Lin lay face-down on his bed, trying to remember his wife’s name. It snaked around his mind too quickly for his sluggish brain to catch. He figured he should let her know about his discovery: that Fabrications could give massages. He wished he had a Tempered mind that could store names and the like in a database. Now, though, it took too much effort to remember, and there was no way he was interrupting his massage by getting up and finding her. Oh well, he would let her know later.
His Fabrication lay on top of him, somehow vibrating itself in particular areas of his back. The vibrations moved from his upper back to his lower back. It felt great.
“Fabrication” was the term for the silvery-colored creatures that now lived in the homes of every citizen of the Sovereign Dominion. They resembled animals in their movement and mannerisms, often walking on four legs though they were not fashioned after any particular species. Whether or not they were indeed alive was difficult to say. They were made of twisting, smooth metal that seemed always to shift and contort in impossible ways; and no one understood how they worked. Often, they would change into shapes that suited their current task. When Lin sent his Fabrication to pick up groceries, it turned into a hollow sphere, rolling itself to its destination and carrying the food home within itself. He wondered for a second what new form the Fabrication had warped itself into to massage, but didn’t bother turning his head to look.
After having been mass-manufactured for a short time, the factories that had made Fabrications had slowed to a halt, their operators lacking certain knowledge their creators had taken with them when they died. The factories had never been destroyed, and they were now re-purposed for Temperation. Lin had been born just before Temperation, the use of Fabrications to modify humans in the womb, had become widely available. Like Fabrications themselves, the science behind temperation was mysterious and unknown.
As Lin’s massage was ending, he thanked Prime Sovereign Wencing for having Fabrications distributed to all citizens. That man knew how to rule. Lin figured it came from experience–Wencing had been Prime Sovereign before Lin had been born, and was approaching the age of 100. Lin had seen Wencing once, a long time ago. He was the kind of man who, upon seeing him, gave the impression of kindness, discipline, and competence. Lin aspired to be like Wencing, but it was much harder than he made it look.
Wencing was also responsible for the efficient layout of the Sovereign Dominion. Each house was only one room (what would anyone need more than one for?) and one story, occupying very little space. The homes were constructed entirely of soundproof steel, as were the roads, the stores, and the ground itself. The only items in Lin’s house–and most houses for that matter–that weren’t made of metal were a bed, a chair by its side, and a projection screen on the opposite wall.
In addition to such a compact housing system, somehow, Wencing had managed to situate Lin’s dwelling between his wife’s and his brother’s. Less close members of his family were all within a five-minute walk from his house, though Lin walking was becoming a less common occurrence.
It had been a while since Lin had spoken to his brother Ewell. In a small burst of motivation, he picked himself off the bed. His Fabrication sat on the floor with four legs, silent, awaiting a command. A red light on its side indicated that it was low on power. That was happening more often now than it had used to.
“I’m going to talk to Ewell, Fabrication,” he instructed. “Stay here.”
What might have been perceived as the Fabrication’s eyes shone, projecting text onto the screen on Lin’s wall: “Calling Brother.”
His brother’s face appeared on the screen. Lin sighed but figured that he might as well stay home now. Seeing that face, a more handsome version of his own, reminded him why he usually called his wife instead of Ewell. Ewell was just like Lin, but a little better in every way–his Tempered brain functioned faster; he was fitter and more handsome. He wore a crisp white military outfit and a distressed expression. Lin could make out several others in the same attire behind him; they all appeared to be hurrying somewhere. Ewell worked as a guard for the Prime Sovereign, whose regiments were normally stoic and aloof, making their apparent unease concerning.
“Lin. I was about to call you myself,” Ewell said in between heavy breaths. “You must have heard what’s happening.”
Lin sat, bewildered and silent, for a moment. Ewell, realizing that Lin had not heard what was happening, explained.
“The Prime Sovereign is dead. His son–”
The screen cut out. Lin’s Fabrication’s head drooped, and its lights went out. Lin didn’t care. The Prime Sovereign was dead. He pulled his pillow over his face, blocking out everything.
