We’re in a middling gallery, me with my pick and Paul his shovel. I’ve just pried a ‘harbinger’ out of the wall along with a number of one and two syllable words when the thumping starts. I take another swing, knocking a ‘dross’ and a ‘kettle’ away from what with a little luck will be a ‘dissolution’. But the blows from below unsteady me and my pick smacks ‘diss’ to the ground.
     Paul grumbles. “Hardly worth picking up,” he says, barely heard over the now incessant hammering.
     He leans his shovel against the mine’s wall. “That’s no test,” he says. “I think they’ve got it in operation. Let’s go see.”
     We take the rickety elevator down to the lowest gallery, taking on two or three miners every level. Once there, we see three carts waiting to ascend. The others walk down the gallery toward the deafening roar, but Paul plucks my sleeve and points at the lead cart. He sifts through the vowels and consonants, locating a ‘lorgnette’ and a ‘syncopate’. He puts his mouth next to my ear. “Not bad,” he yells. “They might get this thing perfected, and then where will we be?”
     “It will be easier for you,” I reply. “You know Japanese.” There’s not a machine yet can pick those symbols out of a wall.
     The machine’s pickings are thin. This first cart is chockablock with single letters, nonsense strings, and pre- and suffixes. Word is, once this machine works more accurately, they’ll challenge a miner to a race. Might be me; my percentage of polysyllables is more than satisfactory.
     I move to the second cart, and chuckle to see the words ‘blow’ and ‘almighty’ adjoining one another. Paul brushes past to inspect the third cart. Just as I spot ‘rickety elevator’ he laughs long and loud. “We have nothing to fear,” he yells. “It doesn’t even know how to spell.”
     Looking to where he points, I see the word ‘middling’. “That is a word,” I say. Attached to it in front is “we’re in a” and behind is “gallery”. Something about it seems familiar.

This is the second in a series inspired by science, sound, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and armchair philosophers.

We could not believe the hollow men ascendant over us the aware, yet clearly we had a blind spot to scrub. We sawed drinking straws to different lengths, and I drew, reluctantly, the short one.  We hypnotized me into a deep and dreamless sleep.  They heaved me off the cliff.

I did not wake until sometime after I hit.  Chills crawled through my flesh–like an icy wind that strips heat from your body, yet the air had not stirred.  I tilted my head back enough to spy a bleak beacon on a distant hill casting a pair of black beams across the fire- and drought-scarred countryside.

I dusted myself off and removed shards of clay from my back.  Along with the scattered straw and pilled cotton stuffing, the shadowed ground was covered with the baked crockery, crunching under my every step.  How many of these former men had I trod upon?  Each footfall made my skin feel like the disinclined shifting of continents colliding and tearing apart.

The air was dank and full of mildew digging roots into my clay shell.  Under the grassy spire, shapes flitted amid the darker shadows; tiny claws scratched glass.  An iridescently reflective yet empty pair of eyes stopped to gaze at me, sniffed the air, then moved on.  The beacon’s bone-cold beams swept through me again and passed on.

A dead man–cracked but not broken–stared sightlessly into the abyss of night sky, clutching a scrap of paper torn from a missing notebook.  I fingered my own fissures and winced in sympathy.  I bent, pried loose the scrap and read, “I’m dreaming.  I dare not meet those eyes.”

Was I dreaming?  Were there eyes I dared not meet?  I glanced at the bleak beacon on the horizon, looked longingly at the beckoning grassy spire, but turned in search of eyes.

“You will stand up now,” said the alien.

“You speak English?” I said. I was still reeling from being sucked from my bed, out through the window, by a ray of ochre light. Now I lay sprawled on the metallic floor of a triangular room that was windowless, doorless, unfurnished, and featureless except for some faint raised patterns on the floor, walls, and ceiling. My clothes hadn’t been transported with me. I was just about scared enough to pee myself.

“Your question is a kind of stupidity,” said the alien, a tall, rubbery, bulge-eyed, gray thing. “Stand up now or we will encourage you.”

I didn’t want to think about what encouraging me would involve: I scrambled to my feet and waited. The floor opened up in front of me, and small table rose into view. On it were four varied pieces of cheesecake, each on a black triangular plate. There was a clear, glittering, 10-inch fork beside each plate.

“You will taste the cheesecakes now and render your opinion,” said the alien.

I stared at the cheesecakes. Was this a joke? No, nobody I knew had such a sick sense of humor–or access to hard-core hallucinogens.

“Cheesecake?” I said.

“You will render your opinion. It is why you are here.”

“You abducted me to taste test cheesecake?”

“All other methods result in adequately randomized focus group samples,” said the alien. “We will take over your earth by monopolizing your economic assets through sales of cheesecake. We must know which is the most triumphant recipe.”

My choices were limited, so I picked up a fork and started eating cheesecake. I’ll spare you the details–the involuntary groans, the amazement, the delight, the rapture. The short version is that numbers 1, 2, and 4 were each much better than the best cheesecake I had ever had, but number 3 was in a class beyond all food. I wept tears of joy while I ate it.

“It is number 3, then?” said the alien. “Number 3 is very popular.”

I nodded. “How can something like that even exist? That was a religious experience!”

“It is also zero calories,” said the alien. “And now we are finished.”

“That’s it?” I said, disbelieving. “I’m done? I can go home?”

“You are done,” said the alien, reaching for me. “But you will not be going home.”

Today’s story continues last week’s The Tale of the Astrolabe.

“Why am I learning all this?” asked Saan after his first day on the shore of the subterranean ocean.

The scorpion-man was the one who finally answered. “Study a year and a day, and you’ll know.”

“You’ll tell me?”

He didn’t answer, and if his carapace-skin hadn’t been translucent, Saan wouldn’t have seen his smile.

Beyond the sea-light’s shimmer, everything was unchanging darkness. Saan had no idea when days began or ended. He doubted he’d have much more sense of a year.

First thing after waking, he cleaned and repaired owl towers. Rather than keeping mice out of fields like their counterparts above, these owls kept lungfish from overrunning the delicate gardens of land-coral. Before sleep, Saan polished the astrolabes they hung to scare off the fish the owls didn’t get.

Between, he had lessons.

The troglodyte women taught about the world below. Irzell taught history and her sister Zirell, geography. Some days, he was sure they switched, but the subjects blurred anyway–listing Aldressorian battle-griots led naturally into recounting the shifting borders of their telling-lands down the years of the memory wars.

The baboon doffed his filigree robes for long strips of cloth like mummy wrappings to teach combat, hand and blade. He had to repeat every move a hundred times before Saan could make his far less flexible body imitate the vaguest shadow of the motion.

Saan sat with the scorpion-man for hours, rehearsing protocol, which was even more elusive than the other subjects. If you were given a snail, the proper thing was to praise the sky over the land of the snail-giver’s birth. Unless you were in the south of Uil, where saying anything before eating the snail was a mortal offense. Unless this was during the festival of Noltu, and the snail was spiced. Then you needed to feign sneezing, and remember that loudness counted for sincerity among the Uilish…

Saan had gone from wondering why he was learning these things to wondering if he was learning anything.

Irzell sensed his uncertainty. “There are patterns to everything. All knowledge is written in stars above us.”

“We’re in a cave,” said Saan, but, looking up, he saw faint glints on the far-off cave ceiling.

“The knowledge of a dozen lost libraries is there, encoded.”

“But how do you decode…” he said, and remembered the garden’s astrolabes.

A year and a day didn’t seem quite as long.

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