Minds Burned White, by Robert E. Keller

We no longer beat at the walls in frustration, for we had become passive over the years. We still sought a way out, and we always would. We had to. The daily suffering we were forced to endure would never let us find peace. But there was a life to be made here as well, and plenty to do. We had become law and order in a realm of chaos, the keepers of hope and justice. We were three gods charged with the task of sustaining existence.

Unfortunately, our minds were fading into dull ruin.

I stood upon the Hub of Worlds—a circular platform with holes that led to the deepest reaches of the universe. I could gaze down upon stars and planets that were untold distances away. I was the Keeper of the Heavens. I was once a notorious thief devoid of a conscience, and I had no right to be such an important figure here—yet that’s the way things were.

“There is a trapped soul east of here,” said Gariana, the Keeper of Fire, who had just entered my chamber. “Fasban heard the cries. It must have fallen into the hands of the Skinless Ones. Fasban believes this newcomer must be someone important and highly intelligent—they may know how to solve the riddle of the machine.”

I glanced at her and sighed. “Every time I turn my gaze from the portals, something terrible happens. A star explodes where none should, or a planet is swallowed up. It’s gotten so bad lately I dare not look away. I need to find that worm!”

“You can’t save everyone,” Gariana said. “Worms are going to cause chaos. But right now, there is a soul in torment—a soul who might be able to help us find the way out of here or at least give us control. Fasban is waiting at the Gateway.”

I glanced down at the portals. The worm was out there somewhere—a creature utterly lacking in remorse—causing massive damage to the universe. Eventually it would show itself, and I would seize it and pluck it from the depths of space. Out there it was large enough to kill a star, but in here I could crush it into oblivion in my fist. That was one of my duties, and if I failed to perform it, my nightmares would be infested with the screams of those who perished.

I stepped down from the platform. “Okay, but let’s make this quick.” I lacked faith that the soul could help us. I was an intelligent man, but years of seeking a way out of this prison had been in vain. Why should I trust in someone who knew nothing of the machine and its workings, even someone who might be a genius or a philosopher?

“You take your job too seriously, Hatch,” said Gariana. “I think you tend to forget that we’re still prisoners here. We didn’t ask for any of this.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” I said. “But I must admit, I do feel that if I ignore my duties the whole universe will collapse.” I reached into my plain black robe—the same thing we all wore down here—and pulled out the small jeweled clock that had a ring of mysterious, almost Greek-looking symbols on its face. “See, I haven’t forgotten who I was. I keep this on hand to remind me that I was once a pathetic rogue—just like you were, Gariana.”

I sniffed the clock. “It still bears the scent of Lady Teagan’s perfume. She spilled the bottle all over it when I knocked her unconscious. How many decades ago was that?”

Gariana shook her head. “I barely remember that night, when the portal opened that brought us here. How long has it actually been, and how many times have we had this conversation? Decades might have passed since then, or longer…”

I shrugged. “We used to be vile human beings, my dear. The worst sort of company one could keep. What has happened to us? We’re not a day older, but we’ve lost our aggression. We repeat the same conversations, the same mistakes. It’s like we’re becoming lost in the fog.”

Gariana stood in thoughtful silence, her eyes distant. I remembered that she’d once had a cold face that was always twisted in a sneer, and that I had never thought her beautiful in spite of her fair skin and flowing blond hair. But beauty existed there now—a passive and nurturing beauty, almost motherly in its essence.

“Let us go and free the soul,” said Gariana. “It hurts my head to try to remember the past. Too much suffering has burned the colors from my mind.”

I smiled. “I love that expression of yours, though I’m not sure I entirely understand it. In a way, it does sort of make sense.”

We walked to the tunnel mouth, making our way around the jutting bones that stuck up from the rocky cavern. It was as if the remains of giants had been melded into the stone—just one of the many mysteries of our prison—but the bones formed a distinct pattern. Everything did in this realm. The longer one existed here, the more one was led to realize that the realm functioned as a precise and terrible machine. Everything here had a purpose.

The tunnel mouth gaped open, leading into a maze of golden gears. I glanced at the clock in my hand, wondering if the gears inside it resembled those from the tunnel. How many times had I wondered this? It was hard to tell. The clock was seamless. I could move the hands around (they didn’t move on their own), but apparently the only way to peer inside it was to smash it open—and I wasn’t going to risk destroying a device that might somehow be connected to the machine and therefore might offer a means of escape.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Gariana shoved a finger against my lips. “Either break your damned clock open, or keep your mouth shut about what might be inside it,” she said. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you ten thousand times.”

