by Elliot Harper
Artist: Elaine de Kooning
“Where are you going with that? Hey, peg leg! Huh? Hey, Marky boy! I’m talking to you!” They burst out laughing at his comments. They don’t expect me to answer. I’ve had enough experience with their bullying to know that. They just want to torture me. Sometimes I wonder if they will ever give it up, but then I remember that they enjoy it. It’s a game to them. They want to laugh at the guy with the “peg leg.” They want to make fun out of my discomfort and my misfortune. I keep my head down and glance at them only briefly. All three of them are there. They lounge by the fence of the Mulberry fields smoking loose rolls ups while discussing the football from the night before, only breaking off to insult me or catcall the women.
Luckily, they seem to be finished for the moment. I better keep going, or I will be in for more verbal abuse. Putting some distance between them and me, I hurry on towards the Factory. I skirt along the wooden fence of the fields, my feet crunching on gravel, and try to ignore the ache in my right hip. My prosthetic leg rubs up against the stump of my thigh, causing the joint to throb throughout the day. If I don’t rest, it becomes unbearable.
I try and readjust the basket in my arms so that I evenly spread the weight. This helps me straighten my posture somewhat and achieves some welcome relief. I curse my luck for the millionth time. Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to be me that was in that accident? I sigh and try and push it from my mind. Grumbling about it isn’t going to change anything. I shouldn’t complain. I was lucky. I could have died. I thank the Universal Being silently with a brief prayer.
My destination is the Processing Building. It will take me past the epicentre of this whole facility, the Factory. The occupant is the reason why we are protected from the sun’s deadly rays under the dome and why I can walk without a mask. It’s a luxury that I’m thankful for. The Factory looms up ahead of me. It’s a dull and innocent-looking building. A typical square concrete structure with a steel roof. It’s nothing special. It’s what is inside that makes it unique.
I try and slow down. There is no need to rush. I just need to drop off this sample batch of Mulberry leaves at the Processing Building, and then I’m done for the day. The Factory looms up next to me as I skirt around the large structure. I pass a truck that must have just taken a new load out of the facility and is departing for the city. The driver nods his head in greeting. I can see his eyes through the slit of his mask as they briefly glance down at my limp. I smile awkwardly, but due to my distraction, I stumble slightly over the gravel, which sends a jolt of pain in my hip. I grimace and continue as the truck pulls away from me silently with only a quiet squeal of the tires.
I can see the Processing Building ahead of me now. It’s just a short walk away. My journey takes me past the back door of the Factory. Well, it’s not so much a back door but a fire exit. I stop suddenly and too quickly; the sudden motion sends a jolt of pain to my hip. The back door is wedged open at the bottom with an old piece of brick. I frown and look from right to left. No one is around. What is going on here? I pass by this way every single day and not once have I ever seen this door open! I crane my neck back to see if anyone is around. The area is strangely quiet.
The basket is becoming heavy in my hands. I really need to go to the Processing Building and deliver this batch, but my feet remained planted where they are. I stare at the door and the open gap. I know I should go straight to Mrs Taylor and explain what I’ve seen. Or even better, I should remove the brick and then go to her. That is precisely what I should do. That is my duty as a member of this facility. So, why don’t I? Why do I just uncomfortably stand here with this basket in my hand and stare at the door? I ask myself that question, but I know the answer. I want to go inside. I know I shouldn’t, but ever since I have worked here, I have wanted to see the thing that is so jealously guarded.
I do a 180-degree turn, ignoring the increasing pain in my hip, to make sure that no one is watching. The place is silent. At this time of day, most are either going home or finishing up. The coast is clear. I feel a flutter of fear as I take a step towards the back door, then another, and then another until I reach it and the open gap. The brick looks to have been wedged so that someone can get in and out. Why? I have no idea, but this is my opportunity.
