A shape formed out of the blizzard – a shifting, dark mirage at first sight, then a living unknown, so much higher from ground to top than Beth that his mind froze. His eyes locked on and his feeble limbs locked up, squirming no more against the ice-armoured snow.
It came on until it stood only a footstep away. What Beth saw he could not name. Like him, it had legs, though they were tree trunks compared to his lithe flippers. What kind of muscle mass and physical engineering moved them and carried that huge torso? What kind of brain hid inside that huge head?
Beth stared feebly at the creature as it bent close. He smelled its clothing, animal textiles and fur, and smelled its sweat, and was terrified. His stomach felt a creeping warmth that dissolved as quickly as it came. He had urinated into the snow.
The giant stood straight and thrust the butt of his spear into the snow, inches from Beth’s ear.
“Please help me,” Beth cried out. The bitter wind killed the words.
There was a black sky behind the whipping snow, obsidian hard. There was snow, forever. And this monster.
The beast looked down once more on Beth, then spat once, harshly, to the side of Beth’s torso. The spear end stirred, breaking granules of ice free, and the beast scraped its end in the snow.
The monster growled. “Foetus!”
It stamped beside a circle it had drawn just above Beth’s head. Beth clamped his eyelids together and his insides turned to water.
Then he heard the feet crunch on snow, their sound dying, second by second. He was alone once more and dared open his eyes. There was the wind, the snow, Beth, a circle and a footprint.
Beth propped himself up on his arms long enough to inspect the circle in full. He recognized the letter A violently scraped into it. He knew the symbol. It was an old symbol, a human symbol. It meant ‘Anarchy.’
Beth fought himself out of another dip into sleep. Each time it happened, sleep became stronger quicksand. He knew he would die if he could do no more than wait.
He dug furiously with his hands until he found what he wanted. Roots. Roots to act like hooks. He strained with his numbed arms, his body spasmodic in the frigid wind. Finally he broke loose a handful of the stronger pieces and, holding a few in each hand, stabbed them into the snow and began to drag himself away from the slope and closer to the hangar. Digging with stiff arms, his hooks rooted deep, he hauled himself away from the worst of the wind and up to the relative shelter of the hangar wall. He tucked himself against the exit door and gasped and stuttered madly from the cold. He banged his roots against the door, litttle bumps no one inside would hear over the fans, and out here, over the wind howling and pummeling. It was disheartening enough to bring tears. He threw his roots away and cuddled up to the door, pushing on the metal with his hands and head. Then suddenly he was stuck. His hands would not come apart from the metal and his forehead remained glued. How had this happened? Was there some kind of magnetism to the walls? Who else had come out here and ended like this? Disbelief bred panic and he wrenched and wrenched at his hands until he drew blood and found them stuck in another position.
Eventually one bloodied hand came free and Beth punched the door with his knuckles, slam, slam, slam. The wind mocked him. Minutes passed, and he kept lifting his bloodied fist, slamming, slamming, until he finally felt reverberations that spoke of some kind of activity inside. Someone must have heard him. He punched some more until finally the door swung open and the interior heat bathed him like a balm.
Hand-held heaters were aimed at his face and hand until he was free. Then he was upturned, gripped firmly by arms and legs and carried across the hangar at speed. His hands still bled and screamed where his carriers touched them. He surrendered into black.
Finally, in a small, empty room, his Coms socket was cleaned and he was hooked up once again to the Fluid Drive. He felt that familiar mind embrace that always first came with connection. He lay on a bed, his arms hanging out so as to keep his hands from brushing his body.
“You’ve been out, I see.”
“I wanted to explore deeper, to find something new we could use or…”
“Impossible, here. Earth is arctic. Did you not understand, the cities are for your protection, your nourishment? The museums, the memories we give you access to should have told you that.”
Beth said what he thought was the right thing. “I know that now. I never really paid attention to those details. I just thought there was something new out there, some thing I could discover, some contribution…And” he confessed contritely … “I didn’t trust the information we were given. I got bored and…”
“It happens. But few take the drastic measures you did. Some, but not many.”
Silence. Beth hung like yesterday’s party balloon, his spirit deflated.
“So what are we going to do with you? We don’t know if you can be trusted…” The voice sounded a patronizing note.
“I’ll do anything you assign me to. I mean it.” Beth thought of prisons he had seen on the Coms encyclopaedic databases. Would they imprison him for this?
