was it built? The next floor was hardly different. Here, the pieces of men and women were further broken down. I never thought before today about what is inside of me. Now I knew.

Slabs of soft red stuff slid by on a moving surface. I could not see how it worked, whatever mechanism made this great snaking track scoot along was concealed beneath it. More apron men worked here, packaging the red slabs as quickly as they could, then sending them on their way to the other side of the chamber.

Another set of apron men operated a machine which they fed the slabs into. I could hear grinding and crushing inside. Out the other end, I recognized it was producing nourishment gel. This was deposited into a funnel, and piped down through the floor. Most likely to the troughs on level 1, I thought.

One noticed me. “Hey! This isn’t your level!” He left his spot and approached me. “Work stoppage!” I shouted. He froze, then fearfully rushed back to join the others. I felt I was coming to understand the ins and outs of this place. The more of the larger picture I understood, the worse it grew.

The far side of this level was all surfaces and boxes, people dressed in white with funny poofy hats rushing about. Small fire came from spots on some surfaces, turning slabs of the red stuff brown and emitting what I feel nauseated to admit is a wonderful scent.

The red slabs came from the enclosed tunnel, seized by the white clad workers and then were turned brown by the small fire, though some were chopped into small pieces first, or placed into open boxes in the wall with little wheels and levers on them.

When they felt they were finished with whatever it is they meant to do with the slabs, they placed them on round white tiles and place those on a rapidly moving vertical assembly of some sort. Lots of shelves, always moving upwards. The ones coming down just behind were all empty. Where did the slabs go?

I ascended the next set of stairs but stopped short of entering the next level. I couldn’t understand what I saw. Incomparable beauty. Shiny yellow metal lining every surface, round supports holding up the ceiling with carvings in them! And people! Immense, round people dressed like I’d never seen anyone dressed on the floors below.

All differently clad, for one thing. Soft, clean fabrics of many colors. Sparkling yellow metal loops around the necks of the women. Some were bobbing and swaying on a large open floor with yellow metal fixtures hanging above, radiating light. The most wonderful sounds too, coming from a group in the far corner with all kinds of machines they used to create different parts of the larger sound.

Why was this floor so different from the rest? Did these people know what went on under them? I intuited I would be stopped if seen like this, so I descended to the floor below and fetched a set of white coverings. Even the embarrassing poofy hat. I then hurried back up the stairwell, and emerged into the cacophony of beautiful noise, light and motion. I got a few odd looks and frowns as I made my way among them. Evidently they did not often see someone from the floor below.

The rising shelf mechanism deposited the plates with the browned slabs on a moving surface lined with the yellow sparkling metal. The wonderfully covered men and women took the plates as they passed and, as I watched, used little metal implements to cut up the slabs and eat them.

I balked. They did not so much as pause to examine what they were eating. Too busy laughing, speaking affectionately to one another, and gyrating on that big open floor beneath the yellow metal fixtures as their rolls of body mass jiggled about. I could endure no more of it. “STOP!” I shouted. The commotion halted. Everyone turned to look at me.

“What is all of this? How can there be such a level? Do you know what happens beneath you? You’re eating us! We’re killed, taken apart, pieces of us come up here on the round white things, and you eat it!” Several of them averted their eyes, scratched their heads and otherwise looked uncomfortable.

“What are you doing away from your station?” a resplendently dressed woman near me demanded. “I came from the field on level 1. They put me into the corridor with the others, where they use the metal tube on your head to make the red water come out. I fought my way out of there and by tricks and caution I’ve made my way up to this level.”

One of them murmured to the other “How can it speak? Absolutely bizarre!” I proudly announced that my mother taught me, and that father had taught her. When I described what I knew of my father, the reaction was baffling. Some snickered. Others belly laughed. Still others covered their face in their hands and shook their heads slowly.

