WORK, FOOD, SLEEP
“Wake up! Move or you’ll feel the Three-Stick on your ugly backs. Work- Food- Sleep! Work- Food- Sleep!” The Overman’s voice drones mechanically as he stomps through the dark, mildew-covered barracks poking and kicking inert bodies. Two do not move. He kicks them again and grunts.
I open my left eye and look at him. I wish I could open the other, but it sleeps. It’s been asleep since… I can’t remember.
“Get up, scum! Move or no food this morning.” The Overman leans over and leers at me. His putrid breath crawls over brown, rotting tooth stumps and seeps down around my face. I don’t want to eat now.
Whack! A One-Stick comes down hard on my thigh. I grunt and throw scarred legs over the edge of my prison cot. The once rough-cut wood has worn smooth now and no longer snags my skin. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Nothing matters.
I move too slowly and the Overman raises his One-Stick again. I cringe and grab at my rags, pulling them around my old, deformed body. His umber grin frightens me as he taunts me by waving the stick in the air. It cuts deep when it strikes. Two other blood-stained wooden clubs clack menacingly together as they hang from his belt- his Two-Stick and Three-Stick. The two fingers thick Two-Stick bruises and torments. The Three-Stick kills. Sometimes I long for the Three-Stick.
The Overman kicks me and pushes me toward one of those still sleeping. “You. Take that one out to the Hole, then you can eat.” He jabs his stick at a motionless, white form. I tie my waist belt about me and pull the body to the floor. It smells badly, like the Overman’s breath. I wish it was me.
I glance warily up at the Overman and drag the body to the door, push the rotting burlap curtain aside and step out into the morning. It rained last night and the sun feels good. The air is clean. The smells of the rapidly heating jungle carry on the wind and a flesh-eater roars from off in the distance. I pay it no mind. Flesh-eaters are always out there, prowling and waiting for someone to scale the fence and escape. Maybe I should, but I am afraid.
An escaping prisoner was once caught and killed by the fence by a huge cat named Old Popper. I can still hear the screams. I can still see the guards pointing and laughing. I don’t know which is worse- the Sticks or Old Popper. The cats are worse. I don’t want to be eaten. I look past the fence in sadness. No one escapes. No one can. We are too deep in the jungle- so the Overman says.
Roar! I look towards the sound but see nothing. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a flesh-eater, but I hear them just the same. Old Popper has not been seen since… ? I can’t remember. I still hear it from time to time, but never see it. It perplexes me.
Whack! The One-Stick stings my shoulder and makes a new slit in my robe.
“Hurry up, scum.”
I hastily take my eyes from the beckoning green and put my might into pulling the body to the Hole. It‘s always open- always accepting contributions. At the edge I look at the body for the first time. My heart sinks. I knew this one. He was a young friend. He should not have been in this place. We spoke once, more than the allowed ten words, and the Overman caught us. His One-Stick took my eye. I reach up and feel the empty socket. A bumpy scar from my forehead to my cheek is all that remains. I don’t care.
The One-stick hisses back into the air and poises itself again. I close my eye and wait as always. The blow does not come. Instead, the Overman’s attention is drawn from me to two young boys being dragged across the yard’s sharp gravel by guards.
The Overman lowers his stick and grins. “Recruits,” he growls and strides off to inspect them.
I squat by my friend and watch as one boy stands erect and raises his clenched fist in the Revolutionists’ salute. I smile. Are they still using that outside? The yard is soon filled with screams as the Overman shows him his sticks. I don’t want to watch so I turn away and push my friend into the Hole.
As his gray body tumbles down the slope and falls against the others with a soft thud I am suddenly angry. He was my friend. This is not right. A strange feeling I haven’t felt in- how long?- tingles my scarred skin.
The noise jars me back to reality and I jerk my head reflexively in its direction. Old Popper! He is back with his peculiar growl. The roar sounds different than I remember, but, then, so am I. It has been a long time. I look along the fence line hoping to see the great cat again even though I hate it. “Come and get me,” I whisper. “Take me from this.”
