“In order to survive out here, you’ll have to get used to layers of filth caked on grime and dust, and to poached-bug breakfasts and picking pockets for a scrap of lunch,” my father told me, after it all fell apart.
“You’ll need to accept that sometimes, you’ve got to hurt somebody—or worse—just to get by. You’ll learn to cover up blood with dirt because there’s no washing off; the water’s gone dry.”
So my father taught me, before he died, and so I lived, after he was gone. No way could I have made it as long as I did and maintained a clean conscience. I couldn’t have kept at it without my share of sin.
After a while, though, I got sick of the stink of my own soul. After a while, survival wasn’t enough; I wanted to get clean.
Maybe I spent too much time walking within the shade of the Colony’s walls. Maybe I let them put the idea in my head.
See, the more I strolled in that shadow, the more I heard it—like a song, but more: a symphony for all my senses. There were colors, and harmonies of fragrance, and a tingling touch along the surface of my skin.
They were psychic impressions, the Colonists’ residual bliss.
So much of it, they can’t keep it in, I thought to myself as I gnawed on a rack of snake ribs some carrion bird had already picked clean. I tried, and failed, to imagine such a world.
But the song advertised redemption, broadcast absolution. It wheedled its way into my head, like a virus of the mind.
So, after years of rot, I decided to save my soul.
And, much as I preferred to get in on my own, I knew for once I’d need a bit of help.
It took me three weeks, but I tracked down Skulking James.
“The Colony doesn’t let just anyone in,” the old smuggler intoned. “Only those who find a way. Call it a test.”
Test or no, I knew its walls bounded half a mile high, and that their sleek metal surface offered no purchase for climbing, no chance of entry from above.
“How?” I asked.
James smiled and raised a single eyebrow. “That,” he said, “will cost you.”
“Always, Bill,” said James. “In this case, three tall mugs.”
I’d done my share of blood-dealing, but I’d rarely seen so high a price. And there was a catch: “It’s gotta be your own,” he told me. “The Colony requires an act of faith, of purity.”
I let him take it.
I must have passed out, because next thing, I woke up with my back propped against the cool metal of the wall.
Blood ran slowly down the crook of my arm, and I dug into the dry dirt so that I might staunch it.
Then, I thought better of it. I let the dirt sift through my fingers and fall back to the earth. “Purity,” I muttered, half-laughing.
As if in response, a square panel of the wall swung open, revealing the living tissue beneath. It was soft and pliant, like the fleshy bits beneath human skin.
Through sheer willpower, I found an edge of focus, and I shaped my hands into points. I imagined them the tips of flat knives—scalpels, my mind remembered, a word from a time when blades were sometimes used to heal—and I sliced my way in.
It was delicate and gruesome work, but this labor would be a small cost if I made it into the Colony.
I was aware, at least in the periphery of my mind, that there would be a further cost, as well: I’d lose my autonomy, would be an individual no more. But, mired as I was in the world’s ugliness, consumed as I was by its grit, I accepted this. I was ready to be made pure.
I pressed through.
As I peeled back its layers—as I slipped into its folds and subsumed myself into its wet, sticky darkness—an overwhelming visceral disgust churned within me. The wall’s stench became unbearable, its touch grotesque. Yet this was but the passage of my birth; I knew I would come out clean on the other side.
I don’t know how many meters of the wall’s membrane I squeezed through, but after what seemed like hours, my fingertips felt the touch of cool, fresh air. At last, I peeled the final layer back and collapsed onto the soft ground.
Through the vitreous fluid that covered my skin and coated my eyes, I saw it clearly, a new world before me. It hummed with life: fields of pale blue grass, tranquil winged insects a-flutter, sapphire spires rising from the earth, emitting a soft glow.
I would have kissed the ground, but an intense swell of nausea swept over me. The rancid smell in my nostrils was somehow worse now that I could sense sweet air beyond it; the slick of fluid coating my body was more vile now that I’d crawled free.
As I violently expelled bile and stench from within, I felt I was purging myself of the sickness that was my old life.
But the splash of my sick on the otherwise unsullied ground brought the Colony’s gentle hum to a halt. The grass and crystalline spires turned from blue to crimson; butterflies twitched and flitted in an agitated frenzy; the sky went black, and against its backdrop the whole place pulsed with a fiery light.
The Colonists emerged now, silhouettes against the red glow, and lurched toward me in a unified motion. I staggered back, but as they neared, a sense of calm overcame me.
Their collective thoughts crystallized in my mind as acceptance suffused my body: I was a pollutant, an allergen, an imperfection, and those who served had responded to the Colony’s need. They amassed as one, an antibody.
For a prolonged instant—a single strand of time stretched long and thin—I wanted nothing more than to give in, to be consumed and spat out and to revel in it.
I would give myself to this beautiful digestion. It would be a metamorphosis: the speck of dirt at my core, the detritus of my soul, would emerge in an iridescent mucus-shell. I would become a beatified pearl, a holy relic of the Colony, cold and dead and infinite.
But you know what they say about old habits—and survival is the oldest. In the end, I couldn’t help being me.
The funny thing about my bouts of violence—and I won’t pretend I don’t get them, from time to time—is that I have some trouble recalling the specifics, afterward. Call it a trance. Call it a fugue. Just don’t ask me to recite the details of it later.
It’s all sense impressions, flashes of red and the taste of rust, the welling up of an itch and its relief, punctuated by popping and crunching sounds.
After, I sat in the wall’s shadow once again. A canopy of smoke hung over me; shards of metallic debris mingled with a mushy pulp lay scattered all about.
That’s how James found me.
“How’d it go, Bill?” he asked in a dry, humor-me drawl.
“Oh, you know,” I echoed him. “Don’t think I passed their test.”
“Course not.” He offered me a hand. I took it, let him pull me to my feet.
“Maybe purity’s not my forte,” I admitted.
“Maybe it’s not what people around here need.”
“Maybe. What about this, though?” I twirled a finger in the air, vaguely gesturing at the wreckage behind me. “This what they’re looking for?”
“More than you think, Bill. What do you say we cause some more trouble?”
The Colony’s walls, by the grace of whatever combination of arcane arts and nanotech such things consist of, have already started to heal. There’ll be singing and swirling colors and promises of redemption soon enough, I figure.
But that plume of smoke, the smell of charred meat, brought folks out of the woodwork. They were gathered like penitents outside my tent the next morning.
I didn’t ask for a following, didn’t ask to lead anyone—but when did I ever get what I asked for?
Everyone here has a story, though most don’t want to tell it. Too many ugly choices, too much dirt caked on blood.
That’s alright by me. See, the momentary lull in that anesthetizing psychic buzz from the Colony has me seeing things more clearly than ever.
It’s time we work together. Time we built something new. I won’t be able to offer much in the way of absolution, but there are some dirty jobs that need doing. I can offer that much.
The pure of soul need not apply.