They Say by LN29 [Reviews - 8] |
Alternate title: So Many Pronouns.
Alternate, alternate title: One Giant, Unintentional Metaphor.
I don't really know where this came from; it's just a story that wanted to be told. Not really sure what category to put it under either, since I ended up not even having a specific regeneration in mind for the finished product. But I actually like it that way. I hope you do too.
They say there’s a man in the Pits.
Of course, there are many men in the Pits. Men, women, children…oh yes, there are children too. Children are encouraged. After all, Pit slaves don’t grow on trees, and conquest and criminals can only yield so many new crops. Thus, the Overseers consider the children a necessary inconvenience, a temporary inefficiency that will inevitably yield long-term results. Anything to keep the wheel turning.
But this man…this man is something different.
This is the man they speak of in whispers, the man without a name.
No one knows where he came from. Most assume, if they stop to think about it, that he was brought down with one of the new crops, just one more face hidden in a sea of misery. Others believe there must be more to it than that, that he was taken specifically, a military target or a wanted criminal, dragged to the depths due to the risk he posed.
(There are even a few who claim that no one brought him, that he jumped down into the Pits of his own free will…but of course, no one really believes that. People don’t do that.)
In any case, it doesn’t really matter where he came from. Down in the dirt, in the darkness, in the sweat and the filth of the mines, what matters is the fact that no one ever leaves.
Once a Pit slave, always a Pit slave.
That’s what they say, anyway.
If he has a name, no one knows it. He once called himself a doctor, but titles are forbidden down here, and he learned quickly. He does not need a name, anyway…he makes himself known just fine without one. Never silent, always questioning, a bright sort of curiosity that is not uncommon in those from the surface world, but remarkable due to the fact that time and harsh reality do not diminish it.
They say he’s going to get himself killed.
He looks and he touches and he asks…why, why, always why…like a Pit-born child who was never taught that ‘why’ only ever leads to more suffering. There is no ‘why.’ It is what it is, and you are what you are, and this is the way it will always be because it’s the way it always has been.
(Everyone has their place, the Overseers say. Yours is down in the dark, in the laborious grind that provides the resources to run the rest of the world. Someone has to do it, and you are that someone.
Why, asks the man with no name.
They strike him and order him not to ask foolish questions.
He smiles…actually smiles…and asks again.)
Still, he works alongside them, shoulders the loads and wields the tools, eats and bathes and struggles the same as any other, and so he is one of them, in spite of his oddities. He is theirs, and they do their best to conceal his strangeness, to explain the rules, to teach him their ways of life since he obviously doesn’t know how their world works.
Eventually, they realize he knows…he just doesn’t care.
The whispers continue.
He is stubborn, rebellious, and those traits are not unheard of, down here. It’s not like no one has ever tried standing up to the Overseers before. It’s just that no one has ever succeeded…every attempt is shot down, dissenters beaten into submission and dragged away to an unknown fate if they persist, and there’s only so many times that you can get knocked down before you decide that it’s just safer to stay down.
But this man, they say…this man refuses to stay down.
And he is not silenced.
The Overseers try, of course. They strike him down for asking basic questions, deny him rations when he calls them unfair, double his workload when he dares to suggest a more efficient system of mining. If he were any other face in the crowd, he would be put down. But he has the strength of three men and heals far too quickly, requires little food and even less sleep…he would never be just another face in the crowd, even if he never opened his mouth or dared to question the status quo…and even the Overseers can see what a waste it would be to simply throw him away.
(Furthermore, the whispers say, retaliating too strongly implies that the Overseers have something to fear from his words, from his ideas.)
So he is permitted to exist.
Something about his eyes gives the distinct impression that this is something the Overseers will come to regret.
Time passes, and life…such as it is…goes on.
They say he never stops talking.
He talks to the slaves he works alongside, talks to the Overseers who scowl from on high, talks to the children too young yet to join in the labor, and the funny thing is that more often than not, there’s nothing particularly meaningful in what he says. He learns, in his way…or maybe he always knew…to redirect his rebellion, to channel it into quieter pathways that worm their way under the Overseers’ noses, an undercurrent that hums like the vibration of an axe against unyielding stone.
Chipping away at the cracks.
He is an oddity and a puzzle, but he is one of them and they cannot help but listen.
When he asks for their stories, they give him what little they can.
When he steps in to take a punishment meant for another, they care for the wounds in the aftermath.
When he disappears for hours and reappears red-eyed and breathless, they pretend not to notice.
They say he’s unbreakable, and he lets them believe it.
For all his questions, he is surprisingly reticent on the rare occasions he is asked (tentatively…talk of the past is discouraged) about his own life before the Pits. He gives them precious little, and that silence in and of itself is enough to fuel the rumors. They make him into an enigma, a mystery, homeless and nameless and somehow removed…somehow more than…both.
He reveals himself in his actions, though.
His story is in his hands when he reaches out to pull a faltering comrade to their feet. It’s in his smile when he plays with the children who are too young to have realized how cruel the world is. It’s in his skin when the Overseers’ wrath is harsh enough to bruise, in his eyes when he watches injustices even he is powerless to stop, and most of all it’s in his voice when he speaks the words no one else has dared to and lived.
His story is in those words.
If he were all talk, if his words were just empty promises, just frustrated rants with no purpose other than raging at an unfair universe, there would have been nothing noteworthy about him, not in that way.
But he’s not all talk.
And slowly, so very slowly, he begins to be heard.
They say nothing changes overnight.
Months pass, and children grow, and the man without a name or a past never stops talking. Never stops working. Never stops asking. Never stops looking at them, seeing them as something of value. Something worth more than the Pits.
