Howard Schumann, worker 10749, made his living in the Southwest Lambda Wing of the processing center of the great brass machine which now took up much of the volume of the inner layers of the earth. His job was a simple one. Every day, at 7:30am, he woke up to the simulated sunlight beamed down onto his face, brushed his teeth and ate the morning’s rations, dressed in the uniform of all his adult years, and walked to his workplace.
Howard was assigned to the Southwest Lambda Wing, on the five year shift. This was a sprawling complex of dirty brass tubes which spat harsh fumes into the air, producing and processing the air by which he lived. The tubes were numerous, great and small, frigid and scalding, roaring and silent. The tarnished orange bronze was lit by an sterile blue light, illuminating the way to his office, indicated by faded lettering and tape on the floor - a reassuring, colourful font that promised unerring guidance. Howard was the only person assigned to the Southwest Lambda Wing.
His job was, in essence, to follow instructions. His workplace was not large, but it held all he needed. A complex pipe exchange was the centerpiece of the room, but behind was the Monitor. The Monitor was his job. It welcomed him into another day of work, noting and congratulating his continued punctuality and adding a day to his score. A colour flashed on the screen - orange - and he turned the orange valve. The pipe exchange screamed a familiar scream, then whirred in protest, shifting to a different position, as the gases within took another course. The Monitor displayed purple, and Howard turned the purple valve, and the same happened. Flash, turn, scream, whirr. The valves were so worn down that the colours were barely visible, but Howard knew them by heart. This was a simple job. Howard liked this job. So Howard worked.
Many days passed.
Howard woke up in his residence, and started his routine. It was not long now until his shift was up. He made his way along the well-worn passage, and came to his office. Howard’s heart pounded. Nothing was out of the ordinary. His exchange was there. His valves, his seat. His Monitor --
The Monitor was off. The Monitor was never off. Howard’s head span, and he began to whirl around, looking for some kind of reassurance, some explanation that he did not find. The Monitor was gone, there was no friendly face. Where was his Monitor? Howard turned and desperately tried to reason with the world, turning, turning, until he fell onto his back. He stared into the blue-white light above him. It was a clean light, a cool, calming light. Howard liked the light.
Howard had lain on the ground for many hours. He could not comprehend what had happened, and he did not want to find out. He just wanted his Monitor. He just wanted his routine, normality, instructions, but he had none of these things, and slowly, tentatively, he crept up and stood, hunched over, and walked out into the corridor he had known all his life.
Looking off, the hall seemed to go on to infinity. Steam hissed off, and low groans of mechanical contrivances could be heard from different levels. The hallway was speckled with the blue-white lights. Howard had never really paid attention to anywhere outside of his workzone. Why would he? It wasn’t necessary. But upon observing the vastness of the subterranean machination, he began to feel very, very small. He wished he had his Monitor back. He wished someone would tell him not to worry, but these wishes went ungranted.
Howard’s reflections were interrupted by a sharp, metal-on-glass ‘pop’, far down the corridor. A light had detonated, plunging a section of the hall into darkness. An isolated patch of black, perhaps half a kilometre down the path. Howard blinked. A silhouette - an indecipherable shape, in the shadow. It shifted and hurt Howard’s head to look at. It could not be understood, but something tugged at Howard’s hindbrain, something far down in his mind told him this shape was familiar. ‘Pop’. Another light. Howard’s guts lurched. It was a figure. Howard was the only person assigned to the Southwest Lambda Wing.
‘Pop’. ‘Pop’ ‘pop’. ‘poppoppopPOPPOP’. The lights, one by one and in turn, exploded in a shower of sparks and glass, machinegun fire gaining toward Howard. The darkness spread and the blue light faltered. He dived into his office, as the relentless charge of blackness hurtled past him like a train full of steel, narrowly missed by shards of acute, cutting glass. Howard’s ragged breath was drowned out by the immense clatter of debris and further exploding lights, gradually fading into silence as the corridor flooded with darkness.
It was now silent and dark. Only the hazard lights of the pipe exchange remained to barely illuminate his small room.
Slowly, tentatively and unwillingly, he reached out with his hand and found a small, dusty case, about the size of his pillow, under the pipe exchange. The rusted joints of the case cracked open loudly, echoing out the office and down the hall. Howard withdrew a bar-shaped object. He struck the cap and the end burst into a great shower of red light. Around him, the warm light caught on the curvature of pipes, and various machinings, reflecting tiny pins of light. They all stared at Howard. He hurriedly covered his injured hand in gauze and left the office.
The hall was a different world now. Illuminated by the angry-red flare, the copper and brass pipes were more veins than ever they had seemed before. The remains of the lights spattered the ground, a showering of broken glass and metal. They shined in the flarelight, a trail of glitter running the length of the corridor, inviting him.
