The following story pretty much kicked my tail to write. I struggled through ideas...which ones I wanted to include in the story, hypomanic states where I sat down to write only to be distracted by junk on the Internet (*shakes fist in the general drection of ICanHazCheezeburger*) and ended up "on fire" to the point where I got a few minutes of sleep and was a wreck the next day.
This tale, which I don't know whether to call "fantasy" or "sci-fi" (impossible world with a science fiction "feel") is about a world where humanity has divided itself into an upper class of people who think they are very rational and who are actively trying to prefect the species by ridding it of all things overly passionate - and a regular working class of people, many of which long to be chosen to be part of the superior class. There is some minor refernce to art history as well as to an actual dream I once had. There is also, for fair warning, a protagonist who begins as a female but ends up as an androgynous "male" as part of becoming another class - this is presented as a sci-fi thing rather than anything that's supposed to resemble real life just because I couldn't banish the idea of my protagonist being thus "divided" out of my brain. I don't know how well I handled it, but again, it came to me in a very sci-fi way in a world without the struggles of our world.
Oh, and big cats that act like horses. Yep, it has those, too.
With a Clockwork Heart
She rode the silver cat across the dark blue plain. The sky was deep in pink, growing lighter with the approaching dawn. Chain spurred her mount to chase Lin’s lavender cat up ahead. Chain loved riding great cats. It got her blood pumping, her instinctual thrill up. Moving fast upon a powerful animal whose muscles and warmth she could feel beneath her legs, even through thick pants, always brought up a primal feeling. The young woman did not always get to do this, even though she lived in a camp of working families whose sole duty was taking care of the stables for the nearest city.
A man on the night-shift was killed last week when he’d been late in getting the animals their dinner. He’d been jumped and devoured by old Phasha in his stall. The man-eater remained in the stable despite his crime because an Elite individual favored him. The stablehands, even those that had not known Phasha’s victim, were particularly uncomfortable around him now. Bigg, Chain’s chosen mount, had always been gentle and just a little more patient in waiting for his meat than most of his kind. She wondered if that would change as he aged. Cats could develop very different temperaments as they got older.
Chain wondered how much she would change upon becoming an Elite. She knew that she would be able to ride cats whenever she wanted after the transformation, but she did not know if she would enjoy it as much – if she would feel as passionate as she did as an Underclassman. The clockworks that were to be installed in her heart would regulate her emotions and keep her from having an overage of passion. That was one of the many things that separated Elites from the rest of humanity.
If Underclassman were really “humanity...” The Elites seemed to think that they were the “true humanity,” which was the incentive for behaving correctly enough to be chosen to join them. To be an Elite meant living in one of the cities and being permitted to travel. It meant an access to history and letters. It meant a career in science and leadership. It meant respect. It meant being a part of ruling the world.
Chain found her friend’s mount tied to the sturdy branch of a tree. Lin was beneath a tall, flowering cherry tree, taking off her glasses and putting them back on again. That was something that the Elite class did not have to worry about: The procedures done to their bodies to identify them as Elites gave them nearly perfect health. Chain’s eyes were good, but they would be optimal next week. She’d only been chosen a week ago. The finalizing of the records was quick, but not instantaneous.
Ancient, weatherworn tombstones jutted out of the ground to Chain’s left. She tied her cat next to Lin’s and walked up to her friend.
“What in the world are you doing?” she asked.
Lin turned around, nudging her glasses back up on the bridge of her nose. “Getting ideas for a painting,” she said. She had her drawing book turned to a blank page and her set of watercolor and gouache paints already laid out on a boulder.
“Don’t you need your glasses for that?” Chain pointed out.
“I’m trying to see things in a new way,” Lin answered. She turned to the front of her book. She flipped past detailed paintings that captured stones and flowers in firmly trained realism. Even though photographic equipment could capture images perfectly, anyone interested in the visual arts was trained to do the same. This was the art that the Elites valued. Chain gasped as Lin turned to a page depicting the cherry tree in bright smears and dashes – not realistic at all.
“I’m trying to capture the essence, the impression” Lin explained. “My bad eyes are kind of good for that.”
“But it’s just smears,” Chain said. “You’re painting like… like a wild beast!”
