A bell rang. The shrill sound echoed from every wall and through every tunnel in the cave. A thick porridge like substance bubbled into a long through that ran along one side of the cave.
Duncan crept over to the food trough; he was a nervous creature with an unpredictable temperament. It was thought that a past regeneration might have changed him. He stood around five feet tall, although usually slunk everywhere, making himself appear shorter. His hair hung down his shoulders, covering his misshapen ears. He was alert with a furtive, nervous energy, jumping at the slightest sound and frightened of everyone.
“Oi! Move you little toad!” snarled a Rock Carrier.
The Rock Carrier stood around seven feet tall; he brushed Duncan aside and delved his bowl into the food trough. Duncan backed away to the edge of the trough and quickly filled his bowl, never taking his eyes of the Rock Carrier. Once he’d filled his bowl, he backed away so quietly that he might never have been there.
He navigated his way back to his seat, avoiding various groups of Rock Carriers and Pickers who all seemed to have a dislike for him and his kind. Most of the other Runners were bigger than he was and could fend for themselves, or at least get out of the way quickly. Even the smaller ones would hang around in packs for safety, but Duncan was different in some way.
Before returning to his seat, Duncan diverted and silently moved over to one of the Pickers.
“You’re Karl, aren’t you?” he mumbled, staring into his bowl.
The Picker grunted and turned to Duncan, “Go away!”
The tone was harsh, but he spoke very quietly. Pickers were very broad, but no taller than the Runners. Karl was maybe an inch taller than Duncan, but Pickers were very slow and clumsy: speed didn’t matter for what they did.
“I want to offer you a deal,” said Duncan.
“I don’t know what tricks you are playing, but don’t try playing them on me. I have friends – Rock Carrier friends!” replied the Picker, looking very suspiciously at Duncan.
The threat was not lost on Duncan and he almost moved away.
“I can get us out,”
The Picker laughed at this, “Out of what?”
“Here,” Duncan gestured around him, “Out of the cave!”
Karl laughed again, but Duncan could see he now had The Picker’s full attention.
“You talk like a Burner,” he eyed Duncan intensely, “Maybe the rumours are true?”
Duncan’s eyes raged at this: with a speed and agility that only a Runner could muster, in a split second he was holding a sharpened rock to Karl’s throat.
“You’re very brave for a Picker, but you don’t appear to be able to match that with any more intelligence than I’d expect from your kind!” Duncan snarled in his captive’s ear.
Karl squealed and within a second, one of the larger Rock Carriers was moving over. Duncan watched as twenty-five stone of muscle and sinew stomped towards them.
“Who’s the Carrier then?”
“A friend.” Karl smiled, “Go away!”
Duncan turned to the Carrier, he was massive. His hair was tied at the back, like all Rock Carriers and his face was flat and expressionless.
“Who are you?”
The Rock Carrier looked in disgust at Duncan, “I don’t want to answer any of your questions, Runner. If that is what you are!”
A smile spanned his broad and lined face.
Duncan smiled, too, “You Rock Carriers make me laugh. You plod about breaking your backs every day and instead of questioning why, you look to everyone else as your enemies! If it wasn’t for the runners, you’d have a lifespan of less that a single cycle!” he looked at Karl, “Both of you depend on the runners, but you treat us like scum!”
The Rock Carrier reached out to grab Duncan by the hair. Suddenly Duncan regretted his outburst: the last time he’s managed to get on the wrong side of a Rock Carrier was three regenerations ago, and the memory was still painful.
“I can get you out.” He said quickly, turning back to Karl, “Both of you,”
Karl shook his head and looked at the Rock Carrier, “He’s mad, Arnold!”
“What do you mean, ‘out’?” the Rock Carrier asked Duncan.
“Out of this cave,”
Karl laughed again, “Where is there outside the cave?”
Arnold’s brow furrowed; he held a hand up to silence Karl. He looked again at Duncan, “Go on,”
Duncan removed his weapon from Karl’s throat. Karl scurried over to hide behind Arnold. Karl was short and slow, like other Pickers, but he was crafty. He constantly made alliances with everyone he could to try protect himself. He was unusual for a Picker, as they normally had very little to do with other races.
Duncan moved over to a clearing and sat down; the other two followed.
“If we find The Control then we will find a way out,” declared Duncan.
Now it was Arnold’s turn to laugh, “Is that the best you can do? We must find the fabled control; there have been people looking for generations as far back as anyone can remember, and it’s never been found – we don’t even know what it is! Don’t ever let me hear from you again, Runner!”
Arnold stood and began to move away.
“But we’ve only ever looked inside the cave,”
“That’s because that’s all there is!” Karl answered, looking irritated by the conversation.
“There’s a way in to the cave!” Duncan said. Arnold stopped and turned to face them; renewed interest on his face.
