Chapter 1: Nightmare
Sarton Talas placed his hand on the entry panel and waited as the blue steel door of his residence slid silently into the ground. He removed his boots and crossed the threshold. The floor scanner verified his identification which signaled the door to close. Talas sighed as he moved through the sterile hall to his dining chamber. The day had not ended well.
Currently, he had four kaben under his supervision. One of them, kaben seven, was found talking without reason near the close of the work day. Talas knew that this meant he would have to use kaben seven as an example early tomorrow. The other Sartons would expect the example to be good as well. Talas knew that sooner or later one of his kaben would break one of the rules. It was the way. Kaben broke rules and were dealt with. That did not upset him. The timing is what upset him. If kaben seven had committed his crime earlier in the day, it would be over with by now. Instead, Talas would miss his turn at mating. It would be months before his turn would come up again.
He tortured himself with the thought of mating as he pressed the button that slid open the door to his dining chamber. The room slowly brightened as he stepped across the threshold. Most Sartons did not really enjoy their day with the mules. They considered it a chore, something they had to do to keep the stock of kaben full. There were others, like Sarton Talas, that looked forward to it. The only thing Talas did not enjoy was the training session which comprised the first hour of the day. During that time, the younger mules, those not ready for seeding practiced with the Sarton seeders. The only good thing about it for Sarton Talas was the magazine rack over the mule table. It was an excellent time to catch up on the gaming news.
Sarton Talas keyed the code for his dinner into the keyboard set in the wall and waited a few seconds for the wall unit to open. He never questioned where the food and drink came from and he was never disappointed with the quality. The diet was preplanned so that everything he needed to stay healthy and active was supplied without him having to consider over it. Tonight, his plate was laden with a thick, medium rare steak, green beans smothered in cheese, a small baked potato and an orange. He carried it and the mug of steaming tea to the small counter and climbed onto the stool to enjoy his meal.
Afterwards, he pressed a button on the side of the counter and watched the soiled dinnerware slide along the conveyor belt into the wall. He had an hour before his usual sleep schedule began. He checked the mail portal in the hallway and found the newest issue of Gaming News waiting for him. Since he had no need to wait until the mating which would not occur until the next issue came out, he carried the magazine to his entertainment room and settled in the lounge to read.
The games were extremely hard to get tickets for. They happened every weekend and Sarton Talas had been on the waiting list for tickets nearly a year. He had not been to one yet, but he had the magazine which fascinated him. Sarton Talas studied the cover. Under the magazine title where the words: "kaben scores two." The picture showed twenty kaben standing in the arena, their naked oiled bodies gleaming in the sunlight. The third one from the end was circled in red. "Full story on page 17," was written in small black letters along the bottom.
Sarton Talas was intrigued and immediately flipped through the pages to page seventeen. The picture on the cover appeared to be a kaben versus Sarton Hunter fight but he had never heard of a kaben killing a Hunter before. He found the page and was greeted with a full page picture of the kaben, blood and gore dripping down his chin, as he knelt on the still form of a Sarton Hunter whose throat lay ripped open.
Sarton Talas read the article through and found out that the kaben succeeded in removing the helmets of the two Hunters and bit into their throats, ripping the esophagus from them with his teeth. Since a match never ended with surviving kaben, this one and the other six survivors were shot down with photon rifles immediately after their victory. Sarton Talas turned back to the picture and studied the kaben. There was something feral in his eyes, something that unsettled Sarton Talas. Finally, he set the magazine aside and put on some soothing music. He wanted the image out of his head when he went to his sleeping chamber. He leaned back in the lounge, closed his eyes and let the music relax him. The music did what it was programmed to do and by the time Talas left the room, the magazine was forgotten.
The lights came on as Talas entered his sleeping room. He took his time removing his uniform then placed it in the sanitizer before sitting on the edge of his bed. He hoped kaben seven would not choose to be a runner. That would ruin the rest of the week. Kaben seven was intelligent and it would take days to find him if he reached the forest. The hunts were tedious affairs and dirty. He shuddered as he thought of the forest that stood north of the city. It was allowed to grow there because the trees produced the oxygen the people needed to survive. Talas had been in it once when he helped Sarton Carl track down a wayward kaben. The finding and dispatching of the kaben barely made up for the filth of the forest.