“Dirty work? What you might call stupid work? After all, there must be some punishment, some reminder of your foolish behaviour.”
“Yes.” Beth was humble but relieved. Work beat prison any day.
“Then we will have you cleaning Coms sockets. You will do this when your wounds have healed sufficiently. And you will do it until we decide to release you from this demeaning labour and perhaps use your creative mind again. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Thank you. I am grateful.”
So Beth’s hands and skin improved until he was ready to work, and every day when awoken he fed briefly from the Coms connection in his room, then strapped on the vacuum and miniature water-hose and, floating through the hangar, followed the lines of workers, discovering unused Coms sockets and cleaning them thoroughly, and occasionally cleaning Coms sockets causing trouble for their users. He saw Gimel in passing now and again but dared not speak to him. He kept silence, but for the occasional “You’re welcome,” if some worker were kind enough to thank him for the servicing.
Then, a whistle came high and piercing across the hangar and Beth smiled. It could be no one else. He looked across and Gimel was beckoning him. Beth was at his side in seconds. Gimel whispered.
“I’ve got something for you. Something you can’t forget.”
Beth laughed. They were going to be friends again, he knew it.
Gimel held out his shortened right hand and Beth realized he had never truly looked at it before. He had not looked at a lot of things, it seemed. Gimel’s hand was missing three fingers on one hand and old scars striped his palm. Beth recalled his daily struggles with the Coms socket. Then the obvious hit him hard.
“Just over five years ago. Frostbite. It was frozen over out there then too. Always has been. Always will be, they say.”
“I’m sorry” said Beth.
“Never mind. It will mend,” said Gimel.
” No. Your brief delusion. Then you will be back beside me again.”
“I asked them to put me back next to you and mentor you. You, in turn, will mentor someone else. In time. ”
Gimel’s face became furtive for a second. He clamped his mouth shut meaningfully, then, back turned to the nearest camera, finger signalled Beth to float closer and LOOK. He held up his left palm as Beth floated in. On it, Beth made out the old pink scar – a circle with a letter A sliced violently into it. He gasped.
“Clean the Coms socket… please,” said Gimel.
Then he whispered as Beth worked.
“Did you ever notice, we have not ever named one person here Aleph? No Alpha. No equivalent. No Omega either. No opening or closing the circle.”
“No, I never thought…”
“Aleph, Alpha… beginnings, absolute beginnings. Even only as language, that is potent.” Gimel’s hand touched Beth’s at the Coms socket. “Aleph, Alpha, Omega. Anarchy. You see?”
Beth thought he was beginning to.
“And your Notion of Motion. We’ve almost all had it, all whispered it.”
Beth suddenly felt hopeless. He wanted to cry.
Gimel touched one of his eyes with a gentle finger.
“No tears.” He smiled and showed his Anarchy scar again.
“You wanted to be Aleph, Alpha. You wanted what we all want. What we are waiting for, silently.”
“Except you. You talk all the time Gimel.”
“That’s my tic. My revolt. They’ve quit punishing me for it. They think, instead, that they will get secrets from me. That I will entice the others to talk, one by one. They want a Tower of Babel.”
“They want us to talk?”
“If, through that, we will slip up, yes.”
Gimel clamped his mouth shut and finger signalled. “Give away our unity. We are already of one mind, and we have learned to keep it from them. We are, out of necessity, schizoid. We give Fluid Drive access to what we want to share. Meanwhile, we plan, and we wait.”
“For Aleph and Omega. For the moment when the circle finds its ends, and joins. Our minds will know it before Fluid knows. We will see them and name them.”
Beth saw it in beautiful crimson in his mind, and then again in the faded pink of Gimel’s palm. Anarchy. Its chaos would set them free at last.
He would keep the silence. He would wait.
He remembered Fluid’s sucking kiss, and his survival.
Gimel smiled. “I know. It has happened to all of us. Right before we go nuts. You’re okay Beth. You’re not the Aleph, but you’re alright.”
“I’d better get back to work then,” he said. “No messing around.”
“It’s all messing around Beth.” Gimel chuckled as Beth floated away.
Beth saw the image Gimel briefly imprinted in his mind’s eye. “Until then…”
Beth’s insides warmed. He belonged. The Lung People, Gimel, they were all his.