“There’s no way in, there’s no way out – there is no-where else! For two thousand cycles, we’ve recorded every regeneration, every death, and we would have recorded every arrival – but there weren’t any! Anyone who’s here now, was here then!” Karl replied, rubbing his neck where he could still feel the mark left by Duncan’s weapon.
“Where did this come from then?” Duncan spun Karl’s bowl towards him.
“My bowl?” asked Karl.
“Yes, your bowl, the food, there are many things here that did not come from here, which means there must be another place,”
“The trough is filled from underneath!” said the Rock Carrier, his tone scathing.
“That’s right – from beneath, but not from inside the cave. I’ve felt the pipe and it is big enough to crawl through.”
“For who to crawl through? A little Runner like you might fit through, but I doubt even Karl would fit through!” said Arnold.
“After I’ve found a way out, I’ll come back for you, but I need – ”
The bell rang.
Everyone in the cave rose and began filing back to their respective tasks.
Duncan stayed where he was, waiting for a call. Runners had the most dangerous of all the tasks; as the warnings came through that tunnels were weakening or complete, they were responsible for relaying that information. Often they needed to run into collapsing tunnels to warn the Pickers. Pickers were skilled and therefore more valuable than Runners, or even Carriers.
The first warning came through, moments later. It was three beeps; that meant a tunnel was weakening. He listened for the bell, indicating which tunnel it was. Sprinting across towards the Fourth Tunnel, he cried the warning, “Fourth! Weak at Two-Thirds!”
Even as he approached the tunnel, the Pickers from the final Third of the tunnel were filing out. He sprinted into the tunnel, no longer shouting, but looking for any stray Pickers. He found none and turned to retreat, when the fragile lattes holding the earth up finally gave way. The earth came crashing in on him before he realised what was happening. He was killed instantly.
Karl turned, startled by the sound. Duncan was sat in the corner of the main cave, just looking at the spilled contents of his bowl. His hands were shaking. Karl moved over to where he was sat and handed the bowl back to him.
“Something’s wrong,” Duncan commented as Karl offered the bowl to him.
“I haven’t been properly re-generated,” replied Duncan, “My hands shake all the time and I’m slowing down each time!”
“That’s ridiculous!” Karl shook his head.
“It’s true, look at me. I can’t even run properly anymore. I don’t understand, but I can remember!”
Karl looked shocked at this, lowering his voice to an anxious whisper, “You remember!”
“Yes, I can remember everything up until the cave in.” he looked at Karl, “I remember you!”
Karl backed away, “I don’t remember you!” he paused, “But if what you say is true, then maybe it’s a punishment for talking of trying to find The Control!”
Duncan just sat there, his hands still shaking and allowed his bowl to fall again. He listened as the work bell rang and watched as everyone, except the Runners filed back to their tasks. He listened as the warnings came through, but didn’t move. He could think of nothing else to do; he couldn’t run anymore, so he simply sat there and waited. He watched as the food trough began to empty, as it always did during working hours. He looked into the tunnel that piped the food into the trough. He did nothing.
He had lost something in the last regeneration, but he had also gained something: his memory. He began to remember previous regenerations; this was something that nobody had ever done before, or at least nobody had talked of. They recorded the history: the number of regeneration, any that hadn’t been regenerated, but nobody could ever remember.
Warnings rang for weakening tunnels, but he didn’t move. The bell rang for meal after meal. He just sat and stared at the food trough.
As time passed and he became more weakened from lack of food, but he remembered further back in time. It was said that it was over six thousand cycles ago when everything began, but he began to remember longer ago than that. He could remember finally his first regeneration as a Runner, as before that, he remembered himself as a Burner.
The Burners had gone, they’d all changed into others over time, but no one remembered who they had been. That was the way of things, as tasks became obsolete, the workers were regenerated, evolving into new positions. The Burners had made tools, bowls and utensils from the metals they brought from the ground; they had used fire, but the knowledge of fire was now lost. Before them, there had been Diggers, who had created the tunnels that the Pickers now mined. Burners were now ridiculed and scorned as a sub caste, but they had been skilled workers.
Duncan looked around to see Karl and Arnold, stood behind him.
“Tell me,” asked Karl, wincing as he did so.
“Tell you what?”
“Don’t start playing games, you said you remember – what do you remember?” Karl leaned towards Duncan, conspiratorially.
“The Control. If we find it, it will tell us everything – how to get out, where we came from, where we are! It will tell us the meaning of our existence!” answered Duncan.
“Not that again! That’s ridiculous – we know the answer to all those things! There is no way out, because this is all there is,”
“If this is all there is then who makes the food, and where did it come from? Where do the things that we mine go to?”
“Food comes from the troughs and the elements we mine go into the shoot!” Karl stood – ready to walk away.
