By the time the Arland contingent could stand on Skavian soil, the camp’s stitching needs were met by other inmates and they were assigned to fruit gathering along with Ivy. The detail was assembled by overseers in the main yard and divided into groups of three. If any one person disappeared, her companions would be executed. They were given two empty baskets apiece balanced on a pole resting on their shoulders, and in this manner marched through the village of Dunder on the road to the surviving apricot groves. The townsfolk looked upon the column with scorn and pity, sending children inside and standing rigidly as the procession passed. What these women had done to deserve their fate was not the business of these citizens. The world was full of enemies. Had not the numerous plots against the Party and the Great Man himself, the acts of sabotage against the nation’s rail and other infrastructure, the collapse of the platform on the great sandstone plaza, the ballistic assault on the Stairway to the Sun, proven this beyond doubt? Did not the history of Arland oppression demonstrate that the Hutman must be hammer to the Inta nail? No one in the village knew what crimes these women had committed but it was reasonable to assume they were among the plotters responsible for attacks on the homeland. Skava had enemies, and Skava had a leader who would deal with them decisively. It was proof of Muglair’s efficacy that so many plots had been foiled.
The column passed a detail of male prisoners rebuilding a stone wall around an ancient churchyard. The men labored shirtlessly in the scalding sun with shovels and pickaxes, sweating profusely and slaking their thirst from a wheelbarrow filled with pond water. The women marched miles along the dusty road, passing acres of fruitland ruined by a disastrous attempt to grow hemp, before turning onto a trail to the surviving groves. The overseers distributed picking claws to select women and ordered the rest to pluck low-hanging fruit and gather drop apricots. Their bushel baskets quickly overflowed and they turned to filling empty baskets transported to the site on a levitating sled. On the trek out prisoners had held the upwardly buoyed sled down by cords attached to harnesses on their bodies. It would now be filled with just enough fruit to render it weightless for the return trip, allowing prisoners to maneuver it with ease while carrying baskets on shoulder yokes. Ivy learned from observing other prisoners to stay in the shade as long as possible and to drink fully from the pouches on the sled during breaks. She filled her baskets at the same rate as the others, fearing that plucking too slow could provoke a beating and too fast a further assignment. One woman collecting drops in direct sunlight collapsed from heat stroke, her mouth drooling and body convulsing. Her companions were ordered to carry her across a field where her death stench would not offend overseers on future visits. They chose not to waste a bullet on the wench hoping instead for natural expiration in the broiling sun. When the detail completed its task she was still moaning, gurgling in semi-conscious delirium, the last defiant act of a traitor trying to force a bullet out of Skava’s arsenal. She twisted her head as an overseer pointed a gun into her temple and fired, kicking the corpse for the audacity of demanding a bullet and imagining the feast of scavengers on her flesh. Ivy’s mind was erased of all feeling from her own perilously exhausted condition yet she wondered about this woman’s family. They would never learn, if indeed they were still living, of the indignity of her death. Perhaps it was better that way.
Ivy found the work excruciating but bearable. She was not prepared, however, for the march back, weighted down with baskets brimming with apricots carving into her shoulders and buckling her already weak frame. She could not lag for fear of earning her own bullet. The task was arduous enough that the overseers stopped periodically to let the column relax, but the exertion of lifting baskets from rest was as exhausting as not stopping in the first place. In her pain she heard voices swirling around her head, angels or devils she could not decide, telling her to press onward for paradise awaited at the end of her journey. In her delusional state she became convinced that the woman in front of her was her long lost mother, the spectral Prudence who haunted her memory, and if only Ivy could march one step faster she would be reunited with the woman who gave her life, the woman whose love she could never replace. They were permitted to eat one apricot per break and Ivy learned from watching other prisoners how to sneak in a second. She needed the carbohydrates to survive, for her body to summon the energy to endure. They passed goat pens and she remembered the flavor of thaban dung cut by ginger, wanting to gag yet recognizing it now as an act of kindness. In the village the same crew had raised the church wall two courses higher, their bodies still glistening in the sun, muscular builds reminding her of the ditch digger she chose to father her child. The men snuck glances at the women more from habit than desire, their lustier impulses eroded by the backbreaking labor and the women desexed in prison attire with close-cropped hair. In the camp the prisoners were counted off in the main yard, only one missing and her absence explained by a bullet. They were diverted to shower stalls where a laundry crew exchanged filthy uniforms for starchy sun-dried replacements. In the mess hall they drank watery leek soup with a ration of bread. A dominant woman tried to snatch Ivy’s roll and Ivy struck her. An overseer bustled over and slapped Ivy – who quickly lowered her eyes in obeisance expecting further blows – but was distracted by shouting from the kitchen and left the feuding women to extinguish a small grease fire beneath a kettle. The bread thief lunged again but Ivy had already crammed the roll into her mouth, nearly choking from its crusty bulk.
