This is a science fiction story, apparently. Wahey.
Sun beats warmth down as ever, enough to make the metal sweat. Not sweat. It’s condensation. Looks like sweat. Looks like the metal’s alive, like the boat’s alive, but it’s not. There’s less life here than might be expected, hoped.
Four people step out onto the deck. One walks to the railings and quickly walks back. The sea turns sluggish and tarring on the hull. Tinted pink again, that’s sky and plankton working together to glorious effect. Powerful. The day smells old already. The man who walked to the railings turns to the man next to him and exhales meaningfully, quickly, and smiles. He wipes his hand back through his hair and his hand comes out damp. The man next to him looks at him and then looks away.
“Warm today,” says the sweating man. “Kind of- kind of warm, yeah? Warm. Heh. Didn’t think it’d get this warm this far out.”
The other man looks back to his right. The bay is still in full view. He shakes his head. The sweating man leans forward a little and looks past him at the other two. One man, one woman. He laughs out a single syllable, weak sound that melts in the air.
“So are we all – are we, are we, are we here for the same – same thing?” he says.
The woman looks up at him. “No,” she says. “I don’t think so.”
The man the sweating man first talked to shakes his head. The sweating man nods and looks back at the sea.
“I was going to say, I’d – I was going to say I thought there were a few of us,” he says after a while. “I thought, I – thought they only did these trips one-on-one normally. Don’t want too high a, a concentration, do they?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” says the woman.
The sweating man pushes his hand back through his hair again and nods. “So where are you all from?” he says. “I’m a, I’m a city boy myself. You know, never – never comfortable without concrete as far as the eye can-”
“We’re all,” says the man the sweating man first spoke to, slowly, “from the same place.”
The sweating man nods quickly, several times. “Right,” he says. “Right, right, of course we are. Of course we are. That’s why – that’s why we’re on the same boat, obviously. Sorry. Yeah.”
The sea slurped and sucked at the hull. The sweating man blinked. “It’s getting colder,” he said.
“Life is hard,” said the man at the end of the group. The sweating man looked up and blinked and looked out at the sea again.
The sun is comforting, it’s familiar, it’s always there but this sky is something different. Further out, now, the bay disappears and the sky and the sea start to change. Individual spirals and trails of plankton show up under the surface now, not just a solid raft of blotchy pink. The sky’s getting paler and there are hints of cloud. Weird. Slightly worrying. It doesn’t get easier with time, with repetition. You just start to remember how scary it is. Or-
The sweating man’s right hand is over his mouth and he’s coughing. His left hand is in his pocket and it’s moving slightly. The man he first talked to looks at him and then looks away. The man at the end frowns and looks at him.
“What are you doing?” he says quietly.
The sweating man looks up and shakes his head. “No, I’m – nothing,” he says. “I – what? I was coughing. I’m not used to this, this air, that’s all, I-”
“What were you doing in your pocket?” says the man. The sweating man blinks and shakes his head and shrugs.
“I don’t know what you’re talk- talking about,” he says. “I don’t-”
“What do you have in there?” says the man.
“Nothing. Nothing, I – what would I have?”
“Take your hand out of your pocket.”
“Okay, fine. Here’s my hand, is that-”
The man next to him grabs hold of his arms and the man at the other end walks round and puts his hand in the sweating man’s left pocket and pulls out a leaf. He frowns and turns it.
“Why do you have this?” he says quietly.
“I don’t know, I – what is that? What – I swear I haven’t seen that before in my, I’ve never seen that before in my life. I don’t – it must have got in there by accident. Or – wait! Wait, I was, I fell asleep at the bay, waiting, at the bay, yeah! Somebody could have – could have slipped it in there! They-”
The man holding the leaf shakes his head. The woman steps round and takes the leaf from him.
“It’s been leathered properly,” she says. “This is from a rich man.” She hands it back to the other man and he looks at the sweating man.
“Why do you have this and where did you get it?” he asks. The sweating man looks at their faces quickly and sags in the grip of the man he first spoke to.
“It was a gift,” he mutters. “From my father, he – his grandfather was one of the first – one of the first workers in, in Fort, and this – this was one of the first ones turned off the, off the rollers, and he kept it for the history and gave it to my granddad, and he, he gave it to my dad and when my dad went back to the Fort after his, his thirty year, he gave it to me. Something to remember him by.” He sniffs. “I don’t know who it came from but I heard it was some – someone special. Probably just a lie, special people don’t get their skin leaved.”
The man holding the leaf nods. “We have to confiscate this,” he says. “This is an important cultural artefact and it belongs in a museum, not rotting in your pocket. Do you understand?”
The man nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand.” He looks away. “I don’t – yeah, I never really wanted the damn thing anyway. Just – who wants to carry someone else’s skin around? I only took it because my dad-” He coughs looks up at them and blinks. “This wasn’t a bad – he wasn’t a bad man. He did everything right, he – don’t strike his name out. Don’t, he – he never complained, he went back to the Fort without a fuss, they didn’t have to-”
“Your father served the process properly, I’m sure,” says the man holding the leaf. “Little lapses don’t matter that much, it’s when they leave ripples that there’s a problem.” He turns around and looks at the sea. “That hasn’t happened, has it?”