I stuffed the clock back in my cloak pocket. We entered the tunnel, and the gears began to shift frantically. Had we bothered to run, we might have saved ourselves some agony. But we no longer bothered. The gears lost their flawless rhythm and became unbalanced, metal screeching against metal in a torturous symphony. Calmly, we placed our hands over our ears and walked through the tunnel.

At the end, three more tunnels stretched away from us—also filled with gears. We took the middle tunnel, and the gears screeched at us more fiercely than before. My hands shook and I grew dizzy. Gariana seemed to endure it better than I did, but that was nothing unusual. Since the first day we’d arrived here, she’d been more adept at dealing with the torment. I speculated that it was because she was a woman and was therefore designed to endure the pain of childbirth, but that was a feeble guess at best.

Beyond the gears was a circular stone door. Chained to it was a human skeleton, animated by some unknown force. Its jaws opened and closed, and it wiggled in its chains. A dark serpent was coiled up in its rib cage.

Fasban stood leaning against the door, his hand resting dangerously close to the skeleton’s ribs. He was a tall, lean man with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, a rat-like face bearing pockmarks, and a thin, scruffy beard.

“So what do you know of this lost soul?” I asked.

“Not much,” said Fasban. “The cries were too distant for me to tell if it’s even a man or a woman. But it must be someone of significant mental ability. I was near the Halls of Laughter when I heard the screams coming from Skin Town. Only the most intelligent sort would wind up there, where the machine can test them thoroughly and absorb them quickly. It must perceive this person as a real threat—just the type it likes to devour.”

“The machine is bound by its own laws,” Gariana mused. “It must deal with people according to the turning of its gears. Thus, we are given a chance to find this person while they still have the ability to speak. We’ve come close before, and we know it can be done—if we hurry.”

“A machine is only as good as its gears,” I mumbled. It was one of my favorite and often-repeated statements. I gazed at the twitching skeleton without really seeing it, my mind still on protecting the universe. “Why don’t you two go and find the lost soul? I’ll meet up with you later after I get some work done.”

Fasban grabbed my shoulder and shook me. “Snap out of it, Hatch. Escape remains our goal, first and foremost. Let someone else worry about the cosmos.”

I shoved his hand away. “Then let someone else worry about the light as well.” I glanced at Gariana. “And the fire, too.”

“If we must,” said Gariana. “There is no good to be found here, Hatch. This is a maze of punishment. Our duties are simply burdens we must bear. Remember how many times we considered killing ourselves just to escape our burdens?”

I shook my head. “My task is more than that. I defend lives—entire worlds. How many living creatures are perishing even as I stand here speaking?”

Gariana gently slapped my shoulder. “Let it go! Once, long ago, we constantly questioned whether our duties were real. Why do we so rarely question them now?”

I knew the machine wanted me to suffer, which was why I bore such a profound burden as protecting the whole expanse of the universe. It was an absurd charge that no mortal should be given. I knew this, yet I couldn’t help myself. I viewed myself as the final hope for worlds in peril.

Fasban stepped close to me, so that I could smell his sour breath. “Do you think I’m fond of leaving the light unguarded, when the darkness is so hungry? You can’t comprehend my task, old fellow—what it means in the grand scheme of things. You don’t understand the battle between light and shadow, and what the stakes are. It has torn my soul to pieces in more ways than you can imagine. But still my goal remains to get out of this wretched machine. I have not forgotten wind, rain, or sunlight on my face.”

“Nor have I, Fasban,” I said, struggling to remember. This conversation was one that had played out hundreds of times. But what else could we do?

“We’re getting out of this prison,” Fasban insisted. “All of us. In another place, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for us to be stuck in our thirties for all eternity. But not here. I’d rather grow old and die in the world we once knew.”

Knowing it was pointless to argue with a man so determined, I reached into the skeleton’s rib cage and let the serpent bite my hand. Agony mixed with hot venom erupted in my flesh, and the door slid open. The skeleton was simply part of the machinery, regardless of whether or not it had ever actually been a living man. It was just a doorknob now.

I knelt for a moment, letting the poison run its course. Like the screeching gears, it was designed to simply cause me discomfort. But there were other forces in the machine that could kill.

We stepped through into a hot breeze, our black cloaks billowing. We were the overlords of this contrived hell, the only ones who were privileged to remain human. Others were sucked in and eventually bonded into the machinery. We called them lost souls, even though they were just as alive as we were. Lost souls provided lube for the gears and made them turn. Without them to feed on, the machine would have ground to a halt.

