The Cube - Chapter 11 - Continued

Was it possible to explain to an Inta toddler why his life was forfeit for this better future? Was it possible to explain to his parents why their child must be butchered for the Hutman cause? Was it possible to justify to these parents the bayonets thrust into their own bosoms? Was it possible to reclaim the gentle spirit of the agents carrying out these acts for the greater good? None of this was possible, yet progress required it. The world had seen too much bloodshed and Muglair was going to end it once and for all with an explosion of violence so spectacular none could succeed it. Would future generations thank him? Undoubtedly not. The streets and monuments and cities named in his honor would be stripped of the distinction, but that was a fate he could tolerate because those future indignant souls, practicing the same sentimental morality that had so long enslaved the Hutman, could maintain power in a world free of the Inta even with their indulgence. If there was a weakness besetting the planet, it was the belief that the common people should be left alone free of the interference of the state in their personal affairs, as if great conflicts did not arise from the individual choices of these same people. Muglair was resolving the greatest conflict of all, Hutman versus Inta, and some future government could embrace for itself the morality of leaving common folk alone at a time when they could be left alone without consequence. Muglair thought long and hard about taking these Inta rounded up from the provinces and now the cities and dumping them over the Edge into Arland. But to what purpose? So they could develop their own Inta cause with the aim of reclaiming former holdings in Skava? Arland would undoubtedly aid them in their plots and likely employ the Armada to force upon some future Hutman regime, one plagued by traditional weakness in the face of aggression, a resettlement plan and renewal of ancient conflicts. A man like Muglair did not come often in history. Indeed, the ancient conquerors, renowned for their lack of mercy, were a vanishing breed and Muglair might very well be the last. No one rejected the blessings secured for the Inta or the Hutmen by the creators of their nation states, the heroes of yore, however repugnant and bestial the founding acts were. And no future Hutman would reject the blessings bestowed upon him by Muglair with his indomitable will today. This was a unique moment in history that must be fully exploited to rid Skava forever of the Inta claim to power, and history had smiled upon the Hutman in the person of Muglair Putie. What some might call dystopia was the first stage of utopia, the purging from Skava of the bacillus causing infection. Muglair would not flinch from his task as long as he drew breath, however horrific the sacrifice it required, however much blood must be spilled. Strength in the face of resistance would be the defining characteristic of the Hutman cause as long as he was its leader.

Dunder did not have a disposal plan for the enormous number of corpses generated by the slaughterhouse. The perimeter expansion was visible to prying eyes and as a result bodies were again piled high in the courtyards of the interior barracks. Sackcloth was spread across window exteriors of the barracks to form crude curtains but Ivy could easily see the scope of the butchery through the many moth holes. It was unlike any horror she had witnessed in Dunder and there had been many. Disposal of these carcasses would require an enormous commitment of prison labor, for the prep work and launching were beneath the station of overseer. The barracks chief rounded up a detail for marching into the courtyard. Ivy mustered for the call out of fear of remaining with the Arlanders, not knowing their place in the scheme of slaughter. The fire pit had been filled in and regraded after the first wave of corpses from the Edge battles was incinerated. Fortunately the administration had the foresight to produce huge numbers of bladders so that future immolations would not be necessary, although even a warehouse full might not have proven sufficient for the new mounds of bodies rising as high as twenty feet in the courtyards. Work details periodically swapped assignments to gain the experience necessary to supplement labor needs as they arose. Prisoners trundled in carts of bladders which Ivy’s detail carried one by one to staging areas in the central courtyard for corpse launching. Another detail removed bodies from the piles, working in tandem on stepladders to reach the summits, and moved them to the center for linkage to bladders. One of the inefficiencies of Bogin’s method of killing was that perfectly good clothing went to waste, too drenched with blood and torn by blade work to salvage. Details stripped the corpses naked ripping off clothes with box cutters, removing jewelry and personal effects, and searching cavities for valuables.