I shift my stance so that my weight is on my good leg and wedge the basket underneath my left armpit. I gingerly take hold of the door and open it a crack. I peer inside, but the interior is shrouded in darkness. The pain begins to increase in my hip, and for some reason, I feel a small sharp pain in the centre of my forehead. I grit my teeth and push the pain away as my heart begins to pound in my chest. With my teeth still clenched, I push the door open and step inside.
It’s cool. The temperature must be kept lower in here. Not cold but cool enough for the creature that is housed within I would wager. It’s dim. It takes me a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I take the basket back into both of my hands. It briefly soothes the ache in my hip. I blink a few times as my eyes become accustomed to my surroundings. I glance back to make sure that the door is still wedged open. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it is. The last thing I want is to get stuck in here. After a few seconds, my eyes become fully adjusted. The periphery of the room is dark, but the centre is bathed in light. What I see there takes my breath away.
Before me is the only resident of this Factory and the whole reason for its existence, the Bombyx Gigantica. It dominates the centre of the room. The giant creature is raised high in the air by a combination of scaffolds, wires and pulleys. My nostrils are filled with the smell of it, a strange earthy odor. It fills the whole of the room with its scent. As though it’s heavy in the air and waits to cling to the flesh. It reminds me of something. Some distant memory from my childhood possibly but the memory doesn’t come. My powers of recollection aren’t quite what they used to be, not since the accident. Straining my brain only brings that sharp pain in my forehead briefly back, but it quickly dissipates.
I can only stand here stupidly and stare at this incredible creature — the Bombyx Gigantica or in layman’s terms, the Giant Silkworm. I marvel at this feat of human ingenuity that has created such a wondrous thing. My heart continues to thump in my chest. What a sight to behold! It’s more amazing then I could ever have imagined. Of course, I have seen picture and videos of it, but they don’t do it justice. To be here, in real life and actually see it. Well, it is quite unbelievable.
The Bombyx Gigantica will forever be in this larvae form. It will forever be the worm rather than the moth that nature had intended. It was designed this way, genetically modified in some laboratory somewhere. I suppose all creatures are genetically modified nowadays. Only the pest and vermin species remain as nature had intended. They are the only ones that can survive on the planet after thousands of years of human activity. A part of me feels like there will be a price to pay one day for our destruction. Even though the planet is already a shell of its former self, we cannot go on like this forever. Taking, always taking. Never giving back. Now, they talk about leaving this planet and finding others. Will we go there and do the exact same thing? Will we spread our own form of pestilence to that world? The thought of that chills me. I hope the Universal Being protects them.
I shake my head and snort. Here I am, standing inside this building with this fantastic creature in front of me, and I’m complaining about humanity. I refocus on the Bombyx Gigantica. It’s more yellow than I had imagined. The artificial lights seem to reflect strangely of its surface, magnifying the colour. It’s also bigger than I thought as well. Now, that I see it for real, I understand why they need such a large facility to house the creature. It’s at least the size of the truck I have just seen outside and twice as long. It’s impressive that the pulleys and wires can hold it in place.
My eyes aren’t quite what they used to be, so I squint. I can just make out the front of the creature. Its brown face with what must be its pincers. My head begins to throb. I feel that small but piercing pain in my forehead again. It’s brief. It passes quickly leaving me to blink my watering eyes. The strain of squinting into the distance is too great. I need to get a closer look. All thoughts of being caught are gone from my mind now. I want to see this beautiful creature up close.
I slowly walk towards the centre of the room. The sound of my work boots echoes around off the walls, the tiled floor seemingly amplifying it. I veer off to the right so that I can get a better look of the Bombyx Gigantica’s face. Something is driving me towards it. I don’t know why, but I need to see its face. See it properly in all its glory. I cover this distance in no time at all despite my hip. My footsteps echo with each step.