“It’s just seeing things in a new way,” Lin tried to defend herself. “I think I can capture the color better when I’m not focusing on the details.”
“It’s not real,” Chain contended. “It’s unreal. Do you know how much trouble you can get for this kind of… art?”
“Not as much trouble as I can get into for this stuff,” Lin said cheerfully as she flipped past blank pages of her book to some pages in the back. The pages were filled with vibrant splashes and abstract visions. Two paintings featured mythical creatures – painted and penned in Lin’s typical realistic hand – but the capering beasts were not of any type that existed in life.
“I’ve taken to painting out my emotions,” Lin said, “my dreams… and some of the stories of the past that we have mostly forgotten. I know I’m never going to become an Elite. I’m not suited for it, like you are… but you are my friend, and I trust that you will not turn me in. I wanted to show these to someone. What is art if it isn’t seen?”
“Elites do not dream,” Chain said. “It is one of the things that is regulated by the heart-replacement. It controls the vitae, regulating emotion and ridding the person of irrationality.”
“You were chosen because you’re very rational and analytical. You have a grounded mind, unlike mine. Don’t you think you’ll miss dreaming, though?”
“Maybe, but I think it’s a small price to pay to be a higher member of the species.” Chain looked out upon the worn stones of the forgotten cemetery. “We’ve been coming here for a long time. I think a little too much about it sometimes…”
“The people forgotten here? I do, too. I suppose it’s why some folk will still pray to things they don’t understand even though we aren’t supposed to. Underclass or Elite, all we do for the world ends in this. Do the Elites even think about it?”
“The Elites are working on a solution… If I live long enough, I might never die.”
“I’m sure that privilege will only be for Elites,” Lin replied. “I’m pretty sure that the Underclass is kept around not just to work and for the breeding purpose, but just because they need someone to look down upon. If we were all Elites, there wouldn’t be any sophistication…no unsophisticated types to compare themselves to.”
“All rulers need rabble, I guess,” Chain said, stretching her arms above her head as her friend painted in the wafting cherry blossoms. They floated in the breeze like snow. Chain liked to think that she would feel as strongly about Spring as what she was about to become as the person she was currently. The second-hand of her new heart was only supposed to keep in check the dangerous abundance of feeling, divisive feelings. Individuals chosen for “elevation” were, by their own confession, devoid of “spiritual” sentiment – though if they’d secretly harbored any, it was supposed to vanish. It was the same with passions such as anger or any proclivity to unreasonable fantasy.
Imagination wasn’t off-limits to the Elites, in fact, it was vital to works of science and engineering, and was needed in rulership, but it was tightly controlled. Any thought for “what might be” had to be grounded in known reality, like Lin’s by-training detailed paintings. Deviations into unapproved things – especially things that were rumored to have caused people much suffering and bloodshed in the past could be harshly punished… more so for an Elite than for an Underclassman, since the Elite were supposed to be rendered physically immune to that which was “wild.” It was quite alright, for instance, to imagine the existence of other worlds, provided they were very much like the real one. It had been decreed long ago, however, that people should stop telling stories about dragons because dragons didn’t exist.
To actually believe that these other worlds existed in some way was a terrible affront, for that kind of imagination could lead to all kinds of other crazy ideas, which a crazed person might presumably hurt others over. It was also deemed that if someone believed in too many crazy ideas (or perhaps just one particularly irksome one), their mind was too damaged for them to be of value. The Underclass had some leeway in this, as they were considered the “past” of humanity as well as “the masses,” and as having a lower value, anyway, but a degree of control was expected of and enforced in even the poorest of their towns.
The law was modified when a gateway to another world was discovered. Rifts had opened here and there around the world. There was one not far from Chain and Lin’s settlement. Apparently, the rifts were only one-way. People from another world had appeared, but none could pass into that other world. Once on this side of the rift, the otherworldly visitors were stuck. They looked just like regular people. They even spoke the local language – wherever they showed up. More than one report had described them as the least probable thing to have ever happened. Reporters were barred from using the word “miracle.” Even as a hyperbole, it was a forbidden term.