From snippets of conversation she gathered the war had taken a sinister turn. She had known this day would come from the prophecies of the Oopsah but did not know the details. Arland so far had shown restraint, bombing only Shamba and the Regency and securing the Edge, believing it could not stop the Flume without Muglair’s cooperation and waiting for the promised triggering of the great door. Muglair engaged in a game of diplomatic evasion, proposing water-sharing arrangements as a condition to closing the door then incrementing demands with each concession until Arland concluded further negotiation would be fruitless. Arland ramped up military production to replace the lost vessels of the Armada and secure aerial supremacy in preparation for massive assaults on Leri Deri and Shamba. Marshal Turlin delivered an ultimatum to Skava that it close the intake as promised by the Great Man or its capital would be leveled. With much fanfare Muglair announced a public symposium in the People’s Hall at which the issue of closing the door would be debated, with members of the public free to stand and offer opinions to the leadership. Muglair himself adopted a pose of studied neutrality, weighing the pros and cons as speaker after speaker, all screened in advance, angrily denounced Arland’s belligerence before accepting the advice of the Council that the Hutman’s commitment to peace required triggering the door.
The issue of planetary peril did not fully resonate even in Arland where the risk was the subject of much propaganda. Arland scientists calculated that the Cube could survive for decades with the current outflow from Shamba. But they relied upon a crude computation of the volume of the Silent Sea divided by current rate of flow and had no reliable model as to when gravity imbalance might dislodge the planet from fixture. They were in uncharted territory with the devil’s shaft, as Arland’s bulletins called it, and did not properly account for the widening of the hole from erosion or the sluicing effect along the Parvian edges. Edgeland no longer counterbalanced by the Silent Sea crumbled inward below the waterline in places, allowing immense outrushes of seawater over the sides. When this first occurred in Klokomad, Arland’s scientists revised their estimates of the planet’s integrity and reached a startling conclusion. It might already be too late to stop dislodgement, and at any rate they must assume a timeline of months, not years, to allow a margin for error. These revelations were percolating through the Arland power structure at the time of Muglair’s symposium. There was momentary relief in Rixjrig when the Council recommended, and the Great Man accepted, terminating the flow at intake. But then a diplomatic cable arrived informing the Marshal with regret that the great door had failed. Indeed, Arland spotters had watched remnants of the door plummet skyward through Shamba, their photographs revealing unmistakable blast marks on the twisted metal.
Muglair followed his secret cable with a public message to the citizens of Arland. He had done all that he could for the planet given the intransigence of their leadership. He had staked his claim of natural justice to an equal allocation of the Silent Sea and been met only with bombs. He was a reasonable man but could not be expected to solve this crisis by himself. He would allow Arland onto its territory to engage in a joint capping of the Flume if, and only if, Arland disarmed, starting first with voluntary destruction of the Armada. Skava had suffered too long from its aerial bombardments and could not collaborate in peace with this threat hanging over its head. This ultimatum, a response to Arland’s own demands, was the non-negotiable price of cooperation between the great powers. Arland could accept or reject Muglair’s generosity but one thing was made clear: the Great Man would rather the planet disintegrate than live under the shadow of the Armada. Skavian scientists believed the planet had at least two years before subsidence of the Sea posed a significant threat. Arland informed the Land Ministry, which held ultimate jurisdiction over the Flume, of its revised computations backed up with voluminous supporting data. But the Great Man was not going to rely on the amateurs of Arland when his own engineers had shown the genius and initiative to construct the Flume in the first place. Those who built it would best understand its risks. He had two years to secure Arland’s disarmament and would worry about consequences when the time came.