“Who puts the food in the troughs?” asked Duncan.
“It comes from underneath,” answered Karl.
“I asked who, not where,”
Karl turned, “It’s a childish question,”
“There are no children here – just us,”
“That last regeneration has warped your mind! Of course there are no children!” replied Karl.
“I know that this is not all there is,” answered Duncan.
Karl and Arnold both stood and moved away. Duncan remained, watching the food troughs. He’d now been watching the cycle for two days; the food would be pumped in a short time before the break bell rang, and the remaining food was sucked out a short time after. The troughs then stayed empty until the next break.
He listened to the bells ring as he waited. He listened to the screams of the trapped workers as caves collapsed. He watched as they re-appeared later, emerging seamlessly from the shadows of the cave. His attention was fixed on the troughs; he counted in his head between them emptying and re-filling.
The final break came, and the workers filed in. A scramble formed around the troughs – the Rock Carriers at the front, and the smaller races around the edge. Gradually each worker filled their bowl and found a place on the cave floor to sit – some in groups, some alone.
The bell rang again.
The food troughs began to empty.
Moving quickly and silently, he edged over to the troughs.
Other runners were sat around, waiting for calls; mostly they would try to avoid anything that didn’t directly concern them.
The food finally emptied from the troughs and Duncan peered into the tunnel. In was dark, but definitely wide enough for him to crawl through. Scrambling across the trough, he crawled into the tunnel. A small sliver of light from the room behind him allowed him to see his own arms for a short time, but as he progressed, the light dimmed. The tunnel was slippery, the food obviously lining the sides with slime, and it smelt very strongly.
For the first few feet, he used his feet to stop himself falling, as the tunnel run directly downwards.
Behind him, he could hear the chattering of the remaining runners – they had seen him enter the tunnel.
The tunnel began to level out, then it descended again. At first, the decent was gradual, but it became steeper, until Duncan was grappling at the sides to avoid slipping. It was no use, the gradient, combined with the slimy walls gave him nothing to hold and he began to slide. The tunnel curved downwards in an arc, for an instant Duncan was free-falling, and then it curved back on itself, and finally levelled out.
He began to panic. It was pitch black, and he barely had space to move his arms or legs, and he was now on his back. There was hardly any air: the sides of the tunnel seemed to claw at him with dank, musty tentacles of rotting food.
Duncan managed to wriggle himself around, so that he was facing downwards again, and continued crawling, very conscious of the fact that time was limited – should it run out, the tunnel would be flooded with the liquid food that filled the troughs.
He continued with renewed energy – the thought of drowning in boiling gruel spurring him on. The tunnel sloped upwards and he slowed as he shuffled upwards, using his feet to stop him falling backwards.
He started to hear some noises: a buzzing sound and then, Duncan saw light ahead of him. At first, he thought he may be hallucinating or dying, but as he crawled forward the light grew bigger. It was a strange light – like nothing he’d ever seen inside the cave – it was brighter and more intense.
Scrambling, faster now, he headed for the light. As he reached it, he saw there was a hole in the side of the tunnel, but as he tried to push through it, he found that some invisible force prevented him from exiting the tunnel. He looked around the edge of the hole, and realised that the invisible force was actually a transparent material. Through it, he could see a room.
The room was completely different from anything he’d ever seen. The walls were made from something smooth. The room was mainly grey. It was lit, not the dim light of the cave, but by panels on the walls and ceiling: panels of light. Strange lights flashed at various places across the walls. The buzzing sound was louder here.
A man, wearing a white coat stood at the controls, he turned and looked at Duncan. He smiled.
The white-coated man approached the transparent screen and pressed a button next to it. The screen slid away, and he helped Duncan to climb out. The man then pressed another button and the screen slid shut again.
Duncan breathed in, the air was different somehow, the smell was clean.
“Hello, Duncan,” said the man.
Duncan looked at the man for a long time.
“Are you The Control?”
“I’m a controller, yes,” said the man, still smiling, “My name is David,”
“Am I dead?” asked Duncan.
The man gestured to a seat in the corner of the room.
“No, you’re not dead. You can’t die,”
Duncan thought back through his regenerations – he had always assumed that one day he would not be regenerated, as had everyone in the cave. But then he realised that some had not been regenerated – surely they were dead.
He looked at the man; at David. His brain scrambled for all the questions that he should ask if he ever met The Control. He thought carefully – he mustn’t waste his questions.
“What is the meaning of life?” asked Duncan, looking at the man with a combination of awe and fear.
The man laughed, “The meaning of your life is to save on labour costs. The meaning of existence in general, well – that one, only God knows,”
“God is another Control?” asked Duncan.
“Yes, in a way,” said David, still smiling. “I can’t believe that your cognitive development has come so far as to question your own existence!”