Historically the camp disposed of one body at a time tied to a bladder filled slowly by hose with upwater. A sidebrick placed in a pocket of the bladder provided a slight off-line trajectory so that a corpse disarticulating in space or detaching from a bladder would not fall back to Skava. When the bladder had sufficient buoyancy a tether hook would be released and its cargo of stilled flesh, covered in cloth to maintain deniability, rocketed skyward never to return. Prisoner details were now instructed on a new method, one of Bogin’s innovations, of tying a rope with adjustable collars to multiple bodies to form a chain with bladders spaced at intervals to provide buoyancy. The overseers called these arrangements daisy chains and they yielded significant efficiency gains. Bladder capacity wasted on individual corpses could be conserved with a daisy chain by calibrating more precisely the number of bladders required for uplift. Where under the old method six bladders were needed for six bodies, even for children and petite women, under the new method three or four might suffice. It was also quicker for details to launch multiple bodies at once, with the bladders filled simultaneously and a single lever kick, rather than repeating the launch sequence individually for each corpse. No attempt was made to cover the daisy chains in cloth, the sheer scope of the effort not allowing time for such niceties. A debate was raging in camp administration over possible new efficiencies like the daisy chain. All these bodies, healthy and well-fed unlike longstanding prisoners, were wasted resources launched into the ether. Could not the meat and skin be put to good use, the meat for the protein needs of prisoners to engender a stronger and more productive labor force, the skins for assembly of bladders for disposal of more corpses? These were not times for ancient taboos of bodily integrity, not in a war of all against all. The supply of thabans was dwindling and their flesh and hides could not meet current needs. The camp had facilities in the pens for butchering and skinning and carving and curing and tanning and what Hutman could risk failure of the cause over sentimental attachment to the dignity of Inta death? This was not a debate to be resolved in Dunder without guidance from the top, and a query had already been sent to Leri Deri.

Ivy’s detail was assigned the task of linking together daisy chains in the courtyard center while another detail filled bladders on the ropes with upwater from hoses connected to underground storage tanks. Her first chain consisted entirely of small children who were among the first victims of the slaughterhouse because of the burden of their care. Her mind was scrubbed of feeling in this awful task but it occurred to her that she could not tell the difference between Hutman and Inta once stripped of clothing and adornments. The Interior Ministry published numerous diagnostics complete with diagrams and measurements distinguishing the races but to Ivy’s eyes they looked the same. Indeed she herself passed as Inta her entire life despite being born of Hutman parents because there was no reliable visual difference. Muglair liked to preach of the Inta’s rotund faces and squat bodies and walleyes but there was no evidence of this. She herself read in school, before the full flourishing of the cause, that there were no consistent physiological differences between Hutman and Inta whether by height or weight or phenotype other than slight statistical variations in hair and eye color. But the differing physical traits were so commonly shared across populations, and intermarriage was so prevalent, that one could not infer ethnicity of an individual based upon them. What distinguished the Inta was their self-appellation, their culture and traditions, and, in the villages at least, their peasant dress with macramé panels and abalone jewelry and pull-on footwear without ties. The children in Ivy’s ring were no older than Hope, toddlers only, little girls with hair in glittery bows, little boys in jumpsuits with button panels, all speared through the chest with bayonets in a binge of violence. What passed through their young minds watching companions slaughtered awaiting their turn? Probably an unthinking terror and failure to foresee their own fate even as a blade punctured their chests, even then expecting a parent to save them from the horrific pain and gush of blood, a mother to kiss the wound and make it better. Ivy clasped the collars around the necks of these little ones, their slaughter fresh and bodies lithe, following instructions to tighten without regard to airway constriction, a pointless but instinctive concern for dead throats, while the bladders filled to the point of levitation, the tethers growing taut and tugging on buried anchors. An overseer kicked a lever sending the daisy chain skyward, these bodies forever lost to the planet that generated them. A small troupe of living children was led into the courtyard as the slaughterhouse backed up and their minders could think of no other option but to consolidate the processes of killing and disposal. Ivy thought she was beyond capacity for horror but was proven wrong as she watched live children forced to the ground squirming with collars tightened around their necks to the point of choking, bladders growing tumescent, and a mindless kick on a lever sending them skyward to expire if not from the collars then from the thinning air of space.