The effect of Muglair’s ultimatum on Arland was electric. The Marshal had been planning various attacks and now had the unqualified support of a population focused on a single goal, eliminating the Great Man. One could not hear on a street in Rixjrig any word of caution, any call to further negotiation, so disgusted were the people with Muglair’s treachery. A sense of urgency grew from publication of Arland’s internal reports on the planet’s diminished life expectancy in light of sluicing and shaft erosion, although ironically many discounted the new timeline as propaganda. With the loss of the great door Arland was free to approach the Flume from the intake at the bottom of the Sea, which they had been avoiding for fear of disturbing a safety mechanism. Arland controlled most of that vast ocean and forged its own enormous plug for the Flume, an inverted cone designed to cap the hole like a sink stopper. But the unexpected rate of erosion, deduced from the visible increase in flow through Shamba, meant the plug as constructed was no longer wide enough to stop the draining. Arland refloated the plug to the Parvian shore and began forging a new reinforced ring to expand its diameter. In the meantime they proceeded with an alternative plan, depth charges to be sunk through the shaft and exploded within. This required a feat of nautical engineering unprecedented in Arland’s history, programming mines to seek out the entrance one hundred and forty miles beneath the surface of the Sea and detonate within the shaft. The navy contemplated sending divers in bells with the mines on a suicide mission but opted for remote guidance using sonar. The project was sufficiently advanced at the time of the great door’s destruction to be implemented within weeks. But it was a complete failure as Arland was unable to synchronize enough bombs to achieve the desired collapse. The only result of the uncoordinated explosions was an occasional dark spot in the jet of water emerging from Shamba. The back-up plan was to position charges on the seabed in a cluster around the intake to collapse it inward by simultaneous detonation. This project too was a failure, the massive explosion sending only silt through the shaft and failing to affect the flow rate. Arland redoubled its efforts to widen the steel plug concluding this was their last best hope as options rapidly dwindled.
Muglair’s ultimatum also gave rise to the first audible voices of dissent within his regime. At a meeting of the Council several Ministers respectfully addressed the gravity of the situation, obliquely criticizing the Great Man by expressing confidence he had a plan for preserving the planet in case Arland failed to capitulate. Muglair sent security agents to debrief each of the concerned Ministers personally, implicitly threatening to oust them from power, or worse, if they vocalized further opposition. The Ministers received the message and no longer questioned their leader on the official record but the fear that Muglair might be too reckless, that he might derail the cause for personal glory, that he might precipitate historical events beyond his control, was whispered in corridors and back rooms, the Ministers silently resolving to monitor the situation and take unspecified future action to rein him in. Arland launched a punitive assault on Leri Deri wiping out over half its neighborhoods and killing thousands of civilians who were deliberately not warned by Skavian spotters. The sirens remained silent during the raid to maximize the death toll and stoke within the population a thirst for retribution. By a miracle the major monuments of the capital, including the People’s Hall, survived with little damage. Muglair stood before a crowd on the sandstone plaza behind two inches of protective glass, the famous fanning columns and dome of the Hall rising majestically behind him, and spoke in rarefied tones of divine fate shielding this edifice as the repository of aspirations for his long-suffering people, then launched into a diatribe about how the word “people” applied only to Hutmen and not to the vermin called Inta.
For years Muglair had carried out a policy called prophylactic justice, identifying the politically active Inta and detaining them in camps, and splitting up Inta villages sympathetic to Arland and relocating the inhabitants to scattered outposts on the plains. Skava could not afford to harbor within its midst a traitorous people, a race that by its essence was inimical to the Hutman cause, for the Inta regarded themselves as natural overlords and were conducting a war of sabotage to regain power. Standing before a crowd of traumatized survivors of the massive bombing, augmented by roaming bands of security agents and Party members attending under compulsion, Muglair announced the time had come for Skava to take all steps required to preserve the Hutman prerogative, to do what is necessary and just, to eliminate once and for all the Inta threat from its soil. Muglair was a merciful man and would take no action greater than necessary to subdue this menace. He would harm no Inta who were not resisting, but he would collect them all, every last one of them, and confine them to staging camps for forced emigration to Arland. Would the Arlanders reclaim their own as a fair and righteous people must? Muglair had his doubts but he would not be responsible for the fate of the Skavian Inta should Arland abandon them. For no Inta would be permitted to roam free on the sacred soil of Skava as long as Muglair remained the bearer of the cause. No Inta would run loose on this land to practice treachery, and sabotage, and plotting, and espionage, and rape, and murder, and thieving, and breeding of more Inta all for the vain hope of derailing the cause and reestablishing their mastery over the Hutman. Muglair sincerely hoped Arland was listening because if they were not, they would one day rue their arrogance.