“What is ‘labour costs’?” asked Duncan.
“It’s complicated to explain,” answered David.
“You said that I can’t die, but some have not regenerated. Are they not dead?”
David looked at Duncan thoughtfully, “They were discontinued models,” he replied.
“They are still alive?” asked Duncan.
“They’re actually in the next room,” laughed David.
“I remember previous regenerations. That’s never happened before, but I’ve slowed down a lot!” he looked at David pleadingly, “What does that mean?”
“There’s a virus in the system,” replied David, “The last time this happened, we had to shut you all down and start again!”
“Yes, don’t worry about it, we have it under control. We can restore your working skills with the next re-gen, but we wont be able to erase the memories you’ve acquired without resetting you – so you’ll just have to live with them for now. If it starts being a problem then…”
Duncan looked confused. He thought hard to recall some of the questions he had for The Control.
“Control, why is there evil in the cave?”
David looked confused, “There is no ‘evil’ in the cave,”
“Yes, sorry – no, there is no evil. Your creation is great!” stammered Duncan, suddenly mortally afraid that he’d offended The Control.
“What do you mean by evil?” asked David.
“Nothing, Control – it was just…”
“Go on,” prompted David.
“Well, the Rock Carriers are the strongest race, and so they take the food first. Anyone that challenges them is hurt or killed! The tunnels cave in, sometimes, even if we do everything right, the tunnels still cave in, and sometimes many are crushed!”
A look of realisation crossed David’s face; his brow furrowed deeply.
“Duncan, those things are not manifestations of evil, they are just physics and life. The strong and powerful always take advantage over the weak, that is the way societies work. The tunnels collapse if you mine them too deep, or there is a tremor in the earth – it’s just the way of things,”
“Why must things be like that? Why must I be a runner, and not a Rock Carrier? Why do the ‘tremors’ come?”
“Things are like that because that’s how things are. You are who you are, because you are what you are – if you were a Rock Carrier, then you would be a different person. The tremors, well – we can’t predict them yet – but maybe we will one day,”
Suddenly, a bell reverberated. It was a sound like nothing Duncan had ever heard – he covered his ears. The ear-splitting sound reverberated around the room in short bursts.
“The phone,” David looked confused, “Err…”
He looked confused for a minute and then reached for Duncan’s head and put his hand to the back of his neck.
Duncan was sat in the corner of the cave when Arnold came over to him.
“What happened to you? You weren’t working, and then you disappeared – some of the runners said they saw you go into the tunnel?”
Karl, noticing the two, made his way over to where they were sat.
“I’ve seen The Control” Duncan’s eyes burned with passion, “I went through the food tunnel!”
The other two looked shocked.
“What did you see?” asked Arnold.
“The Control is named ‘David’. He is truly great! He told me of the meaning of life!”
“What is it?” asked Arnold.
“It is to save ‘Labour Costs’!”
“What is ‘Labour Costs’?” Karl asked.
“They are so great and powerful a thing, that he couldn’t tell me. Our purpose is to save them,”
“They are in danger?” asked Karl.
As they spoke, more and more workers gathered round to listen to the sermon delivered by Duncan.
“What else did you learn?” asked Karl, eagerly.
“There is more than one ‘Control’ – there are two! The second is named ‘God’”
“Two?” Arnold asked, incredulously, “That’s absurd! How can there be two – it makes no sense! Did you see this second Control, God?”
Duncan shrugged, “No, God is a subordinate Control to David, he has only knowledge of ‘the meaning of life in general’ – he knows nothing of ‘Labour Costs’, or ‘tremors’ – only David knows of those!”
“Are ‘tremors’ another Control?” asked Arnold.
“They are a kind of Control, but they are evil – they cause the cave-ins. I think that it is these that threaten the ‘Labour Costs’. Maybe while the ‘tremors’ are persecuting us, the ‘Labour Costs’ are safe!”
“Why do the ‘tremors’ not show themselves?” asked Karl.
“I don’t know – but you must not fear them! The Control has decreed that we can never die – this is the help we have to fight the ‘tremors’!”
Arnold shook his head, “That’s ridiculous – we record all regenerations, and sometimes we don’t get regenerated!”
David smiled, “Yes, I asked that of The Control. He told me that anyone who is not regenerated is ‘discontinued’”
“What does that mean?” asked Arnold.
“He said that they have gone to be with The Control! This must be the reward for living a good life – freedom from these endless regenerations and living in paradise with The Control!”
“While I was there, a work bell rang – it was a different tone to anything that I’ve ever heard – it rang in staggered bursts. When it rang, The Control touched my head, and I was regenerated instantly!”
The bell rang for the return to work. The workers filed enthusiastically to their jobs, while Duncan and the other runners waited for the calls.