I fall under the shadow of the creature and place the basket down on the ground. The Bombyx Gigantica’s mouth is above me. Those massive pincers could cut me in half easily without a doubt, but I have no fear. The creature cannot move; it’s ensnared where it is, held fast so that it can produce the precious Meta-Silk it has been designed to create. Despite my awe, a frown creases my forehead. At close range, I can see where the wires and scaffold are positioned. I can see where they bite into the creature’s flesh. It looks uncomfortable. The skin seems discoloured and reddened. In some places, it’s black and blue with bruises. Uncomfortable would be being too kind a word; excruciating might be a better description.
While I stand before this colossus, part of my Starters Training comes back to me. The Bombyx Gigantica is no normal silkworm and not just because of its size. It has been modified so that it can never grow past this larvae stage and that it can continually produce silk rather than cocoon itself like its smaller cousins. It must have already provided today’s batch, so now it is free to rest until later when it begins to feed again. This process is never-ending, for that is another of the gifts bestowed on the Bombyx Gigantica. It will not die; it will just live on in this form, eating, producing silk, resting and then repeating the process, forever.
The feeding part is where I come in. I am one of those that tend the fields. We grow and then harvest the acres of Mulberry leaves to feed to the Bombyx Gigantica. The Mulberry plants flourish under the dome. They too, have been designed that way. If they were left outside to the elements, they would die within days. In here, they can survive. The leaves are bound together and then ground down and mulched so that it can be fed swiftly to the creature. This way, no time is lost.
Why go to all this trouble for a bit of silk? This silk is not just any silk. It is Meta-Silk, the most durable substance known to humankind. It is valuable beyond imagining. It can be manipulated to create any manner of wonderful things, the hulls of ships, machines, buildings, weaponry, the dome, anything. The Meta-silk has been designed such that it is durable, strong, resistant, and incredibly light. I am no scientist, so I do not know the specifics, but what I do know is that it, and consequently the Bombyx Gigantica, are worth a great deal of money. More money than I can imagine. Why, even my own prosthetic leg is partially made from that very material, around the hinges and on the ankle, not quite all of it but then I don’t have the money for a full one. I must make do with ordinary metals which pinch and rub my aching hip.
A powerful urge comes over me. I couldn’t really tell you why. Maybe it’s just common human decency. Maybe I feel sorry for the creature. I glance around the Factory until I find what I want. I walk towards the rolling ladders and drag them back towards the Bombyx Gigantica. The squeal of metal on tile reverberates around the Factory. I place it underneath the face of the creature, just below its pincers. I turn and walk towards my basket. I plunge my hand into the basket of freshly plucked Mulberry leaves and begin to climb the ladder. After a few painful minutes, I reach the top. I raise my hand carefully up to the Bombyx Gigantica’s face. I have a generous helping of the leaves, which I push it towards those pincers and wait. They tremor, the creature begins to stir, I see its creamy skin ripple and reflect the light in all directions. I remain still, patient.
Finally, the creature’s pincers stir and gently squeeze together and take the leaves from my hand, so careful that I don’t believe there’s any danger to my hand. I silently thank the Universal Being that it did not sever my fingers. It takes the leaves in its mouth and chews. Another ripple surges through its massive frame. I pull my hand away and slowly make my way back down. I stand at the bottom and shake my head in wonder. Why did I just do that? What madness drove me to it? I laugh at my fear. I’m fine. The creature was gentle, cautious even. I smile at my good deed.
I suddenly realize that I have been here for far too long. I should have returned this basket to the Processing Facility half an hour ago. They may send someone out looking for me! I quickly return the ladder to its place. I then return equally as quickly, ignoring each and every jolt of pain in my hip, to pick the basket off the floor, and with only a quick glance at the creature, begin to head towards the backdoor.
I take only a few steps before I halt. The basket slips from hands and falls noisily onto the tiled floor. The leaves rustle as they spill out and scatter across the ground. I double over and raise my hands to my forehead. The pain I had felt before when I first arrived has returned, but this time it is white-hot agony. It pierces my skull and sends an electric shock of pain up and down my body.