The sweating man shakes his head quickly. “No, I’m – I’m – I believe in the process, I know, I-” He looks at them and inhales and coughs. “I am – okay, the-” He inhales and coughs again and closes his eyes.
“Fortis Tertiary Systems hold that all men good strong and true will keep the following truths in their hearts and their minds and with these truths follow on the glorious procession of meat for all time:
1. That man is at core gifted meat;
2. That man as meat is of the most benefit and nutritious of all meats to his peers and fellows, in nutrition physical, mental and spiritual;
3. That the perfection and consumption of meat is the highest goal any man can strive for;
4. That for the good of meat no sacrifice is even debatable, it is simply duty;
5. That any who attempt to hinder the perfection of meat or who refuse to consume meat are to be considered spoiled and are to be processed by all men good strong and true as soon as these spoiled present themselves;
6. That any man good strong and true will save the choicest of meats for his fellows or his betters and accept frugality as a virtue;
7. That the process of meat is endless and beautiful and to return to it is the highest honour one can wish for.”
The sweating man looks at them and coughs and they look at each other and then look back at him and nod.
“Alright,” says the man holding the leaf. He puts it in an inside pocket in his jacket and glances at the woman and then looks back at the sweating man. “Have you ever been inside Fortis Tertiary Primaris? Fort, I mean.”
The sweating man nods. “Yes. I – only once, but – yes, I was, I was a boy, I was – my father, he was promoted and he brought me there to look around. My mother didn’t want me to go, she thought, she – but we went there, and I saw the-” He nodded. “It was amazing,” he says.
The man looks at him for a moment and then nods. The other man lets go of him and steps around to his side and looks back at the sea. The woman stands next to him and the man stands for a moment in front of the sweating man and then goes and stands at the end of the line. The sweating man blinks and coughs and looks up at them.
“We aren’t far out,” says the man the sweating man first spoke to. The sweating man looks at the water. It is barely pink anymore. He looks at the sky. It is pale grey and some spots are choking thick with cloud. He coughs and steps forward to the railing and looks at the sea. It slides on the hull now, it doesn’t stick so much. He steps back quickly and rubs the bridge of his nose and shakes his head twice, more swings it from side to side than shakes. His eyes are clamped shut and drip with tears. He blinks and opens them, they are red. He looks at the others and walks back to them.
The day becomes brighter, almost noticeably. The sun rises, up, up high, and passes for a moment behind the cloud but it comes back out too. It’s colder but that feels good, healthier. Everything looks sharper, or perhaps that is a fault in the eye. It could – it could be, but that kind of thing is seldom very important. Not very.
Something sounds out near the front of the boat and the man the sweating man first spoke to walks away from the group and steps below deck. He comes back out a moment later and nods to the other man. He walks toward the railing and nods and turns around beckons to the others. They all walk to the railing and look out. He points further out into the sea. There, things move.
Swirling, writhing, dancing angelic (but they’d make heavy angels) three of them, there are three total and they circle one another, herding bubbles and harvesting, reaping the barely visible plankton in the centre; baleen flashes in the sun, gleaming with wet; smooth hide (but only from far away) and as they emerge from the blue the water slicks away and the networked nerve system of scars and scratches, all warped by barnacles, it emerges as well into the sun; they glide so, they truly glide through this water, something almost deific, it’s so – and they are unknowable, perfected, shadowy, mountainous death cycling on through the fields of prey, their plankton to feed on, in this their kingdom; their territory, their sepulchre, labyrinth; so very much theirs; built for them for they built it themselves and they know every twist they turn their way through, carving death from the sea, feasting on helpless tiny prey; but the horror doesn’t ooze its way through, if there even is horror, it’s – beautiful, this machine, it all works, as though oiled and tended. It works so well.
The man who beckoned the others to the railings steps away from the railings and looks at the others. They do the same and the woman blinks and holds her head. The sweating man is pale and his legs shake. The man he first spoke to doesn’t meet any other eyes.
“So you all understand now?” says the man with the leaf. He looks away for a moment and then looks back at them. “I know it’s hard to watch but you have to understand what things are like without the process.” He blinks. “The catechisms are there for a reason, they aren’t just words. They mean something. Meat means something.” He nods out to the whales. “Would you rather have that?” he says. “So dictatorial? Simply choosing for yourself where death should go?” He shakes his head. “You will remember it, now,” he says, looking at the sweating man. “Don’t let your blood up. This will keep it back. Remember what you see here and you will be calm, peaceful in the process.” He looks at the woman. “How do you feel?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t – quite know,” she says. “Odd. This is all – odd. I didn’t expect this, quite.”
The man nods. “I know it’s hard to watch,” he says. He looks at the sea. They have stopped still on it. In the distance, spray erupts as the massive dark whale shapes crash down onto the water. He looks away and walks below the deck for a moment. He walks out again and the boat begins to move again, begins to turn. He looks at the sweating man.
“And you?” he says. “How do you feel?”
The sweating man nods. “Better,” he says. “Better to be leaving that.” He looks up. “The process is-” he exhales and shakes his head. The other man nods and the man with the leaf looks up and nods back. The woman looks pale but, later, as the boat reaches the bay, blood comes to her cheeks and she barely remembers not feeling fine. They sweat as they leave the boat and behind them pink daylight catches on the pink waves. As they walk into the city the smell of salt and meat assaults their senses.