Owner and machine. Some grimy dystopian sci fi

This is one that I wrote so long ago, I'm not really sure if I think it's that good anymore. I've looked over it so many times. Anyway, you be the judge!

A dystopian future where the super-rich have opted for a completely virtual life, letting the rest of civilisation fall into ruin. In this environment, tribes of urban dwellers etch out an existence by looting the crumbling remnants of the wealthy, while they doze in their eternal, virtual sleep.

Here it is:

 

Owner and Machine

by

Paul Stephanus

After scouting through the house for over two thousand breaths neither of us found anything of value. The mechanical buzzing of the owner’s room seemed louder than normal. We kept distance at all times, but the noise was still unnerving. Floorboards in the house were rotten and gave way under our weight. Damp splinters rubbed against our bare soles. The floor had not been maintained, but was, a long time ago, probably lacquered and shiny…when it was used. This is always how it was. Whenever we took a house I wandered in a half dream, imagining the furnishings of the place, before it had dampened and rotted. Sometimes I become too lost in my mind, and forget to keep count of my breaths.

We entered through a window on a half floor between the first and second, to the right of the front door. When we finished and I decided it was time to leave I found that metal bars had closed in front of that very window. I knew then that sound would soon begin, and I noticed for the first time the message carved into the window sill. Not in the untidy, hurried writing these warnings are usually written in either. The letters were considered and detailed, as if each had been engraved by a thin flame.

 

My Own,
            If you are here and reading this you will soon be in great trouble, for I fear you are only seeing it on the way back out. I have done everything in my power to help. The sound and light systems in this house are advanced. There will be complete lockdown. The protector vines on the second level are overgrown with ivy. The windows there are your only safe exit. Pray they have not been boarded up since my last visit.
            Bless,  
Gravesend Grey Mouse

 

We didn’t have much time—“Wooooop”, I called out in my bird voice. None of us knew the names of the birds anymore, but this was my favorite. I memorized the call when I was still a child, and the birds were still around, nesting only at the top floors of the tallest buildings.

“Eeeoooww”…the reply came from the first floor. There were still some cats left on the streets, but she mimicked only her cat. Her dead cat, she told me about it once—small and nimble, dragging its prey into a metal tin and devouring the catch before bounding off again into the night. Now she goes with a new cat. I looked over the railing that separated the two floors and saw her smooth naked back on the floor below. I leaped and landed gently on the moist wood beside her. Her back was turned to me, and she hadn’t heard me land. I touched her bare arm gently. Her skin was still soft, without wrinkles. I hadn’t seen skin like it since I was a child. She reminded me of my sister. And dark, her skin was lightly dark. There were the black skins and pale ones. Only she had skin like that, lightly dark.

She turned her small eyes to me. I stared. My eyes: she said she saw water in my eyes. The clear water we remember from childhood. In her eyes I saw nothing. I wandered through them the way I wandered through the old houses.

Time was running out. I signaled with my head for her to follow through the dark eating room, plates and chairs perfectly positioned, layered with a thin film of sodden gray dust. A pang of fear shot through her face. Her eyes widened, and a watery ripple slid through her thick black hair. She pointed towards the front door desperately, pleadingly. Metal bars had shot across it, and the red light of the sound maker had begun to blink. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back through the eating room. Our running feet danced noiselessly against the wet floorboards.

We raced upwards to the second platform. The message said the thief vines there had been left un-cared for and mingled with the Ivy. They are seen often that way, intertwined with the normal plants, crawling up the sides of the house and into the windows. When the owners run out of money, as they often do, they have to pick and choose their defenses. The more run down on the outside, the less trouble we have on the inside.

We raced through the house. The sound and light would go off any second. Spark, her cat, raced in front of us, leading the way. Neither I nor the girl knew where we were going, not exactly, but Spark knew. The smart cats do. They say the spirits of humans who have unfinished business enter into cats. The spirit in this cat had some unfinished business.

Our every footstep was slowed by anticipation. It had been far too long. When would the sound begin? Our hearts jumped with fear and beat irregularly.

We leaped over furniture, throwing our naked bodies forward. The windows on the second floor had been boarded up. Spark leaped down through a thin crack in the wall. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but we followed, desperate to find an escape. The crack in the wall was just wide enough for us to squeeze through. I held her bare legs as she went down through the opening face first, exposed skin scraping between the cement outer wall and the wet wooden inner wall. She shimmied her body back and forth, managing to find a way downward through the crevice, into the darkness. Then I went, feet first, holding my genitals in one hand, controlling my descent with the other. I felt her hands holding my feet, directing me from below. I wriggled back and forth, squeezing through inch by inch. A putrid smell rose from little puddles of black oily liquid that spread across my body as I went down. I wasn’t making progress so I pushed with both free hands with all my might, forgetting my genitals. The skin was being peeled slowly from my back and chest. I clenched my teeth and pushed.