Many of the newcomers had been deemed intelligent enough to become Elites, but the “secondhanding” operation invariably killed them. The seat of their consciousness and emotions lay in their brains rather than in the heart, which in them was an extraordinarily sensitive organ. Their vitae did not swim in their blood and scientists among the Elites still knew precious little about the brains of these strange people. Any that crossed over recently were put into the Underclass camps and factories. Chain had met one once. He’d claimed that his job wasn’t much different than the one he’d most recently had in the world beyond the rift, except he’d bred and trained horses, not cats. He questioned the wisdom of using large predators as beasts of burden and then shut up and fed Bigg his horsemeat when the supervisor walked by.
The Elites had advanced technology… medicine that could not make them live forever, but could extend their lifespan far beyond members of the Underclass. They had communication technology and even machines that took care of small chores and inconveniences. However, there were always certain chores that were better done by organic beings. People still rode cats not just for pleasure… enforcement personnel relied upon their sharp ears, noses and twitchy animal instincts. To raise them and other animals, Underclassmen with twitchy emotions and “animal-like” intuition were the best tools for the job. There were multitudes of tasks that were deemed “too dull” or “too dirty” for the Elites to waste their intelligence on. The world needed leaders and high-level problem solvers. It also needed kitchen staff and manure recyclers.
Mostly, however, the Elites needed breeders.
“I wonder what it will feel like for you, becoming a man,” Lin mused.
Chain spared a glance for Bigg, who was rolling on the ground, playing with his reins. Lin’s steed, Westley, looked as though she’d fallen asleep standing up – four huge paws planted firmly upon the ground.
“I won’t really be becoming a man,” Chain corrected. “The Elites make their own into an image after the male pattern, but I won’t really be a guy like we’ve known guys. What they are is something entirely different from us.”
It was true that the Elites, in addition to modifying the heart with clockworks that would tick emotions into order and tock away the irrational and dangerously strong passions, would modify the body so as to get rid of that which would cause division among their “higher class.” This meant ridding the division of the sexes. The male form was chosen above the female form on the grounds that, throughout history, males had been dominant in most cultures. People from the rift-world had attested that it was the same in the place they had come from, but most in their generation had responded to it by fighting for respect. The Elites responded by making every one of their own “dominant.”
It was an unequipped dominance, however. Elites were sterile. This was because they chosen from among the Underclass as worthy of being elevated to their status. Only those that thought enough like them were considered sophisticated enough to receive entrance into what they termed their “higher species.” As it turned out, genetic modification and eugenic-breeding in the early days of their great experiment to create a better class of human did not work. The most brilliant of couples could produce a stupid and immoral offspring and, more importantly, the opposite could happen – idiots could unpredictably breed a genius. Much of the Elite criteria for what made a human “valuable” or “sophisticated” and worthy of their ranks did not lie in the blood. They were quite required to keep an “inferior” race around to chose the pick of the litter from among them… at least until they could discover how to create new members of their species without relying on chance. While too much individualism was frowned upon in the cities, they did not desire undifferentiated clones.
“Hup! Hup! Come on…” Chain said as she nudged Bigg in the side. She helped him to untangle from his reins. “Such a hopeless beast,” she muttered.
She looked back at Lin, engaged in painting while periodically taking her eyeglasses off and putting them back on, trying to capture her “essences” and “impressions.” She wondered if Lin was right about the Elites keeping the Underclass around not primarily for work, but for the sake of having people to look down upon so as not to start stabbing each other in the back.
She wondered if she would look down upon her best friend in the time after her secondhanding.
Chain knew that she would. In fact, while she kept her tongue still, she knew that she already looked down upon Lin a little. She was not going to hand her over to authorities, for imprisoning such a harmless person would be pointless, however, she could, as someone with a mind of Elite-value, have a true respect for anyone whose mind was on the edge of essence.
He sat on the cold flat bunk, watching the shadows cast by crosshatch-bars bathed in harsh incandescent light. He timed the subtle shifts of those shadows and the diamonds of light on the floor to the gentle clicks and beats of his clockwork heart. Chain stretched out one of his gangly arms and watched the diamonds dance across the clay-like white skin. He’d missed the subtle tan he’d once had when his arms were shorter.