Remembering that hunt, Talas walked to the control panel and made sure kaben seven's ward was secured. Satisfied that no kaben would be leaving that ward until he keyed in the unlock code, Talas yawned and returned to his bed. He slipped under his covers, adjusted his pillow and waited. Seconds later, the lights dimmed. He heard the short hissing sound that signified the sleep vapor entering the room and smiled. Moments later, he slept, and for the first time in his life, dreamed.
They had handed him a broom when he arrived at the factory that morning. For the next twelve hours, he would weave in and out of the machines sweeping, or so he thought. He had only been at this factory a week. Prior to that, the first six years of his life were spent learning the way. As he worked, he repeated the rules that were the foundation of the way. Never admit hunger. Never disobey an order. Never show fear. Speak only to answer a question directed at you. Never cry. Following these rules would insure he survived until the first signs of facial hair appeared. Then he would receive a new set of rules.
The first few hours of the day were uneventful. One pile of dust and debris followed by another. He encountered other kaben dressed in the same brown uniform with the large red, green or blue number sown on the back. He ignored them as they ignored him. His own number, a nine, was red like all those that entered from his group. Some ran the machinery. Others cleaned it. There was also the ever-present, bearded overseers, the Sartons. He had not seen his own overseer yet this day. He guessed he was with one of the other kaben in his charge. Around midday, his sweeping brought him to the portion of the factory his overseer occupied. Sarton Marin, as he was addressed, was supervising another kaben whose task it was to clean out the machinery.
Kaben nine glanced at the other kaben and recognized him, kaben three, from the same group that he had come from. He also noticed as he swept that all of the kaben from his group were working nearby. Sarton Marin saw him and pointed to the front of the machine being cleaned. Kaben nine pushed the pile of dust ahead of him and moved to work on the spot indicated. As he swept, kaben three was told to remove his uniform and place it on the end of the conveyor belt. Afterwards, he was handed a rag and told to clean the inside of the machine.
Kaben nine wondered at the amount of Sartons that were gathering as he worked to sweep up the mess at the end of the machine. They seemed very pleased about something. As soon as he moved in front of the machine, it rumbled to life. Before he could move, the shredded bits of kaben three spewed forth from the machine, spraying him with blood and pelting him with bits of flesh and bone. The suddenness of it startled him and he almost dropped the broom. His mental litany of rules narrowed down to one: Never show fear. Slowly, he forced his broom to continue sweeping.
Two other kaben in the area did not share his luck. They cried out and one went so far as to cry. Moments later, kaben nine's group, which numbered fourteen when they arrived, now numbered eleven. He tried to ignore the laughing and cheering of the Sartons that had come to watch the example. Apparently, Sarton Marin had done an splendid job of impressing his peers. When the other Sartons left to tend their own kaben, Sarton Marin approached him, dragging a hose with him.
"Wash what's left of kaben three down that drain," he ordered, handing kaben nine the hose. "You've done well this day. Keep it up and you will make a great Sarton yourself if you survive the training."
Kaben nine put his broom aside and hosed down the area in front of the machine. He did not turn the hose on himself. He had not been told to do so. Instead, he wore most of kaben three for the rest of the day.
Talas awoke with a start. The sleep vapor was supposed to make dreams impossible. He sat up, causing the lights in the room to spring to life. Somehow, he knew, in spite of the reprogramming that his brain went through, that he had been kaben nine in the dream. This confused him even more. The kaben years were wiped from memory during Sarton training. All that remained at the end of that training was the discipline and the new set of rules.
"Are you willing to do the same to kaben seven?"
Talas was unsure where the question came from. He heard it within his head and wondered about his sanity. The way said that kaben seven had committed the crime and had to be dealt with. The way was all Talas knew. He had been Sarton for over three years now and had witnessed examples two or three times a week that whole time. Even though this one would be one of his own kaben, it should make no difference.
"Are you willing to do the same to kaben seven?"
Talas climbed from his bed and walked to his entertainment room. This time of night, most of the visual entertainment would be mating shows. Knowing he would miss his turn discouraged him from watching others. Instead, he turned on the music channel. He turned the volume low as the electronic sounds pulsed through the room and the lighting emphasized the rhythm. He grabbed a glass of laten from the wall unit and sat in the lounge, focusing his attention on the music.