Then it happened. Long after it should have, it happened. First came the screech—a high-pitched sound like glass caught in the gears of machinery. It is a sound so high-pitched that you don’t hear it with your ears but with the weak points in your skull. Then the lights, like a stream of blood the red lights pulsating through the whole house. It’s what happens every time. But usually by the time it happens we’re already far down the street, clothed in darkness. 

No! I had to get out! Then came the bellow, a horrible deep-throated scream echoing off the walls, filling the house. The owner had awoken.

I pushed with all my might, and she began to pull at my feet with all her might. The skin of my back was peeled completely from my muscle. Eventually I squeezed through the narrowest point, and we plummeted downwards onto the concrete floor of the basement. We’d squeezed into the empty space between two floors. Spark was there to greet us. We huddled together for warmth, the girl, Spark and I, letting our eyes adjust to darkness, listening to each other’s heartbeats, breathing deeply. We heard the owner stomping back and forth above our heads. Outside vehicles were whizzing around the mansion. Then the police noises.

We heard the front door smashed in and then the sound of a police key unlocking the metal bars. Then a hundred more footsteps added suddenly to the thudding above us. The owner screaming, the police speaking in muffled tones. Soon the owner was screaming so loud that the basement started to vibrate. Then there was a heavy thud and he was silent. All that was left was the soft patter of the policemen’s footsteps, and their muffled voices above us.

The girl and I had entangled our limbs; Spark pressed between our stomachs. We breathed warmth onto each other’s necks and waited for what would happen. We didn’t understand their language, but we knew what they were looking for—any human trespassers, or, failing that, animal life that could have set off the light and sound accidentally. We heard footsteps approach the opening we’d squeezed through. We heard a policeman pushing down through the opening. Spark became restless between us, so the girl untangled her body from me and I was swept over with cold.

The cat dashed up through the crack we had crawled through, springing off the walls. We heard her scurry up to the point where we entered and out onto the second storey. A hundred voices spoke all at once, and then there was a dull smack. Spark screeched loudly and then the voices stopped. More quiet voices and then the footsteps down the stairs, disappearing out of the house one by one. The sound of vehicles rumbling and then rushing off. And then quiet. They had found what they were looking for, convinced that the alarm system was faulty and that the cat had set it off.

“Spark is dead,” I said to the girl, once quiet came.

“I will take her, because she saved us,” she said. She wanted a new name. This was good because I didn’t know her name before. Now I did: Spark.

“Is the owner dead?” I asked.

“Maybe.” Sometimes the police will kill the owner if they’re poor and their alarm system is faulty. Only human things, like clothes and language, are meant to set off the alarms. But the cheaper alarms go off at any disturbance, animal or human. Instead of coming out time and again to the same house, maybe it is easier for them to kill the owner and dismantle the alarm system. If the owner is poor enough, no one will ask questions.

“Is the sound reset?” I asked. I hadn’t heard the sound of the metal bars sliding back into neutral position.

“Maybe not.”

“Leave or stay?” I asked.

“Wait.”

She returned to me and we entangled our bodies again. We kept changing positions when different parts of our bodies got cold. She would press her back against my front, and then her front against my back, and then her front against my front. We were both completely covered now with my always-flowing blood, which helped to keep us warm. The ground was too cold to lie on. We stood the entire time and the soles of our feet were slowly freezing.

After a while she pulled away from me. She pulled herself back up through the opening and back into the house. She was like a cat. Spark had gone into her, I thought. I had no animal in me.

“Wooop,” I used my birdcall. We were going into the house, and if the sound had been reset I didn’t want to use language, it might set it off again.

“We can speak,” she called back, “it is off for now.” I tried to push through the opening, but the crack had collapsed even smaller in on itself, perhaps under the weight of so many policemen. Only my head fit through, sideways.

“I need help,” I called up through the small opening, halfway between the first floor and the basement, “I’m too big.”

She came close to the opening, and in the half-light I could see her body was painted in a thick layer of my blood. She looked painted for battle.

“Maybe I must leave you,” she said, “I can not help”. I understood. The sound would go on in a short while, and then she would die, if she stayed.

“Will you come back?” I asked.

“Maybe not.”

“Can you take my child then?” It was fair of me to ask, since I soon would die.

“Yes,” she said.