A swarm of starlings swirled above the courtyard moving as a coordinated mass like a whirligig or banner flapping in the wind, settling down into the courtyard before taking flight in unison from the shooing of agents to darken the sky in a vortex. Overseers and prisoners pointed westward at approaching shapes visible through the multitudinous flock. Arland had been monitoring the slaughter in the camps and decided in its helplessness to dispatch small flotillas from the Armada to bomb the charnel houses. Air defenses around the camps were minimal, the Defense Ministry content to let Arland kill Skava’s traitors if it wished to waste ordnance. The flotilla rolled cluster bombs onto the plain before the camp opening a gaping hole across the outer perimeter and killing dozens of new arrivals in their path. Freshly impounded Inta, knowing the fate that awaited them in the slaughterhouse, poured en masse through the opening chased by detachments of perimeters guards mowing them down with semi-automatic weapons. The bombing raid continued across the camp taking out several barracks and production facilities but not the locus of killing in the slaughterhouse, Arland having no reliable information on camp layout and unable to discern from aerial observation. The processing of bodies from butchering to disposal momentarily ceased as the details returned to barracks. Agents and overseers departed on a zealous hunt for escapees, combing the streets of Dunder, attics, closets, cellars, sheds, wells, ditches, barns, outbuildings, stump holes in former orchards, and most intensively the hinterland forest. The authorities resolved to track down all fugitives and return them to the camp not out of vengeance but from adherence to plan. For they all knew that Inta scum would escape given the chance to continue their poisoning of Hutman society. That they had done so added no new information about their character. It was the duty of Skavian forces to see that historical justice was carried out in the manner prescribed by the coordinated Ministries. Because of the disorganization at intake the camp administration never achieved an accurate tally of escapes and blanketed the nearby villages with notices to beware desperate convicts who would rape their women and kidnap their children. Bogin ordered expeditions into the forest to root out bands of subversives with the ultimate goal that not a single Inta survive. Within a day the camp surveyed the damage from the bombings and restarted the process of extermination. The Inta awaiting slaughter had spent the day surrounded by guards terrified of their fate, some choosing to resist meeting instant gunfire, others choosing to pray and make peace with their maker. The field coordinator was proud to report to Interior that not a single agent was lost to Inta treachery during the search operation, so professional was its execution.

Overseers entered the barracks to muster details for renewed disposal duty, the piles again growing high from the death factory. The chief did not organize details this time and Ivy was segregated with Arlanders due to her Inta wristband. After the Skavians left for the courtyard a cohort of special agents arrived to round up the Arlanders. Ivy presented her band saying she was miscategorized and was struck across the face with a pistol butt. The agents marched the Arlanders toward the outer camp apparently to join the masses awaiting slaughter. Ivy had her own special escort presumably due to her impudence in displaying her band. But the agent ordered her to turn from the column toward the Interior bunker and followed behind with his pistol drawn. She passed through the special gate now wishing for an anonymous death in the slaughterhouse. For the diversion here by a special agent could only mean she was going to headquarters in Leri Deri. Whatever the horrors of death in Dunder, the purpose of the slaughter was simply to kill, not to torture. She knew that headquarters viewed interrogation as an exercise in crushing the spirit and maximizing bodily pain before death. Entering the bunker basement she realized how close to death she already was, her body wasted and mind shattered from the relentless horror. The director greeted her escorting agent, avoiding eye contact with the prisoner and feigning indifference to the routine transport of a wench. He was embarrassed to admit, even to himself, how Ivy Morven had outmaneuvered him on her previous two visits. Whatever his failures in handling this prisoner, she would now be in Bogin’s hands and his was a power she could not resist.