Through diligence and careful planning the administration of Dunder solved the corpse problem by incinerating the backlog and stitching together enough bladders to meet expected future needs for space disposal. Indeed, the production had soared beyond any conceivable use, occupying an entire warehouse with inventory. Mortality dropped after the initial influx of prisoners from the Edge and the camp returned to its prior attrition rate, which could be adjusted as necessary to weed out less vital elements. Guidance from Leri Deri suggested a monthly mortality of two percent for the camp as a whole and the withholding of food and medical care should the rate drop below that. Children presented a special problem and were commonly starved to death in holding pens, such mortality being labeled natural, for Skava could not spare labor to tend Inta nits. The fitter specimens might be farmed out to adoptive families to be Hutmanized, a process subject to periodic review and culling for behavioral problems. The elderly could earn their keep with menial tasks but were denied medical care and confined to death barracks for natural expiration in the event of illness. Those in prime years for physical labor were mandated subsistence rations calibrated to limit mortality to one percent per month, not counting executions. From her arrival at Dunder Ivy watched suspiciously as rows of barracks were constructed within the expanded perimeter of the camp between the concentric squares of spiked wire. Muglair obviously anticipated more enemies in need of confinement, an expectation in keeping with his view that reaction grows in proportion to revolution. With his challenge to Arland, his bold gambit to remove Skava once and for all from the Inta yoke, the opposition would have no choice but to show its true colors, to stand defiantly against the cause in its last desperate struggle to preserve Inta hegemony over the planet. Muglair would not let these conspirators pollute the passions of the Hutman by organizing dissent and carrying out sabotage, so he would lock them away in black sites entirely cut off from the world.
One day a special copy of The Cause was distributed throughout the barracks. Ordinarily prisoners were not allowed news from the outside world but this edition was sensational. The Interior Ministry, under the direction of its new leader Bogin, announced the disruption of a huge plot among the Skavian Inta to assassinate the Great Man, to explode the People’s Hall with delegates inside, and to return the Inta to power with the military and diplomatic assistance of Arland. Even Council members, most notably former Minister Kadangle, had participated in the plot. Muglair issued a note of personal gratitude to Bogin, tireless servant of the cause, for protecting the people of Skava from such foul treachery. In this state of crisis he was delegating to the new Minister authority to take all steps necessary to eliminate the threat decisively, starting with immediate implementation of the emigration plan. This would be disorderly, the Great Man acknowledged, the facilities were not yet in place, but the Inta could no longer be trusted with freedom, such was the mortal threat they posed. Ivy read through the edicts and proclamations and news accounts and propaganda, all lined up neatly in four-paneled layout, with growing despair. Muglair was planning something awful and she feared for her safety, for the safety of all people in the wretched camps. On the back page of the edition was a curious story, an installment of The Sphere, a watered-down version of a draft about Posy’s liaison with an electrical lineman hired to build a tripwire for the vat room, which Ivy had last seen on the food table in the hut on the Fifteenth of Tarpin. She was so caught up in the headline news she missed the story before another prisoner grabbed the paper. How those loopy scrawls from another world describing fantasies she could no longer conceive made it to a publishing house in Leri Deri was a mystery she would not have a chance to consider.