She squeezed swiftly back through the opening. I didn’t understand how she could fit, but she did. Then she opened herself in front of me, and I quickly put my child into her. We waited for a time, and when I was ready I put my child in again, to make sure she would carry it.

“It will be a bird, I hope,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied, shaking off the cold, and clambering back up through the crack. She disappeared from view and I heard her footsteps racing across the floor. I heard a window opening, then the ruffling of plants. I heard her bare feet pattering on the wet street outside, or maybe it was just my imagination. I couldn’t stand anymore, but sitting was cold on my thin skin. I kept switching positions and slowly became very cold. I wondered if the owner would awaken, or if the police had killed him.

It was dark and I could see nothing, but I decided to start moving to create warmth inside myself. My body was weak from giving child and my joints cracked as I stretched and jumped. On my first jump I hit my head on the cement roof, and then I took little jumps. I put my hands on the wall and walked around the cement cave. My hands touched a pile of cold rocks. Hundreds of cold rocks, sharp, fist sized, the result of another older collapse. The house was falling apart. I began to throw them one by one behind me. Maybe there would be another opening or entrance and I could escape. It was a small chance, but I had to try. I threw rocks behind me, not caring of the loud noise. At least my body was warming.

Then I heard noise. I thought it was a dog, but then it became human. Right above me there was movement. The owner. It must be, I thought, the police had left, and Spark, my child-bearer had left, and the cat was dead. Maybe the police had only stunned the owner and not killed him. We think they are not allowed to kill the owners, and usually they don’t, but sometimes they do.

I kept my body very still and felt the cold creep up through my toes, and into my feet and my ankles. The footsteps moved in circles above me. Then they went off into the distance, back towards the owner’s machine room at the other end of the first floor. I decided I would wait until the owner had plugged back into his machine and then continue to move the rocks from the pile, in case there was a passage behind the rubble somewhere, and also just to keep myself warm. I heard the footsteps stop, and the sound of his machine starting again. I waited three hundred and fifty breaths, which is the time it takes an owner’s mind to re-enter the machine, and then shook my feet wildly, forcing warmth into the ends of my toes.

I continued to throw stones behind me in the dark. Some of them fit into the palm of my hand, and some were so heavy that I couldn’t lift them at all and so had to roll them. In the darkness I heaved stones backwards again and again. And then I felt things made of metal, and plastic, and bones, I think, in the dark. I cleared the way and the passage went deeper and deeper. At first I was frightened that the racket would cause the light and sound to return, but with each toss I gained confidence, and soon the fear of the sound left my mind altogether. The stones and plastic and metal and things became more and more damp as I dug further into the pile. I smelt mold and rot seep up.

I passed the night this way, many breaths. I know this because by the time the rocks had been completely cleared, the morning birds were singing. I could hear them even through the thick walls of the house, and the layers of creeper vines that covered the walls. Or maybe I imagined the birds. Birds often sing in my head.

Night or day, I had cleared a passage, although very small. I had to lay my naked belly on the cold rough ground and slide along the floor to fit through the opening. But first I grabbed a fist-sized stone. You never know when you might need a stone.  I felt the wound on my chest re-open as I pulled myself across the rough floor.

After I dragged my body forty-eight times across the ground, the walls began to widen and the ceiling started to slope upwards. Eventually I was able to stand, barely. My belly and genitals were thankful to have been finally peeled from the cold hard cement floor. Now I crouched low and shuffled down the passage. It was still dark and I could see nothing, but a well-known buzzing sound became very clear. It was the sound of the owner’s machine. All owner’s machines sound the same. They are all made by the same factory, they say. It is a noise we stay away from when taking things from the old houses. The machine rooms are guarded strongly by the light and the sound, and there is nothing in them, they say. Only danger and sorrow, they say. So, the kitchens and eating rooms are where we head. I had never seen an owner’s machine. I had never even seen an owner. Of any house. We are taught not to be curious about the owners, for our own safety. All my teachings and instincts would have had me run from the sound of the machine. But where would I have run? What choice did I have but to continue?

After thirty-seven shuffles of the feet, I stood directly underneath the sound of machine. The steady buzz vibrated the ceiling above my head. I felt the ceiling with my hand. It was no longer cement, but had become wood. Twelve plastic tubes ran from holes in the wooden ceiling above me and down through the concrete floor below. Where could they possibly be leading? Into the ground? To the factories at the land end of the city? It would be a long way for a pipe to travel underground.