The body had been a shock to see in a full-length mirror for the first time – a flat chest compared to pre-modification status, but with the curve of muscles. The height had been difficult to get used to. Chain’s limbs had been lengthened to fit with the standard-model height of Elites of seven feet. He’d never thought of Elites as having legs disproportionate to the rest of their bodies until looking at his own. The chalk-white skin was likewise something he’d had no problem accepting in others but was a strange, new thing.
The height difference and the new skin were even stranger to him than the lack of attributes common to male animals. He knew that Elites did not have anything that was unnecessary and the elimination of wastes was still possible. Other things were not, or at least, that was the idea. Chain still thought he looked like an undressed mannequin when he was nude. He couldn’t help but wonder what young men who’d been chosen for “elevation” thought about it when after it had been done. Chain figured that he was lucky that even when he was a little girl, he’d felt he’d had something of a 50/50 mind in regards to the feminine and the masculine and had not, even as a teenager, ever been overly interested in the procreative arts.
Not that his fellow Elites hadn’t found ways to fudge that rule…The Elite species was supposed to be “above sex,” but some of them found creative ways to use their androgynous bodies. Chain learned quickly, that like the Underclass, some members of the Elite broke the rules, even though those rules were their own.
However, some rules were never, ever to be broken. Chain had broken such a law, through no will of his own… He was here to be “rehabilitated,” but the process was likely to simply kill him.
It had been several weeks after Chain had undergone the “secondhand” procedure – getting a “second body” and a “new heart.” Things had gone quite well for him at first. He’d been given tours of several cities where his kind enjoyed fine entertainments and exercises of the intellect. The only Underclassmen he saw were doing odd jobs and basic maintenance of the streets. The Elites lived and worked in tall towers, letting cast-offs and run-offs flow below to be taken care of by those who lived for the purpose. Chain had spent a day watching his new people racing riding-cats in one city. He’d thought of signing on to be a sportsman and entertainer so that he could do that, but was given an administrative position instead, at least to start with as he took time to chose from various fields of study to pursue.
He was to go back to his own city and to the countryside he’d once called home in order to make sure the allocation of goods and services between the city and his once-compatriots ran smoothly. Chain’s was to be a rather patronly position. He’d hoped not to break the rules with it… not that he’d expected punishment if he’d fudged them. It was just a matter of honor for the newly-minted Elite.
Strange...It was strange that he’d broken a law by chance. It showed that he still had, in a small, simple way, a “simple mind,” despite what had been done to him.
The Underclass worked for all and were given a “simple existence as simple minds needed,” supposedly. They were given the hope “to make it,” if they lived correctly and were picked out of observations and testing. They were given “miracles,” (although that word had not existed for a long time). Of course, the classrooms of childhood were staffed by Elites willing to become teachers and it was instilled from an early age that the Elites were superior people in every moral and intellectual way.
Before finding himself in the cell with the diamond-patterned bars, Chain had wanted to do right by his family and by his friends, such as Lin. He had no desire to be as Nirron.
Chain had heard tell of a man named Nirron who’d taken the adoration due to Elites farther than any thought proper. His actions continued to be tolerated mainly because of the universal disregard for the Underclassmen. “Of course the lesser would act lesser” was the excuse. All anyone knew was that no one was to be selected for secondhanding from the area that Nirron held charge of. He was a practitioner of medical and genetic sciences. His works had produced improbable crops in his division’s desert climate. His other projects had simultaneously produced a greater number of healthy births among the “rabble” and controlled their rate of birth so that the people would not accidentally deplete their sparse resources.
The people of Nirron’s desert-district had started worshipping him. He would let them bow before him and extend the back of his left hand for them to kiss. The people were not supposed to worship or pray – whether they beseeched gods, spirits, beasts or objects. It was considered divisive and “fanciful.” However, this practice was overlooked when it came to Elite-worship if it was kept to “harmless parameters.” Prayer to ancestral deities was always considered “harmful,” but the Elites did not seem to mind it much when such devotions were directed toward them.
Nirron had defended the indulgence of his subjects with the claim that he was a real, physical savior. Chain was sure it was just human pride leaching past the regulatory clockworks of the heart into the “better” humans. Nirron had chosen to spare the life of an elderly Underclass woman in his division who was caught performing a small ritual in celebration of the old gods. He was seen as a generous overseer for this, even though he had saved her primarily on account of her advanced age. Even more people who’d felt a need for worship kissed his hand.