A new breed of overseers began arriving at the camp, special Interior agents trained in Leri Deri dressed in one-piece corduroy uniforms wearing snug flat caps. They assumed jurisdiction over the camp expansion and mingled little with the Law Ministry overseers, walking swiftly in pairs in straight lines with great purpose. Conditions at the camp had steadily improved since Ivy’s arrival, leading to a directive from the capital to increase mortality through reduced food rations and harsher work conditions. Scientific principles of herd management, which held great sway in the Law Ministry, required weeding out a fixed percentage of the population on a regular basis to cultivate desirable traits among the remainder and to create room for new arrivals. Survival was a function of both health and cunning. Ivy associated early with Hutwomen prisoners including the barracks chief, deeming them less likely to suffer Muglair’s wrath. She was still labeled Inta but wore a band signifying she could not be executed punitively without approval from the camp administrator, presumably tied to her high value status and giving her the same protection as Hutwomen criminals. She acquired oral sachets of hibiscus, marigold, magnolia, and sundry dried herbs and petals by trading extra rolls obtained from a mess worker for charcoal sketches of Looda steamboats. She sewed an inside pocket on her uniform, a common practice tolerated by overseers, and would retrieve sachets to exchange for various goods in the underground market. When food rations were cut by extending the time between feedings, she obtained extra bread by cashing in angelica and motherwort which were in high demand. No one agreed on the medicinal effects of the sachets but all found comfort from hunger sucking on their favorites. The starvation policy had the intended effect of increasing mortality but also weakened the survivors, an inherent flaw in any plan designed to reduce population by inflicting general suffering. Ivy’s body could not handle the deprivation even with the finagled extra rations and she grew weaker and less able to meet quotas in the groves and on the shop floor. Her cheekbones protruded as her eyes acquired the quality of walking dead so prevalent in the camp. So long as she was stronger than the required percentage of attrition, however, she believed she could survive. The routines of the camp accentuated the inmates’ degradation. In addition to work and malnourishment calculated to cull the herd, prisoners were required to assemble in the yard after the sleeping hour for calisthenics. Each day they mopped the entire floor of the barracks and recited from memory axioms of truth dictated by the Law Ministry, that the Hutman was the pinnacle of human progress, that a humble regent saved the cause from Arland’s rape, that the Inta stank as much in life as in death.
New transports arrived carrying victims of Muglair’s emigration scheme. Inta farming villages were the initial targets, their inhabitants rounded up in surprise operations with no time to prepare for departure. How uneducated peasants growing legumes could pose a threat to the Hutman cause was never explained. But if the Inta by nature were plotters and saboteurs then caution require sequestering even those whose oppressive tendencies were not yet manifest. The arrival scenes at the camp were frenzied. Administrators caught off guard by the hastened emigration schedule did not have time to complete a second intake entrance. As a result disorganized masses of motorized transports clogged the main receiving yard of the outer camp with Interior agents forcibly removing families, village elders, and youths and directing them haphazardly to barracks segregated by gender and age, shooting people who fell out of line including children running back to their parents. The yard swarmed with pockets of arrivals surrounded by special agents trained to bludgeon the first person off a truck to establish obedience. The Law Ministry supplied overseers for the barracks but was understaffed and locked many new inhabitants inside without oversight where they starved and plotted escapes. The camp expansion did not yet contain a mess hall so new arrivals were marched through the interior gate to messes in the central camp. The kitchens were not provisioned for extra mouths resulting in further reduction of rations and violent reprisals by established prisoners against the emigrants. No one had devised useful work details for the arrivals who were kept busy with exercise regimens, latrine work, and fastidious barracks cleaning. As the administration found work, forgotten barracks were often opened to find occupants dead and dying from starvation, their entreaties from behind locked doors ignored in the chaos. Marshal Turlin received daily reports of Muglair’s emigration plan, which was turning into mass slaughter rather than deportation, and sent a communiqué to Leri Deri demanding the Inta be sent to crossing stations at the Edge where the military patrol would receive them. The Great Man responded by repeating his demand for disarmament as a precondition to cooperation, then sending common criminals to the crossings with papers identifying them as Inta refugees.