The director and two agents from headquarters loaded her into a transport in an underground garage connected to a tunnel emerging beyond the camp perimeter. The vehicle contained a flywheel revved in its casing to a high-pitched whine to supplement sidewater propulsion. She sat in a back seat with agents on either side, the director in the front next to the driver, all deathly quiet. Was she buying at least a few more hours of life with this detour? The fear and silence of the moment vaguely stimulated her conscience and she thought of how terribly she missed her husband and daughter. This was how it was going to end, in the torture chambers of Bogin, her loved ones probably already dead, their frozen bodies journeying across space, none of them ever knowing the fate of the others, none having appreciated the finality of their separation in that edge transport. The truck rumbled for hours across bumpy roads stopping twice at regional stations to retorque the flywheel and refill tanks. They passed within miles of Shamba where the Flume continued its mortal drain of the Sea, the column of water massive and uncontrolled, widening relentlessly from erosion. Eventually she saw through tinted glass the Stairway to the Sun angling heavenward to vertiginous heights, the architectural symbol of the Skavian capital with its ancient temple at the summit rededicated under Muglair as a shrine to the Hutman martyrs. The transport navigated the stone pavement of the capital through greens and monuments and canyons of concrete before descending a ramp into the bowels of the Interior Ministry headquarters a block off the plaza across from the cathedral. She had seen in her peripheral vision evidence of substantial bombing – entire neighborhoods flattened – but the infernal building into which she was descending was, as far as she could tell, unscathed, protected by the Almighty himself as Muglair proclaimed.

Agents in business attire approached the transport and asked the director to exit. For a moment Ivy detected fear on his face and almost felt pity. Interior had no reason to call him to Leri Deri other than to execute him. They could acquire whatever information he had to offer through reports and could undoubtedly extract more information from the subject by their own methods. Ivy wanted to feel sympathy for this man who had so brutally murdered inmates at Dunder because she believed her humanity required it. Did he have a wife? Did he have children? Did this cruel man who believed he was on the side of right and justice deserve the fate that beckoned? She could not find pity within her heart, only the suspicion that she was hopelessly blackened by its absence. She herself faced a more horrific death, the sadistic torture of Bogin designed as scientific inquiry to see how far a body and spirit can be broken before extinction. The director would likely receive a quick and painless death.

In her Harmour days she was once told of a loyalty chair in the bunker levels of headquarters. Agents subject to performance reviews would sit in the chair with arms clasped on armrests, necks collared against a backrest, a steel beam cocked behind their heads in a pneumatic tube. The reviewer had two buttons to press, one launching the beam instantly snapping the agent’s neck, the other releasing the clasps indicating satisfactory performance. Failure to submit to the loyalty chair was itself evidence of disloyalty, the punishment for which was confinement to the loyalty chair, with a predictable button selection based upon insubordination. The pneumatic tube could be pressurized so high that the beam would shear the head from the neck but this was unnecessarily messy. The point of the chair was not to inflict pain or bodily outrage but to gauge the devotion of agents and to cull underperformers. Or, in the case of the regional director of Dunder, to eliminate agents who knew too much. The chair was not a torture device but a tool of human resources. That the director would never have a moment to reflect upon why the launch button was pressed was a sign of Interior’s humanity. As a rule they did not torture their underperforming agents for fear of eroding morale among surviving colleagues. And the director himself was not an underperformer; his excellent work in the Dunder bunker would attest to that, as could the chief of Barracks No. 23 from the mutilated corpses her detail disposed. No, there were considerations more important than the life of a regional director, and where such a man had contact with a possessor of state secrets of the highest order, his continued breath was a threat to national security no matter how stellar his reviews.

Ivy remained seated in the transport waiting for the order to exit but the chassis pivoted one-hundred eighty degrees and the vehicle rolled back up the ramp. The vehicle nearly struck a pedestrian darting across the street, an insolent peasant who cursed the driver and slapped the car for the near miss not knowing the evil he was taunting. It occurred to Ivy that Interior must have sites blacker than headquarters. For all its renown the fact that headquarters was a known entity was a liability. The true work of professional interrogators, those who played the human body like a finely tuned instrument, would be carried out in some basement not found on any map, at the end of a long road guarded by sentinel booths descending into a bunker beneath a field carefully landscaped to blend with surrounding farmland, a bunker in which truth artists could perform, artists who had honed their skills through hundreds of performances and firsthand observations of the mastery of virtuosos. She pondered her stupidity for not acting on the Second of Skitton when she had a chance to stop all this, the loss of her family, the mass extermination of Inta, her impending execution, the apocalypse to follow. Through the fog of her altered state, from a tiny crevice in her sleep-deprived food-deprived water-deprived emotion-deprived body, she knew why she failed to act. It was her destiny to suffer, all fate had conspired to make it so, and she had merely intuited divine will. God had no plan for her distinct from the torturer. The infliction of suffering was the purpose of her being, and no higher aim was needed. Bogin was the closest person on earth to God, one who took great pride in the infliction of pain in myriad creative ways, for he knew, as did the Creator, that the human capacity to suffer far exceeded the capacity to love, and to fully utilize His creation one must inflict upon His subjects a neverending series of indignities, all for the joy of tragedy, for the delight of watching feeble hopes and bonds and affections give way to the only truths that matter, those of destruction and pain and loss, looking death in the eyes and accepting its inevitability with no satisfaction of a loved one to bid farewell, no hope for salvation in an afterlife, no fulfillment of earthly dreams before demise, no tying up of loose ends, just a cruel and painful and meaningless cessation of living.