(The Overseers say that they are nothing, that they don’t deserve the touch of sunlight, much less the freedom of fresh air, and it doesn’t take a rebel to know which assessment is the more appealing one.)
There are those who resent what he has to say, those committed to the way things were and are and always will be, those who have found their place in this wreck of a life and believe that acceptance is safer than discontent. They say he is dangerous, that he speaks without thinking, that he selfishly puts them all at risk for the sake of his own pride and his own refusal to accept his new role in life.
But why should he accept it, he asks. Why should any of them?
He looks at them, generation upon generation of slaves, and he sees in them the potential for something more. He encourages them to be more.
When he finds a woman scratching out portraits in the rock, he risks his life to bring her tools that will work much better than the little sharpened stone she’s been using. When he stumbles across one of the elders teaching a small huddle of children how to read, he puts together an entire curriculum before the week is over.
And when disaster strikes and disease takes hold, when medicine is denied and all efforts have failed, he kneels by the cot of a fragile boy…the fourth in as many days…and whispers stories of fantastic far-off places, of distant stars and skies and worlds where no one is ever hungry or tired or afraid.
He holds the boy’s hand as he dies.
He tends to the body when the family cannot bear to.
He looks up from a too-small grave among far too many too-small graves, and he says the words in everybody’s minds, even if they do not even have the words to express them.
This is wrong.
They have no right.
No one has the right.
This. Is. Wrong.
Months turn to years.
It’s not just him, anymore.
Other speak up now, too…others who have always questioned, always wondered, but now feel as though their voices might actually be heard. The Overseers notice, double down their effort at domination, but every act of cruelty only adds to the growing fire. Every bit of food denied, every workload increased, every dangerous assignment given, someone looks around and questions if this is really the reality they want to live in. The reality they want their children to live in.
Every day, more decide it isn’t.
There is a whole world out there, brought to life through stories and whispers, and they have as much a right to it as any other.
They say he makes them brave.
But the man in the Pits says that the courage was already there, that it was always there. He points to those who have stood up and been struck down, the lost and the dead, and he points to the living who have survived even in the face of a reality as bleak as this.
To those who now dare to hope for more.
Change isn’t as easy as all that, of course. As long as anyone can remember, there have been slaves in the Pits, Overseers to keep them in line. It’s just the way things are, a way of life ingrained in the minds of a culture and a species and a planet. Overseers rule, crops of slaves fester in the mines…a not-remotely-symbiotic relationship that has become so accepted that the unfairness of it all just sort of faded into the background.
Changing that reality, really changing it, takes time.
Fortunately, in the Pits, there’s nothing but time.
In the Pits, they say, there’s nowhere to go but up.
They are scarred and filthy, worn from labor and hardened by pain, and many of them have never even seen the surface. The Overseers have weapons, have superior technology, have the upper hand in almost every way. They have to be careful, they have to be smart.
Anyone can start a riot, can scream and rage and fight until they inevitably break like waves on the shore…starting a revolution is a whole different matter.
The man without a past never rests.
The Overseers know that he is behind whatever-it-is that’s stirring up the slaves. He has never been quiet, never been content to fade into the background and hope no one notices him. He makes himself noticed, meets cruelty with humor and stubbornness and something darker that makes some wonder if maybe, just maybe, those theories about him being some sort of banished criminal might have some merit to them after all.
But he is theirs, criminal or no, and once again they move to protect him, to surround and shield him, as best as they can. Once a Pit slave, always a Pit slave, and for years he has worked alongside them and suffered alongside them and he is one of them.
When he finally goes too far, finally defies the Overseers so blatantly that no one can protect him, they watch as he is dragged off and they stand vigil in the long hours that follow. Each hour that passes brings new anxious faces, and by the time he is brought back, a crowd has gathered.
He is bloody, barely able to stand, but he meets their eyes and smiles…actually smiles…and he is not broken.
The crowd cheers at the sight.
For the first time, something like fear flashes in the Overseers’ eyes.
They say that is the day the tide truly turns.
It’s not easy or clean or quick…it never is…and there are far too many graves to dig before it’s all over. But they have allies on the surface, others who have seen and listened and questioned and who come when the call goes out, just as he promised they would. They are not alone.
More than that, they are the offspring of the Pits, they have made their home at rock bottom and they have survived everything a life of slavery can throw at them, and they are strong, stronger than even they know.
When it comes, he is not leading the charge. He is not found among the leaders of the revolution, among their equivalent of generals and commanders and soldiers…they take the titles upon themselves with pride, titles forbidden to them until now…but he once called himself a doctor, not a soldier. He will not be one now, and they do not ask it of him.
He is, for once, a face in the crowd, never still and never silent, darting from place to place and filling whatever need he sees whenever he sees it. Checking on the children and ensuring that they are hidden and protected, passing on a valuable piece of information, pointing someone to a spot where their talents will be particularly suited, patching up the inevitable injuries that ensue as they finally, finally, finally rise to take what he has reminded them is rightfully theirs.
When the dust settles, when negotiations begin and treaties are signed, when they leave the Pits behind for the very last time, he is nowhere to be found.
Some say he was killed in the fighting. Some fear he was captured, taken somewhere else, the scapegoat for the slaves’ rebellion. There are even some that say that he must have been some sort of deity, having gone back to where he came from now that his job is done, that his people are free.
(A few of the children try to claim that, as word of the final victory reached their shelter and they stepped out into the sunlight of the surface world, he was last seen headed toward a small blue box that vanished into thin air…but of course, no one really believes that. Boxes don’t do that.)
Most, however, choose to believe that he went home, wherever home is for him. Leaving only the whispers and the stories and a world changed in his wake.
They say he’s still out there, somewhere.
They look up at the sky, some nights. At the stars he once spoke of.
They thank him.