I listen intently and watch.
Odd. I never noticed until now how similar the roars sound.
They are the same. A thought crosses my mind. Are the roars false? Mere recordings? My skin begins to tingle.
“You! What are you looking at? Go eat.”
I jerk as my reverie is jolted from me. The Overman is glaring at me. I put the thought from my mind and scurry away to the eating tent.
It is brown- brown and bitter. But food is always brown and bitter. I stare down at my spoon absently as it momentarily floats on top, then sinks beneath the oily surface with a soft “Gloip”. I’m still not hungry, but for different reasons now. I can’t stop thinking about Old Popper as a possibility taunts me- no more cats. A fly lands on my bowl rim and I instinctively snatch it up. It crunches slightly as I bite down. It is bitter, too, but not as bitter as the food. I wish more flies would land. I am hungry now.
“New friends,” the Overman bellows as he pushes the two bloody boys into the Food House. “See what happens when you don’t obey.” He raises his One-stick. The boys shriek in terror and one of them urinates on the floor. The Overman roars like a Flesh-eater and bludgeons the boy with his Three-Stick until the boy falls. He laughs and roars like a flesh-eater.
A lightning bolt courses down my back. His voice. Roar-pop. Yes! His voice… Old Popper’s voice! I understand now. I grip my spoon in my fist and feel it give way to my rage.
The other boy screams and throws himself on his brother and then, like a tightly wound spring abruptly released, flies up at the Overman. He wraps himself around the great mound of fat and both tumble to the wet dirt. The boy moves like a One-Stick as he bites, hits, kicks, scratches. Those about me wail and fall to their hands and knees as they were taught.
I do not. Instead, I remain standing. Why? I am terrified by my actions, yet exhilarated. The spoon folds in half and I drop it. My heart is pounding. Suddenly, I find myself scrabbling over the prone backs toward the bloated mass that ruined my life. I HATE the Overman. I grab his Three-Stick and hit him. It feels… wonderful. I hit him again and again. He groans and I hit him again. He stops groaning. I hit him again. His head splits open and smoke comes out. Smoke? Not blood?
The boy pushes away and stares first at me in amazement and then the dead Overman.
“It’s a cyborg,” he gasps. ” A frickin’ robot!”
I strike it again. I cannot stop. Wiring and parts mixed with organic tissue spray from its bludgeoned head. The other prisoners rise up and look at their inert captor in dismay.
The boy grabs my trembling arm. “It’s dead. We gotta run.” He looks toward the fence and hopelessness washes across his face.
I remember the cats. “Run to the fence.”
“No. The cats.”
“There are no cats. Run.”
“You, there. Stop!” I look past the boy and see two more cyborg guards running toward us.
I grab the boy and push him toward the fence. “Run,” I order. My voice is strong and firm. It startles me. It fills me with joy.
“No. You come, too.” He grabs my hand and pulls me until I am running. The hot air rushing by my face feels good, but it has been too long since I ran. My right knee collapses and I fall. I am too old to run.
The boy stops to help me up. I stand but cannot move. I look into his eyes. They are deep blue like my friend’s.
“I’ll help you,” he says and lifts my arm over his head. He is much shorter than me, but strong and vibrant. He needs to live.
“No. I can’t make it. You go. Run to the fence.”
“Run to the fence! Now!” I raise the Three-Stick. He backs away, turns and runs.
Thud! A Three-Stick strikes my shoulder.
I spin about and hit its wielder in the head. He falls as a lifetime of hate drives me. I hit him again. More smoke.
Thud! The second guard hits me.
I fall to my knees and look up.
The boy is at the fence. He hesitates.
“Climb the fence,” I yell. “RUN!”
He scales the fence and is gone.
I fall to my face. I cannot see. My numbing mind plays the camp doctrine of Work- Food- Sleep drilled into me for- how many years?
Work- Food- Sleep!
Work- F- fooo-
“Run, young one!”