The discomfort is so intense that I forget all about the throb of my hip and slip down to my knees with my hands still on my forehead. I want to scream and shout for help, but my teeth are clamped together. I can’t get my mouth open to speak, let alone call for assistance. What is happening to me?! I can barely think with the pain. It is as if someone is driving a screwdriver into my forehead.
Suddenly, through all the pain, I feel something happen. From within my own mind, I hear something. It’s crystal clear. It appears out of the agony and forms two very distinct words. Help me. The pain briefly intensifies and then abruptly ends. I slump forward onto my stomach where I lie panting for a moment. I roll onto my back. From that position, I can see the Bombyx Gigantica above me. Its skin is rippling at an alarming rate. It rolls up and down the creature’s skin as if it wants my attention. I feel a pressure in my skull once again, but this time there is no pain. As before the words form out of my own consciousness but alien. Not my own. Help me.
I remain lying on my back. What has just happened? The creature’s skin has stopped rippling. The pain in my forehead has gone, although there is a dull ache. My hip is in agony. I barely register any of that though. Help me: such a simple thing, just two words, two explosive, earth-shattering words. I sit up, roll onto my good hip and push myself up. I stand onto shaking legs and glance up towards the Bombyx Gigantica. It remains where it is. Motionless. A giant fixed in the air.
My brain finally kicks in. I swing around wildly and look for the pranksters. I’m sure that they are hidden somewhere, ready to jump out and berate me for my naivety, laugh at my stupidly. They will call me peg leg, call me idiot, call me weirdo, but they don’t appear. The factory is still silent. It’s just me and the Bombyx Gigantica high above me. I come to my senses and snort. No prankster, however skilled, can force words into someone’s mind.
I look up at the Bombyx Gigantica again. Is it aware of my presence? Does it know I am here? Does it think, does it feel, does it dream? All these questions swirl around my head like a hurricane, but I don’t have the wit to answer them. I’m just a simple farmer. I tend the fields, that is all, nothing more. What do I know of the big questions of existence? I’m no theologian, no philosopher, no Universalist.
As I stare at Bombyx Gigantica, I see another ripple of its creamy yellow skin. Once again, I feel something form inside my mind. A verbal invasion. Help me. This time there is no pain. The creatures skin begins to ripple once more. Is it coming from the Bombyx Gigantica? Is it speaking to me? Does that mean it is acknowledging me? Is that its way of saying yes, I do exist, I do feel, I do dream? Did it try and communicate with me? Did it ask for help? Unsure of what to do, unsure of what to think. I close my eyes. I say a silent prayer to the Universal Being and ask them what I should do. Do I go to management and tell them of this incredible revelation? Surely, they need to know.
This is a momentous moment in human history. Another species is trying to communicate, trying to express itself by the only means available to it. It must be the genetic modification, all that tinkering with its DNA, somewhere in there it has been granted that special spark that humanity was bestowed. Am I the first to communicate with the Bombyx Gigantica? Will I be remembered forever as the first? Will my name go down in history?
I shake my head and push such hubris out of my mind with a slight feeling of disgust. I’m being selfish, thinking about my own fame and fortune while a creature has asked for my help. The other alternative is that I have gone insane, but I feel fine. There is no history of mental illness in my family, and my monthly scan was only a few days ago, and it came back as clean as ever. No, that is not it. I have inadvertently been staring at the floor while I have debated with myself. I glance back up towards the colossus above me.
Help me. It has contacted me for a reason. It wants… no, it needs my help. How can I refuse? I must speak to the Manager. She must be made aware. Even if I sound like a madman, I must talk to her. I can show her my results if needs be. Resigned to my task, I dash out of the Factory, through the back door and sprint the short distance to the Management Building just a few meters away. My hip screams at me to slow down but I will not, I cannot, I must speak to her immediately.