Nirron was a savior who would cure his people’s sicknesses and make sure they were fed well as they mined the badlands, but if he or any of the other Elites were to ever cure Death itself – he would die before sharing it with anyone in the Underclass. His “poor little children” were ever beneath him.
That is how all of the Elites thought of the people they’d been “elevated” out of. Chain knew it from the afternoon he’d awakened from his last surgery, holding the hand of Mae, the man who had chosen him. When Mae had congratulated him with “You have arrived,” Chain knew what his place was to be. He was on top – the “unenlightened” were beneath his feet, just “poor little children” at best, in need of elevation, most of them herd beasts, few worthy to actually be brought up.
Toe the line, be naturally well-controlled and grounded within the world, know your place, display your intelligence – but don’t ever outshine your teachers even when you know you can, quell your feelings, never get caught celebrating anything fanciful, know where the lines are and do not cross them…
Chain thought quite coolly about how he’d lived his childhood and adolescence. There wasn’t any attachment to what he might have lost, though he knew he’d lost something. The girl he used to be had always been analytical by default. He hadn’t had the disadvantage of “too much creativity,” like some he’d known who would likely never “arrive” because even if they’d kept any urge to worship anything other than one of their local Elites in check, showed high brainpower in their classes and were supremely sane, they still insisted upon experimenting with paint-smears rather than practicing their crafts the correct way…
Lin… Chain had kept quiet about Lin. His old friend, even in something as simple as her strange paintings, had a hint of rebellion in her. Even Chain’s new heart, ticking away to dull the passions, did not erase the loyalty he had decided upon regarding her. Lin was a weak person – an Underclassman without violence in her. She would toil all of her life, thinking her criminal thoughts and dreaming her little dreams. She would never be “elevated,” but there was no practical need to cast her down.
Lin would not see Chain as superior should they meet again. Chain, unlike others of his higher race, would not have cared, either. Too many people of his former home would gasp in awe of his gracious presence if life had gone according to the Elites’ plan and their fawning would have been sincere enough.
As it was, Chain was imprisoned for doing what he thought of as a “very Lin-like thing.” He’d had a dream.
It wasn’t as though Chain had never dreamed before. Underclass-people were in their natural state and so had dreams when they slept. Elites, however, were different. The clockworks put into their hearts were a machine that worked with the heart to regulate the life force in the blood that was common to all of the people of their world. It balanced the emotional part of this force, ticking away like a clock, each click of the gears and the hands banishing the most dangerous and irrational bits.
The “secondhand heart” was not perfect in this, though medical Elites tried to improve upon each generation of the technology. Members of the Elite were still able to fall in love, though only with each other and that was growing less and less common. Anger was brought into check to such a degree that the only murder ever heard of anymore was someone of the Underclass killing another Underclassman, although Elites did have the authority to conduct cold, logical executions – when it was deemed beneficial to them to do so. History told the Elite that they did suffer a stagnation of Art, but, for the most part, they did not miss it. If regulating out irrational impulses meant that some beauty had to be sacrificed for practicality, the people that had started them on this road had been more than willing to pay the price. Those currently on the road missed nothing, unless they were hiding something before they were “elevated,” in which case they quickly forgot or kept eternal silence.
The last frontier in bringing imaginations in line with rationality had been doing something about the dreaming mind. The first people to ever undergo the “secondhanding” process had been quite distressed that they still had strange visions during the night that neither they by will nor the clockworks could banish or control. Improvements upon the clockworks had been such a success that no Elite had been bothered by dreaming in over seventy years. (This was one of the baffling things about the people from beyond the rift: Even the most self-controlled and logical among them dreamed. For them, it was a necessary biological function). It was not a basic necessity for those whose emotion swam in the blood.
When one of the mechanisms was perfected, the sleeping mind was brought under subjection and all budding dreams were ticked away with a few clicks of the heart’s second-hand.
Chain had defied that (not by choice) by having a dream the night after he’d come back to the hospital and base where he’d been staying during his acclimation from his tour of the City by the Sea. The memories of the dream were vague, having begun to fade as soon as he’d awakened, very startled from it. There was only night in an Elite’s sleep – only the darkness of the lidded eyes and the darkened bedroom. At least, that was how it was supposed to be.
