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Slaughterhouse Seven

By Alison Page
Page 1 of 1

(or: Vila Restal Came Unstuck in Time)

'It's almost unimaginably complex. We know very little about how it functions - though it is obviously very powerful. Up to nine tenths of it seem to be unused.'

'That can't be all we know.' Snapped Avon. He looked about, trying to think of anything else at all. 'It's a kind of pinkish-grey.' He finished lamely. He and Blake continued along the corridor.

Vila touched the wall.

'It's wet and slimy.' He said, brandishing his damp fingertips at their retreating backs. He sighed.

'Well, whatever it is, we're stuck here.' Said Blake.

Vila absent-mindedly licked his fingers, and grimaced. 'That's disgusting.' Then he hurried to catch up. They were deep in conversation.

'How did we end up here in the first place?' Blake was asking. 'I can't seem to remember.'

'Have you noticed' Avon replied, 'that memory is curiously episodic?'

'How do you mean?'

'Some... sequences - let's for the sake of argument call them 'episodes' - are quite vivid. Space City, Cygnus Alpha, Star One - we all remember them clearly. But there must have been long months of ship time, and that's all forgotten. It's as if it never happened.'

'Yeah and they were the best bits too.' Said Vila, slightly out of breath.

'How can you possibly know that?' Avon's voice was cold as he provided the feed line.

'They have to be better than the episodes.' Finished Vila, triumphantly. Blake laughed at that, softly but out loud.

That was the last thing Vila remembered.

There was a break in time. His ears were ringing. There was no other sound.

A white beetle was climbing the wall. But the wall was steep, and shiny with moisture. The beetle slid back down, as fast as it could climb. Its legs churned in silence.

Vila raised his head from the floor. The corridor was full of rubble. Silence.

He dragged himself to his knees. Where were the other two? The soft pink walls of the tunnel sagged. Where they had collapsed soft cheesy chunks of debris blocked the way. The light flickered intermittently. The air was fogged with lifted dust. Had a disaster just occurred?

Or had that been long ago?

Faintly he thought he heard their voices. Blake, Avon, then his own. As if their ghosts walked down the empty ruined passages. He could almost hear the words. If he concentrated it was as if they were there with him now. As if he could speak to them.

'They have to be better than the episodes!' Vila finished, expecting a reaction, but they weren't listening. Blake was a little way ahead, where the corridor turned. A bright stream of light from an unknown source highlighted his features. He gestured urgently at them without turning back. Avon lifted his gun vertically beside his face, in that familiar gesture, and stepped back against the wall. Vila fell back beside him. What had happened just then? For a second he had thought he was in a different time and place...

'What's wrong?' Hissed Avon. Blake was standing openly, his gesturing hand forgotten in mid air.

Avon sidled along the wall, with Vila close behind, and craned round to see what Blake was looking at. Vila's curiosity was too much for him. He had to look.

Around the corner was a high wide room, bare and painted in worn black. There were banks of bright lights on metal scaffolding, and dozens of people. Everyone was hard at work, and there was a background hubub of conversation.

One man was tacking thin lathes of wood together into a long convex frame. Another was gluing heavy canvas onto a completed section of frame. Against the far wall were stacked other completed sections, painted a familiar greyish-pink. It was as if they were building another stretch of corridor.

Vila touched the wall beside him: it was damp and pliant, not a prop of painted cloth.

'What is going on?' Said Blake, and stepped forward into the studio. Everyone stopped talking and looked round. A group of men, who had been sitting on folding chairs, reading from pieces of flimsy paper, looked up in alarm. One of them, a well-built man with curly hair and a watchful expression, stopped in the motion of raising a large glass of liquid to his mouth. The slightest built of the group, a man with brown eyes and a receding hairline, jumped to his feet. His chair fell back with a clatter.

Suddenly, as if in response to this noise, the lights in front of them all went out. Only the glimmer from the corridor behind them fell into the space where Blake was standing, now as if in a faint spotlight, bewildered, in the dark TV studio.

Blake stepped forward again, into the darkness, and was lost in it.

'I come in peace.'

His voice grew quieter and faded out. He was gone.

Avon raised his gun and stared wildly about. He took aim, perhaps at random, into the darkness.

'No!' Screamed Vila. There was a sound of thunder. As Avon fired, the darkness flooded out of the studio, and filled the world. In the darkness, Vila felt only pain, a core of pain behind his eyes. And a terrific thirst. And - now he came to think of it - a pressing need to urinate.

He opened his eyes, and the light speared into them. Keeping them as closed as was compatible with finding his way through his cabin, he stumbled to the toilet cubicle, and relieved himself copiously. Ahhh. Never again. I'll never drink like that again. What a night.

'Do you know, every time you drink that stuff, you kill a million braincells?' Enquired Avon from the doorway. 'I wonder what kind of state your brain is in by now? Re-routing vital functions through backup systems I shouldn't wonder.'

'I drink to forget.'

'I hope you aren't expecting me to respond to that with a question.'

Vila shook his head and winced.

The corridors of the Liberator seemed different from how he remembered them. Flimsier for a start. Like scenery. Like props. For a moment, as he followed Avon, he had the contradictory impression that they were walking through dim underground passageways, cluttered with strangely organic debris, dark brown clots. The ruined substrate of his consciousness.

'I've never felt this bad from a hangover before.'

'Must be another of the effects.'

'Effects?'

'Tarrant will explain it all.'

'Tarrant?'

'You remember Tarrant.' said Avon dryly.

'Yes, that's what worries me.'