Howard wanted normality. So Howard made the executive decision that he would keep moving until things were normal once more. And, so, Howard did something he had never done, and never wanted to do, ever before. Howard stepped outside the tape, onto the glitter-red road the corridor had become. With that first step, something woke up in Howard’s mind, bound deep beneath all else. Howard wanted to know - Howard’s primal, ape curiosity compelled him to find out what was happening. And with that, Howard made his own instruction. He strode forward.
The arteries and vein-pipes reflected and shifted as Howard marched past them. Around him, through many layers of stone and metal he could hear the deep, sorrowful groans of pressurised tubes, like dying whalesong. The hall was endless. The further he got, the less he could make out in the ever-increasing steam-smoke. He waded through with great cleaving strides, pushing aside the damp vapor which clutched at him. There was nothing, save his red candle.
A wind whipped at Howard from in front of him, further down the corridor. He had been tracing a particular pipe down the hallway with his hand. As he advanced, the pipe got colder and the wind got quicker and the wind’s source became clear. The side of the corridor had been ripped out, in great tears and shears. Every pipe on the right wall had been bent and snapped into various poses, dramatic death throes. Howard spluttered, and found himself ducking out, onto a metal catwalk outside to escape the tempest of the corridor.
Outside the pipe, Howard could see hundreds of other miles-long tubes identical to his above and around him. Far off in any given direction, the darkness and a vague fog blocked off any further details to him. A surreal void punctuated by perpendicular lines of metal tapering off to vanishing points. Howard turned to look down the catwalk, and choked. He dropped his candle.
There, no more than twenty paces away, was the figure he had seen before. It - he - stared at Howard. Howard stared back. He traced his features. Familiar crests, pits, troughs, bumps and dimples. Eyes a shade known too well. Neck, jaw, ears. Howard stared at himself. Just as Howard’s mind barely grasped what it had seen, Other-Howard turned and jumped off the end of the catwalk.
Howard’s head hurt. His brain ached, down to the basest of instincts. But what made Howard the most uneasy was the fact that he no longer wanted to return to his workplace. Not after this. He glanced down at a flash of yellow-black on his foot. A bit of the tape from the broken pipe had attached itself to his boot. Howard thought of his Other-Howard, about the Monitor, about the nexus of vessels around him he had never even known about. He reached down and tore it off, and cast it into the void about the catwalk.
Howard continued, lowering himself off a ledge dropping onto a high pile of boxes with a damp thump. A structure in the middle was visible, a small card hut, surrounded by packets of protein flakes and water rations. Packets of food were hungrily ripped apart, ravaged and sucked empty as though by a great wolf.
Around Other-Howard’s hut, there were piles of torn card sheets, covered in talon scrawlings of what must have been thousands of numbers. Howard picked up a sheet. It read:
10743 10744 10745 10746 10747 1074810749
Howard looked unflinchingly at the number. He knew it. Picking up the card and pocketing it, he walked on.
Howard, aware of a low, dull artifical hum, at length came to the source of the ghostly emissions - a great metallic dodecahedron, hundreds of metres high and wide, sealed off but with many entrances, impaled in all directions by the metal walkways. The door at the end of Howard’s path began to slide open.
Other-Howard stood in the doorway, silhouetted once more in blue light.
He spoke. He spoke with the effort and precision of a man who had rehearsed their piece a hundred, a thousand times, but he spoke with the indelicacy and barbarism of a wild man. Howard said to himself:
“I can’t do it.
And with that, Other-Howard’s job was done. Silently, he climbed the railing and rolled off the side of the walkway.
Howard stood, frozen by horror, and in anticipation of what would come next. He glanced down at the card. 10749.
The structure was hollow, with all catwalks converging to a single terminal in the centre. Howard slowly stepped up to the controls, and flicked the power switch.
Thousands of telescreens, in all directions around above and below him all flashed into life. Each was numbered. He saw something he was shaken to the core by, but something he had, in the deepest pit of his brain, perhaps guessed. Each screen showed, to the outsider, old tapes of Howard at his workstation. Tapes of his first day, his third shift, fourth shift. Here was Howard, teenaged. But then, farther on, there was Howard as he had never seen himself. Here was an aged, bearded Howard. Here was his workplace. Worker 10749. The telescreen showed a dark room, with debris strewn across the floor and a missing emergency toolbox. The feeds were live. Some Howards were motionless, gaunt. Other cameras showed children, growing in tubes, tended by metallic claws.
He had been lied to. There were no shifts. They had been used. It was perfect. Workers that didn’t even realise they were slaves, regulated and normalised, a common model to make it easier to trick them every time. It had to stop. But could they take it? Howard realised he was looking at himself, different selves, but himself nonetheless. His encounter with Other-Howard had nearly broken his mind. How could he expect himself to take this sudden destruction of all that seemed reasonable and logical?
Howard found the button, the big, red, nuclear button. The power-off switch.
His hand hovered.