Several minutes later, the question returned. "It's the way. What else is there to do?" he muttered, not expecting an answer.
"Take all four of your kaben to the forest. Make them runners."
Talas marveled at the absurdity of his own thoughts. He wondered if other Sartons struggled through this the first time one of their kaben broke the rules. He took a sip of his laten, closed his eyes and concentrated on the music again.
"You are different, Talas. Do as I have suggested. Take all four of your kaben to the forest. You will find a safe haven for them there."
"The only thing in the forest is filth and taking them there condemns them to a slow death by disease or starvation," Talas mumbled, frowning with the thought of such filth. "Leave me in peace. I will follow the way."
"Do as I say!" the voice inside his head commanded, making Talas jump from his seat. "If you do not do as I wish, you will die of sleep deprivation. I will make your kaben years torment you until you beg for death."
For the first time that night, Talas realized that the voice inside his head was female. He emptied his glass of laten and returned it to the wall unit before walking back to his sleeping chamber.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he said, "I don't believe you are anything but anxiety caused by losing my first kaben."
He remained sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for the voice to answer him. He did not believe it would this time. Talas had identified it and now the voice would go away and leave him alone. After close to twenty minutes, he started to lie down again. There were four hours left before he had to awaken and he wanted those four hours before facing his task.
Instead, the voice returned, saying, "Stand, please Talas. If this last thing does not convince you, then I will bother you no more." The voice fell silent a moment, then sneered, "Tonight."
Talas sighed and stood, though he had no idea how standing would change anything. If nothing else, he hoped the voice kept its promise and remained silent for the rest of the night. As in the dream, he was startled by the sudden sound of machinery, except this time he was near no machinery. Then, his body was sprayed with blood and pelted with bits of flesh and bone. The first time kaben three did this to him, he was wearing a uniform. This time, nothing protected his skin and the feeling of wearing that boy's shredded body sickened Talas. The laten he had just finished and the meal he had after work mixed with the remains spewed upon his floor.
Talas fell to his knees, centered in the gore and asked, his voice trembling, "What must I do?"
"Go to the ward where your kaben sleep. They will be waiting for you. Put them in your transport and drive as far north as it will take you. When your fuel runs out, you will be near the haven. When they are safe, I will come to you again, and we will talk about your future."
Talas slowly regained his feet and took a step towards the cleansing stall, only to find the gore gone and a clean uniform on his body. He swallowed and began his trek to kaben ward two. As the voice promised, all four of his kaben, seven, three, two, and the youngest, kaben one, were dressed and waiting at the door. They followed him to his transport. He made sure they were securely buckled in and drove northward, out of the city.
After driving into the forest, Talas glanced at kaben seven who sat beside him. He tightened his grip on the steering column and asked, "Why were the four of you waiting at the door?"
Kaben seven absently twisted the gray fabric of his trousers and answered, "We were told to be there."
Talas nodded, then asked, "By who?"
The kaben, who was probably nine or ten, tried to glimpse the others seated in the back. The safety straps prevented him from moving that far, so he stared down at his work shoes and muttered, "A mule."
Talas laughed as he geared the transport faster. "There are no mules in the kaben wards. Maybe you should tell me more."
Kaben seven remained quiet. After a while, Talas realized that he did not ask a question. Talas grinned. Earlier in the day, kaben seven uttered, "I'm tired," to no one in particular, breaking the way's rule of speaking without being asked a question. Now he was content to follow the way. Talas shook his head.
"Tell me about this mule. Who is she?"
"I don't know. I just heard her. We all did." Kaben seven stole a glance in Sarton Talas' direction. He expected his Sarton to show signs of disbelief, anything other than the smile he saw. He returned to staring at his shoes and waited.
Talas did not ask any more questions. He heard what he wanted and left kaben seven alone. Instead, he switched on the music channel and tuned to the Hunter station. He wanted to hear music that matched the excitement of this adventure. As he steered the transport, he tapped the beat of the music on the column. He also noted that kaben seven tapped the beat on his knees, quietly, barely allowing his fingers to move. Several hours later, the transport began to sputter. Talas found a place to pull into the forest before it died completely.