I could make out the tubes, even in the darkness, for thin beams of light were falling through cracks in the rotting wood ceiling. I put the stone I brought with me down at my feet and held each tube in my hand one by one. Some were warm, some cold. All were made of rubbery plastic. The twelve thick tubes danced like pigeons around a handful of grains, wriggling slightly. Excitement and fear passed through me. I had the sudden urge to make my birdcall, but fought the instinct, as it may have brought the sound back again. I squeezed my bloodied body past the tubes but almost immediately reached a rough concrete wall. This was the end of the passageway.

The buzz of the machine was overwhelming and shook the air around me. The liquid running through the tubes churned and gurgled like the city river after a heavy rain. I put my ear to each of the 12 tubes one at a time. Each had a different sound: air passed through some, thick liquid through another, thin liquid through another, large chunks through another.

I stared up at the thin dots of light shining through the rotting wood and decided that this was my only escape. I picked up my rock, made a quick birdcall which I swallowed for energy, and then smashed the wooden ceiling above me with all my might, at the point where the most light was already breaking through. The sodden wood gave way under the rock and damp splinters fell onto my face, into my eyes, and around my feet. Some stuck to the large open wound on my chest and stomach. A thick column of light also fell, directly onto my forehead.

After the attack I waited tensely, clutching the stone in my shaking arm, waiting for the sound and the light to return and for the owner to awaken. I had only seen owners in my dreams before then. In my dreams, when I saw them, it was obvious to me that they had taken no animals into their souls. It was obvious to me that they had no name. Sometimes they were skinny, and the ends of their bones protruded through cracks in their dry skin. Sometimes their fat dropped in clumps off their body as they walked towards me. Sometimes they had no bodies at all, only a head, still bleeding at the neck, freshly cut from the body and sitting alone on a black table. The head would hear my footsteps as I tried to escape. It would turn slowly towards me no matter which direction I went. And when its eyes cornered me I would see the anger spread over its face; its mouth would open wide and the sound of a siren would deafen me; its eyes would open wide, wide like the hungry nighttime cats, and a bright red flash would touch every corner of the room, blinding me. And no matter what form the owner took in my dream, they all wore the same metal hat. It was like the hat of the giant metal lady who stands out in the water: sharp, metal, rusting. To me, the lady out in the water is one of the owners. Or the master of the owners. Or their protector. Or their God.

These images from my dreams came into my head like a flood. I waited for three hundred and fifty breaths for the machine to stop and the owner to wake. When he didn’t, I smashed the rock against the hole in the ceiling again. More damp splinters fell, the column of light grew larger. Three hundred and fifty breaths. Again. Three hundred and fifty. My limbs were freezing from holding my bones so still. Again, smash. Now the hole would have been large enough for the girl to fit through. The girl who now had Spark inside her. But she was not there, so I counted three hundred fifty breaths again and then heaved the stone with all my might. A large chunk of the floor fell away and immediately all the plastic tubes beside me stopped churning. I must have made a human noise as I smashed the floor. The sound was waiting. It was waiting for another sign. I held still for two thousand four hundred and twenty one breaths without moving, and then suddenly the tubes beside me began churning again. The sound had stopped waiting for another sign. By then my limbs had frozen into place and I carefully stretched each muscle and bone before reaching up towards the ceiling to pull myself through the hole.

I peeked my head through, holding myself up with my arms. The first sight was the owner’s feet. I could smell them first, then I turned my head and saw they were a hand’s length from my nose. The nails were dirty and long. So long that they curled and split at the end. There were dirty cracks in his skin, and a mouse was chewing on one of his heels. The heel was black and seemed to be leaking a liquid. I twisted my head and saw that there was an adult mouse and three very young mice all eating the owner’s heel. His legs were covered in black pants. As quietly as possible I pulled the rest of my body through the hole.

Without making a noise I stood and took a step back from the hole. The room was brighter than the rest of the house. All the light came from a bright box in front of the owner. It glowed and flickered, spraying his face and the room with light. I didn’t take my eyes off him. I was too terrified that he would wake. The room smelt horrible. Like a dead animal.

The chair he was on was covered with torn black fabric. The thighs of his black pants seemed to have no body inside them, his limbs were so thin. His upper body was covered in a giant, puffy black coat, also with holes in it. His face was fat and covered with sores. They were juicing. His eyes were wide, staring into the box of light. On his head was the metal spiky cap, just like the grey torch lady in the water. Wires ran from the spikes to somewhere behind the light box. And his mouth was stuffed with a thick plastic tube that ran up from the ground. 

He jerked suddenly and I thought he’d woken, but the tube in his mouth had just started pumping. His head bounced back and forth on his skinny neck as the tube sprayed watery chunks directly into his stomach.