~ ~ ~
For the next two days, Lin stayed in his bed. He slept when he could. When he couldn’t, he kept his pillow pressed against his face. Wencing was old, but Lin would never have expected him to die. Two days of blackness, of blocking out the world, and blocking out his own thoughts.
On the afternoon of the third day, his pillow was ripped away from him. The sudden light blinded him, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He was torn from under the covers of his bed and carried away. His eyes were open now, and, through hazy vision, he could make out the crisp white pants of his captor. He was dumped into a large bag and dragged for some time. Finally, he was deposited on a hard surface, alone. After some time, it occurred to him that he should get out of the bag, which was not tied. It took more struggling than he felt it should; his weight was approaching 300 pounds, and he did not have much recent practice moving.
When he did escape, he saw that night was falling, and he could see quite well with his eyes having been adjusted to the dark for so long. He was not in the Sovereign Dominion. He had grown accustomed to the metallic smell of his house, but the smell here was indetectable. Before him, miles of flat, houseless metal terrain stretched in all directions. About 500 yards ahead of him, he saw four figures standing in crisp white uniforms. He did not want to go that way. He turned around and saw that there was much more than empty ground behind him. Only a few steps away was something of a shelter, with a roof and three walls, and bunks with people sleeping in it, most of them as fat as Lin, and none any younger. Beyond that, there were more of the same shelters spread across the expanse, and behind them was something even more curious. A yard filled with metal beams, sheets, and other construction materials. Next to it, more Fabrications than he had ever seen were gathered on top of a second pile of more metal scraps, devouring them. For a while, Lin stood watching. After a while, the Fabrications had consumed everything in the pile.
Lin heard footsteps from behind, and turned to see the figures in white approaching him from a distance away. Not wanting to encounter them, he stumbled to the shelter closest to him. He got into an empty bunk, struggling to keep his entire body on the cold, hard, skinny cot. From inside, he caught a glimpse of the guards, but they passed by the shelter. A few minutes later, the guards came back, followed by a pack of Fabrications. Lin didn’t know how long he lay in bed awake afterward, but he could not fall asleep.
Faint light appeared outside the shelter. Shouts approached.
“Up, up! Get to work, people! Come on!”
Two fit people from Lin’s shelter, a man and a woman, popped out of their beds, jogging away. Everyone else in the shelter stirred lethargically, grumbling at being awoken. None of them, including Lin, got out of their beds. Guards in white entered with Fabrications.
“Faster, people!” one barked.
Screams. Lin saw one Fabrication biting deep into a leg. As quickly as he could manage, Lin threw himself from his bed and floundered in the direction of the two who had left already. He had not moved like this since his childhood. Ahead of him was the scrapyard he had seen last night, but first, he was met by another guard.
“Move, sluggard! Make something!”
Lin ran past the guard, gasping for breath, and saw some people near the scrapyard assembling trinkets from refuse. Not wanting to stand out, he grabbed a small metal beam and a hammer and pounded on the beam. He had no goal for the beam in mind, just the need to blend in.
Another worker, a fit one, saw his disfigured metal rod while passing by.
“That won’t work. I’ve tried it. They only count structures. That doesn’t even have multiple parts. It won’t count.”
Lin responded with a confused look.
“Okay, you know what? I’ll make you a deal. You collect parts for me, and I’ll let you take credit for a quarter of my structures. My name’s Hall.”
Lin did not know if this was a good deal, but Hall seemed to be trying to help, so he fetched as many tools, screws, scraps, and beams as he could and brought them to Hall. After 30 minutes of this, Lin felt a moment away from toppling over. Sometimes, he saw other fat men and women laying on the ground. He longed to join them, but they were always found and ripped into by the Fabrications prowling among them. Some jumped back to work, and some allowed the machines to tear them apart. Fabrications did not eat, so they left behind a pile of shredded flesh and bone. After two hours, the heavy stench of rotting flesh was upon the scrapyard. Lin could take no more. He let himself fall to the ground, wheezing, and lay still.