But was our only purpose to suffer? That question had plagued our minds since day one. We suspected the machine was feeding off us somehow or using us as tools to help keep itself functioning. Perhaps it tormented us only to keep us distracted with thoughts of escape, so we couldn’t learn whatever might give us an advantage over it. And then, of course, there was the question of whether or not this was a true hell—a punishment for the way we had lived.

We stood in one of our least (and most) favorite chambers—the Feeding Hall. A warm mist billowed over a stone floor, and stalactites hung like teeth from the ceiling. I led the way, with Gariana and then Fasban behind me. We walked single file because we didn’t want to anger the machine, which didn’t like us walking abreast in here. If we angered it, we’d have a much more difficult time finding the exit from this chamber.

I made it a few yards and then a metal slab shot up from the floor beside me. Before I could react, it shoved me to one side. The speed should have thrown me into the wall and broken my bones, but an invisible force stopped my motion. In moments, the chamber became a maze of metal walls. How they emerged from the smooth stone, and what moved them, was a complete mystery like most aspects of the machine.

After being shifted around a bit, I found myself gazing at an oaken table before me laden with food, and I leapt toward it. But another slab arose and shoved me sideways. Then moving walls obscured the table from view.

A section of wall lowered to reveal feeding tubes—fleshy devices that shot from holes in the floor and burrowed into my flesh. It felt as if my insides were being sucked out and devoured. I groaned and managed to yank some of the tubes free. But more shot out and pierced me. The tubes didn’t kill—in a sense, they didn’t even injure, because the wounds closed immediately once they were done. They were simply there to give the impression that they were feeding on me, just as I had wanted to eat the food on the table. It always struck me as a childish and annoying punishment, as if the machine had been designed by some clever but mean-spirited child.

I gave up and waited, my body shuddering with pain and revulsion. Once, long ago, the tubes feeding this deeply on me would have left me an emotional mess. But my mind was dulled to it now, the raw human emotions sanded smooth from the torture, and I simply waited. I had lost something over the years—we all had—but exactly what we had lost was hard to identify. Perhaps we were missing pieces of the mind or soul, or some part of us we couldn’t fathom.

The tubes finished their work and the walls shoved me around some more. At one point I briefly came face to face with Gariana. She gave me a weary smile before we were thrust away from each other. And then I was standing before the food-laden table again—right next to it this time, so that I could inhale the delicious scents.

I grabbed a turkey drumstick and chewed into it, washing it down with some wine. I chuckled, my mouth full of food. The others would have been annoyed at how easily I had secured a meal. Sometimes it took an hour or more to find food in here. I stuffed down as much as I could before the walls pushed me away again.

I was used to the tricks of this chamber, and by diving through openings and pausing at the right times, I was able to work my way toward the exit.  At last, the three of us stood before another round stone door. This one had six holes in it.

“Anyone find a meal?” Fasban asked. “I got nothing for my troubles.”

Gariana shook her head. “Not even a crumb.”

I burped. “Slim pickings today, my friends.”

Fasban sniffed the air. “Is that wine on your breath? I’ve had nothing to drink but stale water for weeks.”

I shrugged. “I managed a little taste of some wine. It wasn’t very good.”

Fasban seized my cloak. “Really? And why didn’t you stuff the bottle in your pocket, Hatch? Or at least some of the food? Do you have any idea how hungry I am?”

“It would have cost us time,” I said. “You know the machine doesn’t like it when we pocket food. And we need to hurry.”

Fasban shook me. “You dirty lout! I love wine.”

I knocked his hand away. Years before, he might have bashed me in the face for this. But like Gariana and I, he had been worn down, and now Fasban simply shook his head, sighed, and walked away. I felt a twinge of pity for him—and for the reflection of myself that I saw in him.

Risking an electrical shock, I shoved my hand into one of the holes in the stone door. I chose one at random, for the game was that it was impossible to tell which hole held the shock and which would open the door. It was empty. I tried another, and something gently pinched my hand and shoved it out of the hole. The door slid open.

Fasban glared at me. “Looks like fortune is smiling on you today, Hatch.”

I shrugged, not feeling very lucky. The worst torment for me was leaving my duties behind. Why couldn’t Fasban understand that? I wanted to escape this place as badly as he did—but only after I had secured the universe from the grasp of evil.

We entered a closet.