They all climbed from the transport and waited as Talas removed two hunting packs from the side compartment. He handed one to kaben seven, the eldest of his kaben, then shouldered the other himself. Then he took the photon rifle from the compartment and told his kaben to follow him. The direction he chose was random but he figured that if he went the wrong way, the voice would correct his route. At dawn, he stopped long enough to feed everyone from the preserved food packets in his own hunting pack. Then they continued. Just before noon, they found the settlement.
Talas had never seen anything like it. The dwellings were no more than tents and males and females lived within the settlement together. They stopped within sight of the settlement with crude weapons aimed at them. Talas waited as three men came from the settlement to meet him.
"What brings you here?" the eldest man asked, crossing his arms over his chest..
"I was told that if I bring these kaben here they would be safe," Talas answered gesturing to the four kaben that accompanied him.
The man glanced at the four boys who stood on either side of Talas, then asked, "And who told you that?"
Talas thought for a moment. He wondered if they would believe what he had trouble believing himself. Finally, he shrugged and said, "A woman's voice inside my head convinced me to bring them here."
All three men smiled at this confession. Talas thought they would be killed or at the very least, chased back into the forest with jeers and stones pelting their heels. Instead, the men bowed to Talas.
"So," the eldest continued, "you have been chosen by the Mother to bring them here. We will not refuse her request. What of you?" he asked, his hands finding the pockets of his baggy jeans.
Talas took a deep breath and answered, "She hasn't told me yet."
The eldest man smiled and nodded. "I'm sure she will. Send them in when you are ready."
The three men returned to the village speaking to each other in excited voices. Talas watched them until they disappeared into the large central tent. He removed his hunting pack and handed it to kaben three. "Go on. Your lives will be better here."
He waited until the four boys entered the settlement, then turned away, walking deeper into the forest to await the voice. He had considered what the voice had him do through the mornings journey. Slowly, he was deciding that the way was not the way. It was wrong. The more his decision moved towards this conclusion, the stronger and happier he felt.
He found a stream after walking for a while and stopped to drink from its waters. He found it refreshing and cool where he thought it would be stale and dirty. As he drank, he noticed his reflection, with it, the carefully manicured beard that marked him as a Sarton. Talas searched the streams edge until he found a sharp stone and with it, shaved his beard from his face. He looked again at his reflection. Instead of the beard, he noticed his eyes, dark brown and large. The beard gone, he was kaben again. This time, he vowed to do it properly, to learn the real way. With his vow, came the return of the voice.
"Very good, kaben nine. I have some tasks I wish you to complete for me. These tasks will take you to places you have never dreamed existed and will make you do things that torture your soul. The numbers of the kaben you just delivered into safety will be the number of tasks you must complete. Seven and three and two and one. Thirteen tasks await you." The voice fell silent a few moments, allowing him to absorb all that she said. "For my part, I will keep you alive until the tasks are complete if you so wish it. Afterwards, I will give you the life of your choosing. Think well upon that, because after you choose, that is the life you will have. Do you accept this burden, kaben nine?"
"Are you giving me a choice?" Talas asked still staring into the waters as if he would find the voice inside his head there, or reflected in his eyes.
"I must. If I do not allow you to accept the tasks, then you will not have the will to complete them. Rest now. I will come to you later and ask again. There is another, less meaningful life awaiting you if you refuse. You may join the settlement where you left your kaben. Consider your choice. Farewell for now."
He sat with his back against a tree and closed his eyes. As he faded to sleep, he listened to the sounds of the forest around him, hearing things he had never heard before. His dreams were filled with strange creatures and even stranger lands. He witnessed things that made his soul cry for joy and other things that made him want to cringe into a dark hole and hide.
While he slept, the Mother worked. She took from him his maturity, his body slowly diminishing in size so that his Sarton uniform soon became more of a blanket to keep him warm. His chiseled features became soft, a perfect home for his doe-like eyes. His black hair, which had grown coarse with age, became silk-like and stirred at the slightest breeze. When he awoke, night had come to the forest and the quarter moon rode high in the sky. He sat up and stretched, his small child's body lost in the folds of his Sarton uniform. Although his eyes widened with surprise and his hands sought to find escape in the overly long sleeves, the transformation felt right to him. Kaben nine was ready to decide.
© 2009 Tanner Artesz