'He has that effect on all of us.'

'No I meant...' But, what did he mean? You can't have both Blake and Tarrant in the same episode; it was one of the fundamental rules. They were mutually destructive. The headache wasn't getting any better either. Am I remembering the future, or forgetting the past?

'I know where Blake is.' Vila said. Avon stopped and looked round.

'Explain.'

'He went into the darkness. You fired...' Vila realised what he sounded like. 'Oh, forget it.'

'Let's just get to the flight deck.'

It was Cally who explained it to the rest of them.

'It might be a weapon of unimaginable power. It might be a natural phenomenon of some kind. Its influence is spreading, and most of this arm of the galaxy is now contaminated.'

'Fantastic.' said Vila.

'We have been avoiding the worst effects by remaining in time distort.'

'But what are the worst effects?' said Dayna.

'It's a kind of energy that has been known about for thousands of years, but has never been harnessed. The effect of the field is, to make things just a bit more 'real'. Or a lot more.'

'Fantastic' groaned Vila.

'From our point of view the problems are mainly to do with technology. Much of our technology simply fails inside the reality field. There are other side-effects too. We are currently skimming over reality as lightly as possible, but we are intersecting with it every hour or so.'

The bickering escalated. Tarrant and Dayna wanted to drop out of time distort and engage directly with reality. Avon and Cally wanted to disengage completely, over-riding the time distort drive. Cally patted Vila consolingly on the arm.

'You feel it the worst because you are the most realistic.'

Vila gave her a sickly smile.

'You always were sensitive.'

He barely made it to sick bay and threw up. He drank a lot of water and took a pain buffer.

He rested his head against the soft wall, closing his eyes for a few seconds. Had sickbay always smelled of dust? Should it have a soft wall?

He opened his eyes and looked down. A white beetle ran over his hand, busy going somewhere. Farther up the soft corridor, Blake and Avon were arguing about memory. As they walked away they had to clamber over clots and negotiate burned out sections. Fearing that they would soon be out of sight, Vila dragged himself to his feet, his head feeling much better, and hurried to catch up.

'Why is this place so damaged?'

They looked round in surprise.

'It's a very good question.' Said Blake. 'As an organic system it is of course susceptible to poisons.' He touched a section of pinkish-grey wall, which gave way unpleasantly. Blake snatched back his hand.

'Can we get out?' Vila said.

'No.' Blake spoke calmly. 'We must remain here forever.'

Blake and Avon turned to look at him, with frozen faces. Suddenly they both seemed like cut-outs: 2-dimensional, unrealistic. Avon's false mouth flapped. 'We like it here.'

At that, panic gripped Vila as he had never felt it before (and that was saying something). The walls seemed too close, the sticky surfaces repulsive. He turned and ran, stumbling through the tangled damaged passageways. Avon's voice calling his name faded away as he ran deep into the maze.

He had been running down corridors all his life. For his life.

White plastic passageways.

Concrete tunnels.

Soft corridors.

When he stopped, after a lifetime of running, it was because there was nowhere else to go. He was in the slaughterhouse. Far above, the earth was rocked with the footsteps of incendiary weapons. The floor was a white tile sluice. It smelled of bleach and organic waste. He saw that the brick walls were burned and pitted as if with laser fire. They were also marked with graffiti. Overlaid like strata, a palimpsest of obscenity. Violent words, and violent imagery.

Vila fell to his knees, in the sluice. He knew who was chasing him. He heard Avon's voice calling his name, with honeyed menace. Avon's footsteps in the damaged corridors. He crammed himself into a blast-hole in the slaughterhouse wall. For the first time he wept, uncontrollably. He abandoned hope.

The slaughterhouse is the chamber of un-making. It the teleport bay, that tears the body apart. It is the killing field. It is the pain-machine. Through his tears, he saw the white insects crawling up through the bloody sluices. They covered the floor, and then began to climb the walls. Leucocytes. Automated repair systems. Somebody changing her mind.

(Teleport now.)

The vicious, murdering... let's put him out the airlock.

The airlock, open onto space. Lungs yawning. The hard vacuum. All the different ways of dying.

(Teleport Now.)

Vila was lying in sick bay, gasping for breath.

'I made a classic error.' said Avon.

'Oh, I thought you were infallible.' Without humour.

'Only comparatively.' His eyes slid sideways. 'It wasn't your own brain which was damaged.'

'If you say so. That means the slaughterhouse was..?'

'A figment of someone else's imagination of course.'

'Not a very nice person.'

'They never are. But don't worry. It's a distributed system. The more brains we infect, the more likely we are to survive. They can't all forget us.'

'Are we fully engaged with reality, then?'

'Of course not. Otherwise this couldn't happen.'

Avon, diverging wildly from the plot, lowered his mouth to Vila's. Vila closed his eyes, and immediately lost any remaining connection to the story.

He threw out his hands and felt flock wallpaper. Wallpaper?

He was standing, braced against a wall. Strong hands grasped his wrists. A small hard mouth pressed urgently against his, and his hips were shoved back against the corridor wall. Oof. He felt his cock... His cock... What was going on?

He was a girl! He opened one eye, and tried to see round the individual who was snogging him so violently. They were in a hotel corridor, late at night. At a distance he heard loud music, and people shouting and laughing. The person who was kissing him was inexpertly disguised as Avon. He was a girl too! At least according to the name-tag. 'Redemption' it said.

'This is stupid, Avon!'

'When...mmmm...when did that ever stop us?'

And that was the last thing he remembered.


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