I stepped through the Gate, and my world became very, very, small.
The gate was a Thur’shiatta, a sort of miniature Thur’shien. Unlike the small, portable Thur’cron gates used for the classification ritual, light did not pass through the larger, more power-hungry Gates, and so their ultimate destination would remain a mystery to anyone save the Calibrators, Lhoebitta specialists who managed the Gate Network, until the journey through them was completed. Thur’shien gates were large, and extremely power hungry, but could open to enormous sizes; large enough to admit vehicles of extraordinary size. Thur’shiatta were much smaller, stable enough to allow living creatures to pass through, but with an upper limit to their size. As the six of us were sold to the Lhoebitta Factory at a public classification ritual, there was no need to open a full fledged Thur’shien to traffick us; we would be transported via this smaller gate to the Conduit, a transitory station, where we would merge with human traffic from the larger Thur’shien based trading routes.
Gate technology was the Lhoebitta’s great leap forward, the source of their galactic dominance. Ceremonial recitals tell of the glorious day Lhoebus the fifteenth, immortal lord of all Lhoebitta, graced the Human homeworld “Primus” with his eminent presence, and rescued all humans from a filthy life of squalor, violence and mutual destruction through the miracle of Gate technology- ushering us into a new world of perfect balance, with every person exactly where they deserve to be. Based on what I had just witnessed, of course, I found myself less inclined to believe that claptrap, and was grateful to have been given an alternative narrative to commit to memory- one of a distant homeland known as “Earth”, where more than just primates roamed a world where vegetation was so plentiful it formed green jungles larger than a Lhoebitta capital ship. A bizarre fantasy, considering the massive energy surplus such an abundance of vegetation would constitute (and that much free Oxygen? Might as well have Thur’in crystals growing out of the ground while we’re at it!) but it was a tale I found that I clung to, despite the fact that the man who had narrated this story to me, Candidate 2377, claimed this fantasy land was scoured of all life after a bitter Human-Lhoebitta war.
I waited, as the claustrophobia of Gate transit gave way to the vertigo of Emergence, and then, suddenly, I was in the company of numerous individuals, in a desolate, rocky place, beneath a black sky in which distant violence created intermittent red lightning, and wide bridges led across a glowing sea of boiling orange-red fluid to a nightmare engine that stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction. A grey, windowless, mechanical monstrosity, featureless except for a multitude of chimneys spewing coiling, morphing blackness into the surrounding dark.
And on the bridges, as far as the eye could see, were Humans, a multitude of them, in neat lines, marching into the dark maw of the Factory. The vast majority on their hands and knees, shuffling along as fast as they could, policed by swarms of robot drones that buzzed around them. 2377’s accounts remained as accurate as possible- those drones were automated agents, equipped with pace sensors to detect humans falling out of line, or slowing down, and capable of instilling discipline via rapidly extending cables that lashed the skin. Among them, was an undercurrent of naked chattel, dragging themselves along the floor on their bellies, not allowed to use their legs to move themselves forward, and bearing the bulk of the brunt of the lash. A minority walked upright, clutching bags full of treasured possessions: these were the High Quality Primates. Yet others, low quality like myself, laboured to carry small vehicles in which the Lhoebitta masters and Top Tier primates were conveyed. From time to time, Drones would seize a Human, who had failed to keep pace or given up, and fly them to a disposal chute, of which there were several at the side of the Bridge. Very few were aware that the Fate of all who were thrown into these chutes, was a grisly destination at the meat processing plant, where their flesh would be reclaimed and processed towards a rare dish only available to the richest of high caste Lhoebitta.
I saw all this from the elevated ledge our special Thur’shiatta had taken us to. The Human Merchants were here. They stepped forward, in ritual unison, and knelt, heads bowed before the Masters, presenting their payment, in Thur’in crystals and dust, to the Masters as though to grant them the freedom to retrieve their payment if they so wished. The Lhoebitta ceremonially gestured to signal their pleasure to part with the payment, and then the Merchants stood, their heads still bowed and their hands outstretched, and walked backwards into the Gate, then they were gone.