Dunder could not absorb the crush of new prisoners. Interior units in the provinces performed their tasks of rounding up enemies with exceptional vigor, competing against one another for weekly rewards of distilled spirits and cartons of sachets based upon the numbers seized. As chaotic as the first wave of prisoners had been at the outset of war, the congestion now grew so severe that transports backed up beyond the outer gate into open fields waiting for the jam in the yard to clear, with arrivals on crowded truck beds suffocating in the heat and expiring from thirst. The barracks were fully occupied and the camp lacked housing for the newest arrivals. Along one side of the expansion area, a new intake facility had been hastily constructed by slave labor, a warehouse divided into a rat maze of halls and cubicles connected by an array of six long corridors, separated by elongated courtyards, leading to a slaughterhouse beyond earshot of the reception. Excess arrivals were herded into the reception with contrived urgency then chased in groups of twenty down the long corridors by patrol dogs barely restrained on agents’ leashes into a set of rooms where Interior agents and specially trained soldiers eliminated the hated Inta in small groups, three or four at a time, with bayonets, pistols, and hacking knives. The special units had not yet devised a more efficient method of killing and were instructed to use blade work as much as possible to conserve ammunition. The floors of these killing rooms puddled with blood deep enough to slosh on agents’ boots, requiring frequent mopping and sponging by details. Those chased along a corridor but not called first into a room faced the horrific prospect of death behind by savage dogs and screams of bloodletting ahead with no means of escape. The elimination of the Inta posed a hardship for the special units, for as the coordinated Ministries of Interior, Law, Land, and Defense acknowledged these brave agents were human beings themselves subject to frailty of emotion and sentimental attachment to human life, even Inta, and would be permanently scarred by their sacrifice for the cause. An agent might kill over a hundred Inta by his own hand in a single shift, each as sympathetic and pitiable as the agent’s own loved ones, each a person he may have broken bread with in friendlier times, each innocent of any personal wrongdoing, and collectively the agents might butcher thousands in a day. To butcher a defenseless child or woman, or even a man, ran counter to the instinctive goodness of the Hutman, and Bogin resolved that each agent carrying out this sacred duty be amply rewarded for his sacrifice, for the lifelong trauma he would suffer, with pension and honors. What transpired in these rooms was an historic necessity for which future generations would eternally benefit even if not told of it. For only without Inta oppressors on Skavian soil could the Hutman flourish, and for every Inta corpse carted away from the charnel house of Dunder countless future Hutchildren would receive the dignity and opportunity that comes from liberation.
Here was the nub. Muglair was a visionary. He could foresee two futures for the Hutman, one with a continued Inta presence in Skava and one without. He had no doubt that the latter would be a more glorious future for his people. In a land without their historic nemesis the Hutmen could flourish without fear of subjugation, without fear of Arland exploiting its reserve of traitors to foment rebellion and unrest, without fear of Inta deviance and criminality. To arrive at this better future required harsh measures in the present, a will of iron to turn one’s head from the suffering of innocents, to avert one’s eyes and let natural justice run its course. For surely Muglair was no monster. Surely he was not impervious to the cries for mercy from women and children who had done no wrong carried to slaughter. There would come a day, he knew, when his name would be reviled for cruelty even among the Hutmen. But guilt and innocence were meaningless terms applied to individual Inta. They were a people organized by a principle of resistance to the Hutman cause and the mere act of living and breeding and supporting their communities gave force to the countercause. They were an indivisible whole that could not be partially eliminated because they all by their very essence, by the fabric of their families and society, lent support to reaction. Skava could not move beyond its current cycle of oppression, the Inta of the Hutman, the Hutman of the Inta, so long as these diametrically opposed peoples occupied the same plane. And Skava could not move beyond this cycle without eradicating the Inta entirely from its sacred soil as humanely and efficiently as possible. Would the weak flinch from the measures required? Would a future generation debate and dissect and condemn these necessary measures as atrocities? They would, but such was the luxury of prosperity. For if history had taught any lesson, it was that the strong survive and the weak perish. The strong might indulge sentimentality once secure in power but they would never exchange current prerogatives for resurrection of the dead. In these two futures envisioned by Muglair, one with and one without the Inta, one thing was certain. The Hutman in that better world free of the Inta menace would never trade the fruit of extermination for a return of their nemesis. That would be the ultimate judgment of history, that the beneficiaries retain the benefit. These men lunging with bayonets and hacking with blades and firing pistols in the faces of young mothers with babes might be acting from base impulses, might be giving vent to anger born of generations of oppression, might be rising to the occasion of historical necessity with an orgy of sadism, might be following orders only out of loyalty to the cause with repulsion in their hearts. But whatever their personal justifications, they lacked the Great Man’s vision of a harmonious world with the Hutman thriving as the sole sovereign of Skava. It was this vision of a future freed from the cycle of violence which justified the current slaughter, which made those scarred from carrying it out the true victims of the Inta, which would show Muglair as a man of peace by the only measure that mattered, a world in which tomorrow’s conflicts were resolved by elimination of the primal conflict today.
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.