• Dream of Shadows

Silver Linings by Ben Howels (May 2022)

I can see the other workers dying, but it ain’t slow. Life gets sucked out of ‘em day by day, hour by hour. Sure, we all look and feel healthy, but we’ve got clockwork genetics. Got Death Dates. None of us wake up beyond our forty-fifth birthday.

The Uppers give us enough to live by, but only for so long. We’re resources in the shape of meat sacks. For the greater good. Their greater good. Work us hard, then use what’s left as biomass for making Heaven.

Jerem’s running the grinder next to me. Two years older, two years closer to passing on. “Loving my new place,” he says, his voice singsong bright, as though he doesn’t know why he’s now living that little bit closer to the Temple. “Hundred square feet, and the water’s pure as you like.”

Of course it is. They don’t want the biomass tainted; Heaven has to be clean. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make the Uppers so much better. Paler. Taller.

Jerem knows this — everybody knows this — but reality’s easier to look at if you shut your eyes.

I opened mine a year ago, but I still need to say the right things. As we clock out, we talk about how lucky Jerem is to live where he does. I tell him I can’t wait for when it’s my time to move up and get nearer the walls. The lies are easy; I’m used to them. Besides, I’ll be burning soon.

At least, it’ll be on my terms. I can feel the explosives under my vest, the tape wrapped sticky and tight.

Some of the workers — Jerem included — like to walk past the Temple on their way home. I don’t know how they can stand the look of the place. Maybe it’s some sort of mental illness. Slave mentality. Maybe the Uppers are better and we don’t deserve their long lives. Maybe. But I don’t believe it. I have to believe something else.

I sneak a glance at the complex, a towering slab of oppression that gleams orange-gray in the half-light. The evening carries a faint mist, just like always; ash from the Heaven forge. Human snow. The ground has smudges from today’s batch, trampled down, covered in prints. It would coat everything, forever, were it not for the Rainmakers. The big, sky-facing guns will fire later — 20:00, always — to wash away the guilty memories.

Jerem jaunts along beside me, his eyes always smiling, always darting about, happily taking in things that he’s seen hundreds of times before. He’s kind and easy-going. Gentle and diligent. Helped settle me in at the factory twenty-five years ago, and we’ve been close ever since. Shared dinners and dreams. Talked about everything it’s safe to talk about. But we’re alone now, down a side street, and it’s time for him to die.

The physical part is easy — choking a smaller, unsuspecting victim from behind — but feeling him struggle as fond memories invade me is… difficult. I cope by reminding myself that once I’ve done what I’m doing, he would have been taken just for associating with me. They would have assumed his guilt. He wouldn’t have even been allowed the two summers he still had left.

I have less than two hours. Much less.

No-one sees me lower Jerem to the ground. No one sees me remove the bomb-belt, or put it around his waist. No-one watches me put the stolen Overseer’s uniform on, or drag my best friend’s body to the wall — to the exact spot it cost me far too much of my dignity to learn about. The guard enjoyed that payment almost more than I could bear. I hope he told the truth.

I hope he’s found guilty by association.

I measure the paces to get clear of the blast zone. My heart’s calm, just like always — we’re only meant to wear out when we’re meant to wear out. I make sure to roll around in the human snow. Get myself proper dusty. Then I take the remote from my pocket.

There’s no mushroom cloud, just a thump that echoes in the mind, the flash of orange, and the rumble of shattered stone. Dust like a storm.

I run from hiding towards where it all came from, face and lungs stung by the heat. The irony flows through me, and I somehow manage a smile.

It fades when the second explosion goes off, back at my housing block. I always knew I had more chance of success if there was extra for the Uppers to worry about. There’ll be collateral, but that’s what we already are.

I slip and stumble on something softer than stone; force myself to not look down.

Eyes shut, I grope for the hole and stagger through. The only sounds are coughing — mine — and the faint rustle of dust settling. I rub grit all over my hands and face.

My next steps are tentative, like I’m shifting between realities. Beyond the softly expanding dust cloud, everything is sickeningly clean. The breached room is cavernous and full of storage racks. Sachets of Heaven are everywhere. My abuser told the truth.

I start grabbing handfuls of the stuff, shoving them inside my pockets. Ten, twenty, thirty… I lose count.

Then the footsteps come.

I hunch over and start coughing. Start pushing a storage rack into the breach. Reach for a second one. Hands grab me; a voice asks if I’m okay. I wave them away. Keep trying to fill the hole. They pull me back. Lead me away and through a door. Tell me to wait for a doctor. As soon as they go back to the room, I stagger off.

A wall holo tells me the time, tells me I don’t have long. The furnaces will soon stop for the night.

I follow the Exit signs. Some Uppers try to question me as I pass them by, but not too many. A few coughs and a wave of the hand — some angry stares that say I’m okay, just leave me be — and I get the job done. Then I’m out of the warren, breathing in air that somehow seems better than anything I’ve ever breathed before.

I look around, and a smile returns. I planned well. Not just for getting the Heaven, but also for how near I am to the furnaces.

There’s a thin safety rail, but it’s low. Meaningless. After all, what Upper in their right mind would want to jump in? They have so much to live for.

I don’t know if any of the Heaven will survive the inferno. I don’t know if it will make it into the clouds. I don’t know if, after the guns fire — at 20:00, always — any trace of Heaven will fall with the human snow. I don’t know if any of those poor souls outside the walls will look up and drink in the raindrops, or clean the dust from their eyes with it. I don’t know if it will make any of them paler, or taller. I don’t know if — even if it does everything I’ve dreamed it might — the Uppers will welcome their new brethren with open arms. I don’t know.

I just know I had to try.




Ben Howels is a thriller and speculative fiction writer hailing from Exeter, England. He’s somehow managed to get over 20 pieces of short fiction published and is proud to have made it into print on both sides of the Atlantic. When he's not doing something unnerving with words, he's usually killing himself down the gym.

He can be found on Twitter @BenHowels.

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