Chain had not known whether it was the talking cuts of beef that had frightened him awake or the realization that he had been, in fact, having a dream at all. As the hour-hand of his heart assured him that he was alive and the minute-hand of his heart ticked away the bulk of his fear, he wasn’t able to muster enough appropriate fear in regards to sharing his vision. He’d sought out Mae to speak to him about it, hoping that the one in charge of his well-being in beginning his new life might be able to help him logic-out the puzzle.
Instead, Chain was given the status of being a dangerous subject and placed in a holding-area for Elites that were “defective.” He sat in a small cell, awaiting a secondary surgery to try to adjust the mechanics of his clockwork heart. The procedure was either going to mold him into the Elite that he was expected to be or it would kill him. The latter was more likely. Very few survived the adjustment surgeries. In that case, it would be filed away as a proper execution.
He’d been allowed a pencil and a pad of paper, in case he wanted to leave some notes for his family or for those that had been taking care of him, or in case he wanted to scribble out some puzzles or to jot down a list of things that had brought him to this point to be used as clues to prevent others such as him from happening in the future.
“Man has always sought to shape man in man’s own image,” he scrawled, not really understanding what he was writing. “Guess I didn’t take, though I was eager. My mold was formed by chance, but is still to be broken. Now I await the death of my dreams, one way or another.”
Chain scribbled a “goodbye” to his parents before finishing it with a note to a friend; “Keep painting, Lin.” He knew that Lin was wise enough to hide away her irrational work, unlike him, speaking of his dream. The clockwork heart had not ticked away his foolish trust. Irrationally-artistic Lin, he knew, was too smart for that kind of trust. She was capable of imagining betrayal without the fear of it being ticked away by a mechanism.
His captors assured him that if he died during the adjustment that it would be an easy death. They said that he’d go to sleep and not wake up and that he’d simply slip into darkness. Chain didn’t entirely trust that. If he was aware enough of the darkness to experience it, perhaps the process wouldn’t be terrible. Chain thought that he could just as easily awaken during the procedure to see his chest opened and to feel small knives scrape against his bones. He’d heard rumors that a few “readjustments” had ended with subjects awakening like that. Chain feared that if that happened and he died right then, his “eternity” might be made of his own screams.
At the same time, Chain remained calm. His heart ticked away his fear before it became panic. He breathed easy, accepting the possibilities of fate.
A guard came for Chain and opened the door to her cell. “Is there anything that you wish to do before the procedure?” he asked in a passionless voice. “You are one of us, even if you are incomplete. You are allowed a visit to the garden or to speak with Mae.”
Chain rose from his bench, feeling underdressed next to the guard in his uniform. All Chain had on was a plain pair of shorts that had been issued to him. Casting a sidelong glance to the figures outside the window of the cell, Chain whispered “Take me to the stable, please.”
The crosshatch bars rattled as the door slid into place. Chain walked beside the guard serenely. There were criminals of the Underclass held here, too, in different blocks – hence the guards patrolling astride great cats outside. As an Elite – even as a broken Elite – Chain knew that he was entitled to this privilege.
“Why the stable?” his companion inquired.
“I love cats. I just want to pet one for a final time, if it is, indeed, my final time.”
Chain was led into a clean stable with rows of great cats in stalls. Some of them attended to the remains of their dinner while a few craned their necks above their wooden stall-doors, the top doors of which were open to allow them to sniff the air and growl at their companions across the row. Several stalls were empty – the ones with cats that were working presently.
Chain found a silver beast that reminded him of Bigg. “Agen,” he read on the nameplate on the stall. The cat was a female. Chain eyed his guard as he caressed Agen’s head and gently played with her ears. The cat purred and pushed him with his huge head.
“May we be left alone?” Chain asked.
The guard sighed and walked off down a hallway. The stable was closed right now. The area outside was filled with guards. Also, Chain knew, through an off-beat tick of his heart that the guard did not dream that he would want to escape. Alhough he’d been held in a cell as a precaution, no one that had ever been “elevated” refused a secondary secondhanding if one was prescribed. After all, they had been chosen to become Elite. No one who’d been given that privilege would ever want to be anything else. Also, having had the procedure done, there was no place for them to go. It wasn’t as though anyone could become a member of the Underclass again.