I reach the door to the Management Building and barge into Mrs Taylor’s office without knocking. There is no time for such niceties. She looks up from her desk in surprise but not anger. She has always been a fair manager, someone whom I respect. “Yes, Mark. Can I help you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I’m slightly out of breath, so I stand and pant for a moment or two. She looks directly at me with a raised eyebrow, clearly confused. “What is it?” Are you alrig…” I rudely cut her off, but I must be heard. “Sorry to barge in here Mrs Taylor but something amazing has happened. A miracle even.” She frowns at my words before replying. “Go on.”
I take a deep breath. “Mrs Taylor, I know how this will sound, but it’s the truth. The Bombyx Gigantica. It tried to communicate with me! It spoke to me! Spoke directly into my mind. It asked for help! Do you understand what I’m saying!? It asked me for help!’ I fall silent. I practically shouted those final words; such is my excitement. There’s a moments silence before she speaks again. “Is this a joke?”
Her tone is stern, but I don’t let it deter me. “Mrs Taylor, I came here from the Factory. The words. Help me. They formed inside my mind. It was trying to communicate with me. It has asked for help! I know how this sounds but…” I fall silent as my words do not seem to hit home. Her face remains stony. No emotion plays on her features. She sighs deeply before she replies, this time, she uses her authority. I can hear it in each word. “So, what of it?”
I’m shocked. My mouth falls open in surprise. “But…but Mrs Taylor. The Bombyx Gigantica…it tried to speak to me. Surely this is huge news? I…” She cuts me off. “Mr Jones, I think you need to get a grip of yourself and calm down.” I try again, this time, anger flares. “June, please. Listen to my words. The Bombyx Gigantica, it has communicated to me. Do you understand what this means?” Her face remains as emotionless as when I first told. Does she not believe me? Does she think me a blithering idiot? Or a liar?
It dawns on me suddenly. The thought hits me hard in the gut, like a swift, cold punch. She’s not surprised, not once has she reacted with anything but calm despite what I have said. Even if she didn’t believe me, she didn’t laugh or show scorn or amusement. Her face has remained the same throughout this exchange. This isn’t new information to her. She knows, she has to know. It’s the only explanation.
I do not hide the contempt in my voice. “You know, don’t you? This isn’t the first time, is it? How could you?!” She points her finger towards me accusingly. “Mr Jones, you are in no position to ask me those kinds of questions. This is none of your business. You are here to tend the fields, nothing more. In fact, you shouldn’t even be in the factory with the creature. That is a dismissible offence.” Finished, she picks up her phone and speed dials, but I have already left the office.
I do not think. I run towards the Factory. I must help the creature somehow! I must try and free it from its servitude. It’s a living, breathing, thinking, being. It should not be kept in these conditions. The Universal Being asks that we respect all creatures. The distance is only short, but the sudden exertion sends pain to my hip, and in my clumsiness, I stumble and then fall hard onto the gravel. Cursing, I try to push myself up back to my feet, but I feel rough hands grabbing me from behind that pull me to my back and drag me along the floor painfully.
I cry out; the pain in my hip is agonizing. I look up to see two of my tormentors. They sneer down at me. The worst of them speak. “You are in trouble now, peg leg. Real trouble.” I hear, rather than see Mrs Taylor. “Get him out of here! I don’t want to see him ever again!” I look to where she stands. I can see her stood, arms crossed as she regards me. I then look at the receding Factory, the home of the Bombyx Gigantica. No, not it’s home, but its prison. I scream and shout incoherently in my rage, but my words are ignored as they drag me away.
Author of the Dark Science-Fiction novella “The City around the World” published by Sinister Stoat Press, an imprint of Weasel Press. My short fiction has appeared in FIVE:2:ONE Magazine’s #thesideshow web series, Maudlin House, the Ghost City Review, Akashic Book’s #FriSciFi web series, Litro Magazine’s #StorySunday web series and Riggwelter Journal. I regularly post short fiction and a blog on my website.