“My lad, the enforcers will be here soon to restore you to your appropriate level. You’ve had quite a journey! Seen many things, heard many things, no doubt. But of course there is no place for you up here. They will take a tissue sample from you to determine who your father is. Someone here has committed a serious indiscretion, you see.”

I plied him for answers. He kept looking at the door. I knew as well as he did that the apron men were coming. “Ah, well, we enjoy ourselves well enough up here. As we ought to, since we belong on this floor. But some get bored with the food, the drink and the dancing. They sneak off to level 1, find an agreeable looking sow, and shall we say, get a bit friendly with her.

Most of us are sterile by now, so this has never been a problem. Heredity seems to have gifted you with a mind unsuitable for your station! Tragic indeed, but I’m sure you understand that you cannot stay here. You will go to level 5 for study, that such a debacle might be prevented from ever happening again.”

He took hold of me and began dragging me back towards the stairs. I thought of my mother. Of the corridor, the room with the lever and light. I looked at the slab on the round thing nearest me and wondered if it was her.

Seizing one of the sharp metal implements from an astonished woman in a purple sparkly covering, I thrust it upward into the man’s neck. He cried out, then gurgled in pain as the red water poured out of the wound and down his clothes. They all began screaming. I discovered that while their bodies are very large, they aren't at all strong. I easily overpowered them and cut their throats on my way through the pandemonium.

This stairwell was different. It was colder, with fast moving air. I ascended step by step, and found myself at last outside of the tower entirely. There were various stacks emitting plumes of smoke, great machines with spinning blades for circulating air. And the sky. The real one.

I understood now. Why it was built and kept running. Why the haze was generated to obscure this from our eyes. Above was a vast rippling mass of flesh. Nowhere did it touch the ground, just hung overhead, gently undulating. Here and there, little black eyes opened and shut. From it hung innumerable tendrils. One of which descended to the roof of this tower.

Close up I could see the tendril opening was lined with successive rows of little sharp teeth. A shaft from one of the floors below passed up to the great orifice and projected a continuous stream of red water and slabs into it. The gaping, ravenous opening in the end of the immense tendril eagerly sucked this fountain of gore up into the throbbing fleshy mass suspended overhead.

It exceeded by many times what I’d witnessed on the way up. I could not properly register it. I kept rejecting what I saw and desperately thinking of simpler times in the field. It all came together in that moment and however I fought that understanding, I could not escape it. All of this could end, I thought, if everyone would just abandon their station. If those who whipped the ones that stopped working would drop their whips. Likewise with the ones who normally came to whip them.

Level after level, paralyzed with fear of work stoppage. Of missing quota. Kept too busy to think about the structure of it. All but the lowest levels reasoning that they were at least not as miserable as those below them, and should be grateful for what they had. While the bloated creatures on the top floor hopped and twirled to the intoxicating sounds, drank, laughed, and ate our flesh.

It was the apex of revulsion. I could imagine nothing worse. Until I lowered my gaze to the landscape beyond this tower. Only to see millions more, identical to it, clustered together from here to the horizon in every direction. From the billowing mass above trailed distant tendrils, each one reaching down to the rooftop of a different tower.

When the apron men came, I did not fight them. I might’ve been sent to level 5 as promised had I not killed so many on the top level. Instead I found myself back in the cold, dark corridor. Pushed forward at intervals by those behind. In front of me, my mother softly cried.

“I was so worried about you. Why did you fight them? I told you this would happen if we disobeyed.” I did my best to comfort her, stroking her head fur and begging her not to cry. “I want to go back to the field with you", she blubbered. "But they keep pushing from behind and I can’t turn around. Where are we going?”

I fought to keep my voice from breaking up as I answered. “Someplace better than this. Where the field goes on forever with grass that’s green, not brown. With more dandelions than you can count. And father will be there.” She went silent. We stepped forward in unison as those behind us advanced.

I couldn’t tell whether she believed me. The last thing she said before the light turned green and she passed through the sliding door was “I’m glad we’re together now. I love you. Don’t be scared.”

The light turned red.

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