Black cloaks hung from pegs—a new one for each of us. We removed our dirty cloaks and tossed them on the floor, where they would be removed later by some means unknown to us. The fact that for a moment we were all naked was meaningless to us. Gariana displayed a curvy body, but I felt no attraction to her, and I knew her feelings toward me were the same. Once, we had been lovers, but those desires had faded away long ago. Now I viewed her no differently than I viewed Fasban. The machine had robbed us of our joys at being human.

We put on the new cloaks. They always smelled like hot leather for a few days.

We entered the Hall of Sorrow. (We had invented a generic name for every hall and chamber in here.) Apparently, the only purpose this hall served was to remind us that we were leaving our duties behind so we would feel bad about it. Three wooden pedestals stood at the hall’s center, a few feet apart from each other, bearing phantom images atop them. One displayed a candle that flickered weakly, another revealed a glowing orb that was partially blackened by shadow, and the remaining one showed a galaxy that had been ripped in two by some unknown force.

But there was something even more sinister in here, and it seemed directed exclusively at me—a fourth pedestal set apart from the others that displayed a jeweled clock. The clock was larger and cheaper than the one I possessed, the jewels just glass imitations. I tore my gaze away from the doomed galaxy and approached the clock. I sniffed it. As usual, I could smell the Lady Teagan’s perfume—only there seemed to be something cheap or fake about it.

“Let it be, old fellow,” Fasban said, yanking me away from the clock.

Meanwhile, Gariana had been drawn to the candle, and she had thrown her hands over it. “I’ll put the fire out myself,” she hissed. “I refuse to be mocked!”

Fasban collared her as well. “Come on, now. How many times has this chamber got us riled up? Clear your minds. Clear your minds. Clear your minds!”

Gariana kicked the wooden pedestal and knocked it over. Fasban dragged us along the hall and through a doorway. Behind us, the pedestal righted itself with a clunk. The machine could not be altered with physical violence. Anything we could smash, shatter, or move out of position would quickly return to its previous state.

Gariana tore away from Fasban, her face flushed. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just hate that hallway. For some reason, it really gets to me. I don’t like this route.”

We wandered through a maze of passageways that all looked the same, some of which led to dead ends. This region was never easy to navigate, and it took us more than an hour to find our way to the exit that led to Skin Town. At last we entered an enormous chamber filled with gears. Several bridges crisscrossed this room, leading to doorways.

We started across a bridge, watching above and below us for the lost soul and for pendulums that swooped down on metal arms and tried to knock us off the bridge. Most of the gears above us were covered in a grid-like blue skin that crackled like static, but the ones below were shiny and skinless. Occasionally a gear from above would dip into the mass of skinless gears below and rise with a new skin, the exact process of which was hidden to our eyes.

“Look there!” said Gariana, pointing. The lost soul was trapped by some gears below and looked to be unconscious. We all exchanged a glance of disappointment. We were expecting someone older and wiser looking.

“She appears rather young,” said Fasban. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would the machine bother sending a young girl here? She can’t possibly be considered a threat. Look! Her mouth isn’t covered. The machine doesn’t even care if she speaks to us.”

“There must be sound reasons for this,” said Gariana, ducking as a gear hurtled past her head. “The machine has a precise motive behind everything it does.”

“Even a machine is not perfect,” I said. “It looks like her arm is trapped. Let’s climb down and see if we can pull her loose so I can get back to my duties.”

#

When the girl awoke, she was lying on a stone table in Gariana’s chamber. Several flickering torches that burned with colorful flames stood in the room, and a spicy smell of incense hung in the air. A smoldering pit lay at the center of the chamber, ringed by a bronze dragon, some of the coals blackened within.

The girl wiped sweat from her brow and said, “It’s hot in here.” She seemed calm considering the circumstances, though her eyes widened when she gazed at the blue, metallic skin that covered her hand and part of her arm.

“Where am I?” she asked. “And what has happened to my hand? I was out walking in the fields, and then I think I must have fallen asleep.”

“You are inside a machine,” said Gariana, her eyes full of pity. “It’s a sort of puzzle, or maze. Sometimes it draws people in and traps them.”

She sat up, her green eyes wide with fright. She looked to be in her early twenties, with curly reddish hair and pale, freckled skin. She wore a black dress and had a black ribbon in her hair, which struck me as odd—though I realized there could have been any number of reasons for that.

“Relax,” Fasban said. “It won’t do you any good to get all riled up.”