A sharp pain ran up his leg. A wave of sobriety washed over him like an icy shower. He leaped up, somehow finding enough strength to make one more run to the pile of metal. He dropped the materials by Hall and ran back to the pile once more. At the end of each run, he gathered the energy to go back just one more time. He kept himself going that way.
After another three hours of grueling work, The guards, at long last, recalled their Fabrications and announced that it was time for lunch. Hall found Lin and shoved a pile of trinkets into his arms.
“These are your structures, got it?”
Lin nodded, even though he did not get it.
“Line up!” a guard demanded.
Lin fell into line next to Hall. There were some 500 people here; about an eighth of them were in shape, and the rest were like him: overweight and disoriented. Again he noticed that none of the fat people were younger than him. Along the line, Lin saw that the fit ones had laid what they had assembled out in front of them. Of the fat ones, Lin was the only one holding anything. He laid his objects out in front of him, as Hall had done. It took the guards about an hour to count the number of things each person had made. Then they began distributing food–if it could be called that–it was gray slop. It became apparent that the more structures you had made, the more food you got. Anyone without anything in front of them was given no food.
Lin got a small bowl, and the stuff tasted as disgusting as it looked, but he gulped it down nonetheless.
“Thank you,” He said to Hall. “I would not have eaten without you. My name is Lin.”
“You’re welcome, Lin,” Hall replied, but before he could say more, the guards were sending them back to work. Five more hours of backbreaking work. It got a little easier, though, the longer Lin did it, and he fell into a rhythm. Only a few more people let themselves be killed by the Fabrications. Once the five hours had passed, the guards distributed supper in the same way as before. This time, everyone had something in front of them. Some just had piles of scraps, and these people were again denied the meal. The pile of scraps was much smaller now, and next to it lay all of the little structures that had been made during the day.
After supper, they were sent back to the shelters. Lin followed Hall into one and got into a bed. And for the first time in a while, Lin had time to think. Why was I taken here? He wondered. Before he could work out an answer, he was asleep.
The next morning started just like the last. The pile of structures was gone; the scrap pile was replenished. The rest of the day was also similar to the last. Lin was a little faster, and he got a little less tired. He could carry loads a little heavier than before. He didn’t have to focus on his work as much as before. When he had a question, he asked Hall, who was experienced in the work. By the third day, in addition to losing weight and getting better at the work, he could feel his mind working faster.
He spent his free time contemplating why he had been brought here. The people who were fit knew what to do, and how the place worked. They must have been here for some time. Everyone else, then, had been brought here at the same time as Lin. Why? When the Prime Sovereign died, who had taken over? He concluded that the new ruler must have done this. But why Lin? What was it about him, and the others here, that had consigned them to this fate? And one last question.
“Hall, what is the point of this work?”
“We’re making Fabrication fuel. Whenever a Fabrication in the Sovereign Dominion runs out of power, they send it here. At night, they eat the structures we make. Somehow, that recharges them.”
“But why not just feed them the scrap metal? What’s the point of building it into something?”
“The Fabrications can only feed on things with structure. I don’t know why. I don’t think anyone does.”
Lin frowned. The Fabrications had been running out of power more often.
“Now I have a question for you, Lin,” Hall said. “Why are you here? For me, and everyone else here before you arrived, this is the only way to get food. Clearly, though, you and your group don’t have that problem.”
“My group?” Lin asked.
“Everyone who came here three days ago. You aren’t a group?”
“No,” Lin replied. “I was abducted and brought here by men who looked like our wardens.” Lin grimaced. Thinking back, he wondered if his brother had been the one to carry him from his house. Hall just frowned and said nothing more. In bed that night, another question poked at Lin’s mind. Why was no one who had arrived with him any younger than him? After lots of thinking, the answer dawned on him. Of course, what other reason could it have been? No one in this place had those too-perfect features, that sharp mind that he wished he had. The new Prime Sovereign had sentenced everyone who wasn’t Tempered to a life of backbreaking work, to feed the Fabrications.
A few nights later, in bed, something else occurred to Lin. Claire, he realized. His wife’s name was Claire.