Ivy would be the perfect victim of fate, of Bogin and of God, for she had nothing in Harmour, gained everything in the Notches, and lost all in Skava in agony and suffering. For only one who has known love after deprivation can fully appreciate the horror of losing. Her journey would now end with the scalpels and probes and needles and drills and slicing and flaying and tourniquets and shackles and vises and burning and bone work and alcohol and acid and insects and vermin of Bogin’s artists all surrounded by mirrors to witness with eyelids surgically removed the slow desecration of body in disorienting lights and sounds calculated to induce resignation with the drone of a torturer feigning logic and humanity while slowly ripping away tissue one layer at a time to see if he can break his record for sustaining life in the remnants of a butchered anatomy, to watch breathe a tangle of mutilated flesh with exposed organs and missing extremities on the delicate edge of succumbing for as long as possible, and thereby achieve the envy of colleagues and the glory of the status of maestro. Somewhere in the higher planes the force that gave birth to this awful planet was rubbing His hands in anticipation of the show to follow, all orchestrated by His faithful servant here on earth, Interior Minister Bogin.

Ivy’s life was one of endless black episodes punctuated by a single burst of light in the Notches. It was so black now her only solace was the numbness of her heart. No doubt the torturers would nurse her back to emotional health so she could experience the full horror of death. But as the transport rolled on, stopping to recharge the flywheel, she felt a new sensation. What if she were not being shipped to death? There remained a force on this planet that willed her salvation, an even greater evil than Bogin, one that knew of spiritual suffering beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to inflict. She could be saved by this greater force but only for a new chapter of evil, a damnation eternal in scope without the relief of earthly demise, but it would close the current chapter in Skava and perhaps qualify as a form of hope, that the hell she believed she could not escape in Skava would by miracle be transformed into a more profound hell she could resist, for integral to this new evil was the playing of a game with cosmic consequences, and had she not demonstrated her resourcefulness time and again when given a chance, and was not the essence of a game that each player have a chance?

She was hooded by the agents and could no longer view the countryside. But the driver made no effort to mask the direction of travel and she knew they were driving north. On this planet driving straight in any direction long enough always led to an edge. And she knew what lay over the edge north of Leri Deri. That was the meaning of the cryptic word she heard in the Notches throwing cookie dough, the word she mysteriously uttered to her husband when forcibly separated in the edge transport, the name of a meeting place where one of two destinies would prevail. The vehicle stopped and she was dehooded and escorted to a crossing station at Skava’s edge with Leland. Elbows secured by agents, her emaciated form was nudged onto a sled manned by personnel from the governing directorate of this neutral side who had received word of transfer of a prisoner to be granted refugee status without inquiry. As the sled descended she watched Skava disappear like a floor through the open door of an elevator, a wretched country she hoped never to see again, a place of evil dressed in progress, where children perished on the tips of bayonets for grand lies, where whole peoples disappeared so that survivors could seek new divisions to justify murder. She was convinced that only one man on the planet had the power to save her from Muglair, a man with gifts not earthly in character, and he would be waiting for her here in Irla, the administrative capital of Leland, expecting as reward submission of the one who defied him, victory in the cosmic game. She would have no choice but to offer that reward because it was her only chance for reunion with those she loved, and fate had ordained that her suffering continue.

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