The Lhoebitta guided 4330 and 4326, the fortunate Top Tiers in my little group, to a small vehicle with soft seats within. They walked in and sat, and then the vehicle was picked up by four sturdy individuals dressed in the unmistakable colours of low quality primates. They then approached me,as I stood among the other Low Quality primates and then all of a sudden my life was pain and humiliation. Blows landed across my face and the pain made me cry.
“Low quality trash. On your hands and knees, maintain pace”
I complied without comment, and hurried along with the other low quality towards a staircase that would lead us both down to the bridge. The chattel were also here, unconscious. We left them behind, where they would presumably be forced to crawl along this same path on their bellies, an ordeal I couldn’t imagine. I fought against the feeling of relief at not having to endure this, that threatened to grip me. I could not allow their plight to make me feel any sort of privilege. I couldn’t!
Yet, deep down, I knew I would fail. As much as I hated to admit it, I was grateful for the clothes on my back. For the knee padding that protected me from the harsh rocky ground. From the prospect of having to drag my naked genitals along the floor. And I also felt envy for the privileged, allowed to walk, head and shoulders above us, and hatred for myself- my low quality self- a wretched byproduct of the imperfection of Human evolution and its endless forms most grotesque- for deserving this place in the pyramid of life. I would fail, because, no matter how much I fought against it, no matter how much I disputed it in my mind, it was True, unlike the lies I had been fed by 2377- lies and fantasy that blinded me to reality.
Stinging pain across my buttocks. I crawled faster. And experienced a welcome sensation as my tears dried… anger. And with that anger came renewed resolve. If the basis of my inevitable failure, the eventuality of my succumbing to this supposedly perfect order, was the fact of its undeniable truth, well that truth didn’t exist in the slightest. The mere fact that I could remember all these details, all this history- that i could have committed to memory the entirety of 2377’s narrative- his “Eewae A’Yae”- meant that I wasn’t low quality. Even if the classification ritual was true, I should NOT be on my hands and knees. And it wasn’t true. It was a lie. And soon, more people would know it was a lie.
I was whipped again. This time, for crawling too fast. I slowed down, and kept pace with the other crawlers. Glancing left and right, I tried to see whether I recognised anyone. Nobody paid any attention, for fear of punishment, their eyes focused either straight ahead or at the ground. A passing High Tier stepped on my fingers, and I cried out in pain, attracting a punishment drone. The High Tier’s eyes widened as he anticipated punishment, and then his fear was replaced with relief as the drone punished me instead. He hurried along, sheepishly refusing to meet my gaze.
I ignored him and fixed my gaze ahead. On my hands and knees I couldn’t clearly see my destination, but the Bridge was wide enough that I knew I was close. The factory loomed high, and the sky flashed red. I stared ahead, and I crawled, and crawled, and crawled.
By the time we got to the entrance of the factory, I was not surprised to see up ahead, the unmistakable purple glow of a Thur’shien. Not just because 2377 had told me there would be one, but because, of course, there would be Gate technology that would have made the journey of the last few hours unnecessary. Primate psych-adjust. It was at the root of every ordeal, every ritual, everything we were told, shown, or made to do. I kept going, and going, and going, until I crawled through the wide, oppressive maw of the Factory entrance, and before me, in this endless Hall, was a vast, shimmering, otherworldly disc of shifting, morphing light: a Thur’shien gate…. A Gate of No Return.
A voice boomed through the echoing vastness of the hall, and I knew instinctively to stop crawling. A few less intuitive high qualities kept walking along and were punished for it by drones. Idiots. As we waited, the chattel kept crawling, and crawling, and crawling. We waited for them to crawl through the Gate in their vast numbers. I waited as person after person dragged themself past me, and towards the gate. Some of them seemed to pull themselves forward with renewed vigour, as though the end was in sight for their ordeal, and the shining light infront of them represented some form of respite. I waited, and watched as a grisly mass of human flesh crawled forward and poured itself into what could have been a massive gaping maw of death. And then the voice boomed again.
I began to crawl towards the gate, and inside my mind I responded.
“I am not low quality.”
“I am a person.”
“And my name is Ebuwa.”