“Who are you people?” she asked.

“No one important,” said Fasban. “We got trapped here like you, and we’ve been trying to find a way out ever since.”

“We were thieves,” I said, not caring in the least what she thought of me. “We were committing a robbery when the machine drew us in.”

“How long have you been away from your families?” she asked, leaning forward. Her eyes held a glint that could have meant anything.

“We were orphans,” I said. “Childhood friends who ran away from terrible situations and made a living by stealing. We have no families that we know of. As to how long we’ve been here…We’re not exactly sure. We think it has been years, or maybe even decades.”

“I have a large family,” she said. “And a man I am pledged to marry. I was at my grandmother’s funeral when I got upset and walked into the countryside. They’re waiting for me to return. In fact, they might even be out looking for me. When can I go back?”

We glanced at each other. “We don’t know if it’s possible,” said Fasban. “As I mentioned, we’re still seeking a way out of here. What can you tell us of the world you left behind?”

For a moment she seemed to be pondering, and then she held up her blue hand and wiggled the fingers. “This looks awful. Does it come off with water? Or can I just peel it away?”

I turned away, inwardly cringing.

“It won’t come off,” said Fasban. “The machine is trying to absorb you. Soon, it will send gears after you to add more of that skin to your body. Eventually…” He cleared his throat. “Eventually you will become a—”

“Fasban!” Gariana said sharply. She went to the girl and caressed her hair. “What’s your name?”

“Brilla,” she said. Then she put her face in her hands and wept.

“What a shame,” I whispered. “The first soul who has ever been able to speak to us, and she knows nothing. I suppose I must return to my duties.”

Brilla raised her head. “Wait! Don’t leave me here! My father is a famous architect and inventor, and I’ve learned from him. If the three of you were only thieves…maybe I know some things about machinery you don’t.”

Fasban’s face brightened. “That’s the spirit! There’s a strange apparatus not far from here. We call it the Control Room. Maybe you can figure out how to activate it.”

Brilla managed a smile. “It’s worth a shot. Lead the way.”

#

Brilla had a charm that quickly began to grow on me. She began to feel familiar to me, like the daughter I’d never had. My eyes kept straying to her reddish hair, and some sweet memory kept trying to stir. I quickly took to feeling protective toward her. Even Fasban seemed taken in by her charm and positive attitude. I still doubted she could help us, but I focused less on my neglected duties and more on making sure she stayed safe.

Gariana clamped her hands over Brilla’s ears to protect them from the screeching gears. We made our way through several tunnels filled with various torture devices. The three of us sacrificed our bodies—enduring pain and misery—to defend Brilla, until at last we stood in a chamber filled with jeweled levers, switches, and dials. The jewels were embedded in bronze.

The room was perfectly round, with only a circular tunnel mouth leading in or out. The bronze walls were flawlessly smooth. At the room’s center was a cluster of jeweled levers, like a spiny growth of metal and crystal shards.

Brilla gazed at the levers in awe. “Fascinating,” she said. “This might be the core of the machine, and I have no doubt this is a control panel. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe this is one giant timepiece—a clock, if you will.” She turned and gazed at me piercingly.

My hand crept into my pocket and I withdrew the jeweled clock. “What do you make of this?”

Her eyes narrowed. “It is beautiful indeed. Extraordinary. May I hold it?”

Reluctantly, I handed her the clock. I hated to part with it for even a moment, but she seemed to know what she was doing. She caressed it and turned away. I gazed at her curly red locks, and my hand twitched. I envisioned striking her from behind and taking back what was rightfully mine. Her soft laughter reached my ears.

“Go on and strike me, Hatch,” she said. “You know you want to.”

“Who are you really?” I said. “How do you know my name?”

“She has been partially absorbed,” said Fasban, pointing at her hand. “So the machine has given her knowledge. That may work to our advantage.”

“Can you make sense of this, my dear Brilla?” Gariana asked her.

“Yes, I can,” Brilla said. “The real control panel is this tiny clock. It commands the machine. These levers are simply here to give hope, to make fools believe the machine can be controlled from within.” She grabbed a lever and yanked it. A rumbling sound arose in the walls. “Nice sound effect, isn’t it? It really makes one believe that something just happened.”

“I knew it,” I said, a cold feeling gripping my heart. “That clock was the key all along. It could have freed us. Isn’t that right, Brilla? If that’s what your name actually is.”

“That is my name,” she said, “and yes, it could have. But it would have taken a genius to unlock its secrets, Hatch—which you clearly are not.”

