The Heretic – Snippet 35
Are they even men? Abel wondered.
They are human beings.
I don’t know whether to feel disgust or fear.
Pity for worms?
They are not worms. There are men in there still. If you can’t sympathize, then at least do them the honor of showing indifference. They have had enough attention from their betters already, I’m thinking.
Long shadows of the late afternoon lay on the powder plant when Abel and Golitsin tied their donts under the arbor and made their way to the main office.
The Silent Brothers looked up from their task and, for a moment, might even have wondered what this determined solider and priest might mean to them. But, accustomed to conditions of absolute submission since childhood, they likely did not wonder long, since their very minds were laid with chains against stray thought, much less blatant speculation as to a different, inconceivable future.
So most of them bent their heads back to work. But not all. For some, even with the tongue torn from their heads and male parts shorn in their youths, wonder remained, and even hope that something, anything, different might happen one day.
Maybe today was that day.
But probably not.
And after a moment, these too, sighed and returned to their labors.
Some to the piles of caveflitter guano that must be shoveled from delivery wagons into the pits.
Some to the scattering of dak urine and straw upon that flittershit.
Some to the reaming of the matured pits, and the transport of the nitercake to the huge barrel mill on its River-turned cranks. Then from the mill, twice each day, to the corning troughs. Here the powder was worked into gradations of grain, some for shot, some for primer. A few of the Brothers speculated that it could be made finer still, given more explosive power. But this was to go against the Law of Zentrum.
For was it not written that corning gunpowder beyond priming grain strength was a sin against Stasis?
The Silent Brothers knew such thoughts were as bad as actions, and the Brothers who thought them needed no punishment from others. No, for the thinking of such heresy, they scourged themselves in their dormitories, also on the yard, with knotted cords or with rock-weighted leather tongs.
And the great mill churned day and night, mixing and refining material fed in by the Silent Brothers. It dominated the production yard, and was the largest structure in all of Bruneberg — not that the Silent Brothers knew this. Most had never left the yard since before memory began.
They did what the man in the office said.
Once it had been a priest. There had been more food then. Now it was a man who was not a priest. There were two fewer water breaks now per day, also.
They had been told by the exiting priest that the man was now in charge, that they must do as he and his underlings commanded.
“Listen to Eisenach. He is now the voice of Zentrum,” said the priest.
Lacking tongues, they did not question this.
When the rations had been cut the second time, some of the older Brothers had wondered if this were true, if Eisenach was the voice of Zentrum. When the punishment regimens began, and the young brothers were locked in the dung pits for a week and a day or suffered the powder burnings on the inner knees and the backs of their necks, these questions became even more pronounced.
Then the explosions began. The sudden deaths of Brothers who had been working the mill for decades.
Perhaps it was true that Zentrum was angry with them. That was what the man and his underlings told them.
The Brothers did discuss this possibility.
There was a language of a sort between them, of hidden gestures, shrugs and earlobe tugs that might communicate as much as a text-filled scroll.
So the older Brothers spoke of the change, after their fashion. Considered what it might mean.
But what were they to do? Obedience had been beaten into their nature. The voice of the man was the voice of Zentrum. The priest, their priest, had told them so.
So the decision was made to abide. They had been doing so for quite some time now.
The unexplained explosions continued, as did the punishments for them.
The Brothers knew nothing they were doing had changed. Nothing they did had ever, ever changed.
The uncertainty was growing alarming. Wearisome. One day they might rise up and put a stop to it. But not yet.
Suddenly, a commotion on the porch of the main office became a cry of dismay.
“You will not pass this entranceway, gentleman,” shouted the underling, the nitercake assayer, Latrobe. “Director Eisenach is quite busy and cannot receive you.”
And the one in soldier’s dress, the taller of the two, reached into his waistband and brought forth what was the biggest knife one could have without calling it a sword, and maybe it was technically a sword, but the big man, the soldier, didn’t handle it that way.
Instead, he drew it back and took aim down its blade. Then, with a fluid motion that seemed to take no effort, no strength, but that must have been nothing but effort owing to the observed result, the big one, the soldier, threw the sword-knife end over end until it sunk into the wooden door that was shut across the entrance to the main office. The knife, the sword, whatever it was, buried itself past tip, past curve of point, and up to the straightness of the blade. It might have been as deep as the length of a man’s thumb. It might have been more.
And it caught the nitercake assayer, Latrobe, by the shoulder of his robe and it pinned him to the door. He struggled and yanked and pulled, but it was good fabric, the best wool from up-River, and did not give, and he was stuck fast.
Then Latrobe perhaps realized that the one who could throw with such ferocity must be one who did not care if he accidently, or purposely, hit the target, or hit the man next to the target. And maybe he had missed and had been aiming at the man and not the door in the first place.
Then the big man, the soldier, stalked toward the nitercake assayer. And Latrobe let out a high pitched scream, as if he had undergone the same operation, the same shearing, as the Silent Brothers.