When the feeding finished I noticed the other tubes. One ran from an opening under the seat of his chair. Two small tubes were shoved into his nostrils. One ran up the leg of his pants, right beside the family of mice.

Two small tubes were poised above his eyes, releasing drops of water every few seconds. The drops landed on his eye and then ran down his cheek. I looked closer and noticed that the tube over his left eye didn’t seem to be working. When I looked at the eye I could see that it was dead. The eyeball had dried and crusted, like the skin of a fried rat.

A large tube was positioned above his head. I thought this too was broken until I moved closer and felt a weak gust of air traveling through. The air smelt like the flowers on the high railway garden in the middle-city, but the owner’s hair still smelt horrible. I don’t know what the purpose of this tube was. 

Another three tubes poked out of the ground close to where I’d burst a whole in the floorboards, a few steps from the owner. I held my hand over them. One was sucking air in, the other shooting air out. The other was broken, covered with mold and slime, insects crawling through it.

I moved like a bird behind the owner. I wanted to see what was in the box of light. I saw nothing. Just painful light. There was a desk at the far end of the room, and a couch. The desk had sheets of paper scattered on it and on the floor beside it. The carpet underneath had been torn, and there were two rotting cat carcasses on it. One was almost completely bone, one was about half decayed. There was a window behind the desk, but it had been boarded up.

I checked to make sure the door to the rest of the house was locked from the inside, like they usually are. It was. Suddenly the food tube started again and I had to stop myself from jumping back in fear. Then I smelt shit, and heard the sounds of shit and saw that the tube leading up into the bottom of the owner’s chair was pulling away watery brown liquid. 

I stepped away and sat on the desk at the other end of the room. I couldn’t read the writing on any of the papers. Then I heard a disgusting sound and looked at the owner. He seemed to be laughing or crying, but his voice was stifled by the tube shoved into his mouth. It was a horrible sound. Then he turned towards me for a brief second, his single living eye illuminated by the light from the box. He was staring at me. Then he laughed again, choked a little bit, coughed, and then vomited food back into the tube. It was squirted back into his stomach immediately after.

I needed to escape, or I would freeze to death. I did not want to die in there, without any animal or human to take me. I tried the door again, but it was firmly locked from the inside. I looked at the owner’s hands and one was at his side balled into a fist. He must hold the key in that fist, I thought. How could I get it? I couldn’t wake the owner, or the sound would start. I didn’t know how sensitive the sleep is. I know that the sound wakes the owners up, forces them away from their machines. That is why they become so angry. They will do anything to remain forever in with their machines. So, if I could retrieve the key without starting the sound, or taking the owner from his machine, then I could escape unnoticed.

I grabbed a pen off the table and approached the owner silently. Carefully I touched his shoulder, and he didn’t wake. Then the back of his neck, he still didn’t wake. I wanted to see if the owner still felt when he was locked into the machine. How could his eye have died if he feels? How could mice be chewing at his heel? So, with one hand on the back of his neck I slowly shoved the pen into his dead eye. It went in easily, all the way into his head. The blood was thick and slow, and black. He didn’t take notice, his one good eye focused unflinchingly on the machine. His eye was dead, though. Maybe that is why he didn’t react. His living hand would be another issue.

I touched the clenched hand that held the key. He didn’t respond. I tried to pry his fingers apart, but they were clenched too tightly. I bent down and bit into his forefinger. I kept one eye on him the whole time. I got through the finger in one bite and spit it onto the floor. The blood tasted horrible. He was certainly diseased. I had to bite two more fingers off before I could grab the key.

His hand was dripping blood onto the floor but he still took no notice, and soon I had the key. I wondered if unlocking the door with the owner still plugged into the machine would start the sound, but I had no other choice. I slipped the key in and waited for the sound. I twisted the key and waited for the sound. I opened the door and waited for the sound. It didn’t come.

I looked once more at the owner, and at that moment his food pipe started again and the flower-smelling pipe above him began to spray air over him. I slipped through the door and shut it behind me, putting the key in my pocket. The house was full of cats, dogs, birds and mice because the police had kicked the front door down when they came in before. The sound is designed not to be set off by animals, of course, but I didn’t want to risk staying around with that many. Anything could happen in such a run-down place.

I padded softly across the living room and out the front door into the pink and orange glow of the rising sun. I turned down the first alley heading towards the docks. I climbed to the rooftops and scanned the horizon.

“WHOOOP!” I called.

“EEOOW!” I heard in the distance. Although she had taken Spark she still used her old cat’s voice. I jumped across the rooftops towards her, because she is the carrier of my child.

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