Fasban glanced at Gariana in confusion. Sweat dripped from his forehead, and his hands trembled. “That tiny clock? I can’t believe it!”

“I can’t either,” said Gariana. “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?”

“Indeed,” she said, and again she laughed. “Hatch knows the truth.”

“I’m beginning to know it,” I said. I stepped closer to her. One solid blow to the back of her head, and the clock would be mine again. But the violence was gone from my soul, my mind burned pale and passive from all the suffering, and I found I could not strike her.

“You’ve grown feeble, Hatch,” she said. “What has happened to your manhood?”

“Tell me your full name,” I said.

“Brilla Teagan, of course,” she said. “But you already knew that.”

Fasban and Gariana glanced at me in shock.

I leaned close and sniffed her, and I thought I could faintly smell her perfume. I had never seen the Lady Teagan’s face, because her back had been turned to me when I struck her down. Yet I’d known instinctively she was beautiful, and a thrill had warmed my belly as I drove my fist into her skull. The power of life and death over a young beauty had been mine to command.

But the thrill was gone now, replaced by dull shame. “Why have you come here, Brilla?” I asked. “What will you do to us?”

Brilla laughed. “I was always here with you. I got sucked into the machine the same moment the three of you did. I hid in the labyrinth, allowing the machine to carry out its purpose and grow stronger. The reason you were never absorbed is because you were the first to enter, and the machine used you for a different purpose. The duties you performed were designed to enhance the machine and give it the ability to mold time. It has grown into a behemoth, its reach crossing the barriers between worlds.”

Brilla turned and smiled. Her eyes were round and shining like gold coins. “But the machine is just an extension of this tiny clock that came from the heavens. To destroy this is to destroy the machine. And it’s such a fragile device. But who would want to shatter something so precious?”

“Destroy it!” Fasban shouted at her.

“Destroy it!” Gariana echoed.

Brilla grinned. “I think not. I was already bonding with the machine before you struck me down, Hatch. I am a goddess here. The rest of you are no longer needed. You will now be absorbed.”

With a sneer, she turned her back to me. “You could end this, Hatch. Except that I know you really can’t. Not anymore. It’s so simple. All you have to do is—”

My fist crashed into her head, and she collapsed to the floor. I stood over her, my hands shaking. The blow had been a stout one, and Brilla was out cold.

“She didn’t believe I had it in me,” I said. “And neither did I.”

The others stared in disbelief.

“She didn’t believe,” I said, lifting the clock. “She was so confident that…that the colors had all been burned away. But a seed of aggression lingered. It always does.”

“All those years she waited,” said Gariana, kneeling and running her fingers through Brilla’s hair. “Her greatest moment was at hand, and she dared to turn her back on you. It must have been a burning need within her—to prove that you had become too weak to do what you did so long ago.”

“I could not have done it,” said Fasban, bowing his head.

“Yes, you could have,” I said. “You just don’t realize it, and neither did she.” I hurled the clock against the wall and everything went dark.

#

We found ourselves standing in wet grass, surrounded by a crumbling stone foundation. We somehow knew that the Lady Teagan’s mansion once stood here. It was a cool fall day, and a light rain was coming down. For a moment we stood and gazed at the cloudy sky, letting the rain hit our faces and breathing deeply to savor the fresh air.

“What shall we do now?” Fasban said, looking around. “We have no horses, no money. Are we to go back to being rogues?”

“Even if we wanted to,” said Gariana, “we could not. We just don’t have it in us anymore.” She smiled, and it broke into a laugh. “But we’re free now regardless.”

“We’ll find a way to get by,” I said. Depression was already settling over me, as I realized my duties were finished forever. They had simply been a cleverly disguised method of feeding the machine—but nevertheless they had been my main purpose in life for so long…

“Do you think the world has changed much?” said Fasban. “Have they bred better horses, or built bigger ships? Have machines become more complex and reached the point where a human does not need to power them—like the one we were trapped in for…for such a long time?”

“We couldn’t have been in there for more than a few decades,” I said, struggling to remember. I laughed. “You always were imaginative, Fasban.”

“I think the world has changed a little bit,” said Gariana, her face pale. She pointed to where a huge, gleaming, disk-shaped object was quietly spinning across the sky.

This year Robert E. Keller has had stories accepted by, or published in, Murky DepthsM-Brane SFSilver BladeEveryday WeirdnessAlien SkinSorcerous Signals, and Mirror Dance.

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