The second hand of the clockworks was supposed to tick away overages of emotion, including fear – even fear of possible death.
Chain’s new heart, however, was just broken enough to let in some of his Underclass instincts – just a few of them. He had enough feeling to care about his memories. Not only was he concealing her knowledge of Lin’s subversive activities out of sentiment the kind of which Elites were said to see as a weakness, Chain had a desire to live just a little bit longer.
“I remained myself after all, I guess,” he said as she drew some tack from where it had been left upon a wall and began saddling up the silver cat. He tucked the rims of a set of goggles over the animal’s ears. Goggles were great for keeping sand and dirt out of a great cat’s eyes as well as providing visibility in the night with the press of a tiny button.
Chain mounted and casually rode out of the stable. The guards caught sight of him and snapped to attention. Chain leaned over and whispered to his mount. “Run!” He kicked the poor beast in the sides and flattened his body against the saddle.
A final ride around the facility before becoming fully-integrated. A final ride before death. Either way, an experience that Chain had to have. Execution or “elevation” – either one was a kind of death and in this moment, Chain was living.
His heart was beating fit to burst its clockworks.
For several minutes and endless moments in the mind, Chain was a young woman again, a girl riding her own favorite cat across a blue plain, ready to meet her best friend at the ancient graveyard with trees in bloom. The girl regretted ever even wanting to be elevated. She was unsophisticated, ignorant foolish and free. She was mad with the desire to pray to anything and everything except an Elite, to cry openly, howl at the moon and to laugh at them all in their faces. She wanted to smear paint across a piece of canvas or paper in the most abstract and haphazard way possible. She wanted to paint with her fingers and then smear her body in all the colors. Most of all, she wanted to ride – to fly across the open land, belonging to nobody, in leaps and bounds tandem with a beautiful steed.
Before Chain realized it, Agen had leapt the wall of the facility. The beast was running hard across the desert district, over a blue hardpan plain. The animal seemed to leap forever.
When Chain bothered to look back the way they had come, he saw no pursuers. He thought he saw a puff or two of dust caused by men turning their steeds around. Agen slowed to a walk of his own accord. Chain stayed astride him, dumbfounded and clutching his aching chest. He hadn’t actually busted his mechanism, had he?
He looked at scraggly bushes and tufts of dry grass as Agen huffed and chuffed. He dismounted, allowing the animal to rest. The cat flopped upon the dust of the plain gratefully. She panted and held what almost resembled a smile to Chain. He removed the cat’s reins and goggles. The animal definitely had a smile in her eyes.
“You enjoyed that as much as I did, hmm?” Chain said, rubbing the cat’s forehead. He looked down a little agave plant growing at his feet, then turned around and looked at the open desert ahead.
Chain had nowhere to go to. Riders from the facility would probably ride out to find him and take him back to complete the adjustment procedure – or just for termination since he’d just proven a dangerous instability. He laid the reins and goggles upon the ground before Agen. “Thank you, friend,” he said as he began walking away, “and goodbye.”
The cat panted and licked her nose in response. She did not get up.
Chain walked on toward a ravine. He walked along the rocks until he found a way down into it and began to investigate a dry wash at its bottom. He knelt down and started to dig in the sand, seeing it there was, perhaps, some water from the last rainstorm caught in the deeper sand. His hands came up dry. He couldn’t help but think of Lin and what she might do in this situation. Lin would not go back to allow herself to be shaped into the Elite image or just to die. Chain could not become an Underclassman again, and so was a person of nowhere. Still, he knew that his old friend, in this situation, would be determined to live as long as one could, just to see whatever essence life had to give.
Chain wouldn’t live long without water. Chain knew that he would not live long at all, anyway. The guards would be back after grouping reinforcements and despite Agen’s long and spirited run, the cat had not taken him very far from where he was supposed to be. Even if he managed to hide within the canyon, he’d go hungry. Much of the food that the Elites ate had to be modified specifically for them. Even if the newly-minted Elite-turned-wild found adequate hydration, he would starve to death out here.
Somehow, that was okay with him.
Chain felt his heart tick softly.