Reading Time: 10 minutes
Beudelle leaned into the curve of the stairwell and breathed deep. The rumble of the mammoth snail took on sub-sonic tones as the vibrations from the wall shook his spine. The huge vehicle never stopped moving and every motion had a voice – the engine’s thrum, the drill’s grinding whine, the boiler’s hiss, the robotics’ buzz, all punctuated with spurts of steam and sweaty drips. He imagined that he could hear the sounds from outside too – tethers stretching and snapping back, sludge slapping wet on the earth, and treads grinding over rubble – but he recognized these as memories finding life in the background hum.
Beudelle drooped with fatigue – this would be his first moment alone in days, , and likely his last. The shell would release in just a few hours and he had to clear any remaining stragglers out of the slug before the detachment. The snail’s plastic mining had ceased the day before, giving time for the recyc wells and supply plumbs to get sucked dry as the d-printers completed the final seals in the shell base. In less than a day, all but a skeleton crew of pilots, maintenance personnel, and wardens would remain in the slug with the seed families.
Beudelle had spent the last several hours inspecting the lowest chambers in the slug and shooing breeders back up into the shell; it had been a long day. It was a strange paradox, that the present moment could crawl so slowly, while in retrospect, the months seemed to flash past. It hardly seemed possible that fourteen years had turned since the last shell drop, and that the cycle would start again in less than four hours. One more tour gone.
Despite his exhaustion, a thrill of energy spun through Beudelle’s joints as he imagined one bright benefit of this turn: visiting Cassidy. They should be able to find an hour together sometime in the next day, after they left the shell behind. The thought of touching her skin boosted Beudelle’s spirits enough to get him moving again.
Like all the lifetime sluggers, Beudelle wasn’t a natural breeder, so his persistent attraction to the young female apprentice surprised him. At first, he chalked it up to some unique pheromonal chemistry and ignored it. He dealt with his sexual needs in the typical way – fleeting, random encounters with other sluggers in the baths or, more often, by himself while watching one of the oldcool vids. But it soon became apparent that Cassidy shared the attraction. Pheromones worked both ways, he supposed, even when they pulled against one’s nature.
Cassidy had arrived in the last wave of the apprentice program, one of the final three accepted and the only one to graduate. She was an easy pick, having outperformed all nine of the other aspirants that had come through over the last year, overcoming a deficit in physical strength with an abundance of tenacity and commitment. She even achieved record high scores in all but two of the final exams. Beudelle had started the program and remained the chief administrator, selecting candidates and making the final call on promotion, but it was easy for him to separate his personal feelings for Cassidy from any decisions regarding her progress through her apprenticeship – her numbers just took care of it for him.
He anticipated a relative calm in the slug the next day; dropping the shell and its fifty-three inhabitants would take significant pressure off their bio-harvesting efforts. It had been over a decade since Beudelle had tethered up to jump to the surface in a rad-suit with a collection bag on his back, but he could still empathize with the tension of those crewmembers doing double shifts on the tether. As a warden, his wrangling and maintenance burden grew year-to-year as the population multiplied, but at least he didn’t have to go outside anymore. The reset would simplify things tremendously; with only twenty-three heads from the three seed families and the dozen or so slug crew to carry forward, they were cutting their population burden by more than half. Most everyone still had to work as hard – fewer people to feed also meant fewer people to work – but his administrative tasks would ease-off significantly.
Beudelle sighed and pushed open the maintenance hatch. He turned on his lantern and stepped through. He just needed to sweep this last bio-tank bay and his rounds would be complete. His nose wrinkled at the faint scent of methane. It really shouldn’t bother him, the smell was quite mild considering the tanks in the bay contained hundreds of gallons of composting human waste and garbage. This room acted as a final way-station for the bio that continually dumped out the rear vents of the slug leaving a dark, bacteria-rich slime trail behind the always moving machine. Hopefully the slime would prove robust enough to support and fertilize new growth on the outside. In his darkest moments Beudelle fell into a certainty that this actually represented the entirety of human destiny – the plastic mining, the recycling, the creation of new habitats, and the promised repopulation were just distractions – people were nothing more than narcissistic digestive tubes, crap factories, shit machines whose only meaning was to convert other plants and animals into a stinking sludge for microbial procreation. They were so good at their purpose, in fact, that they had rendered the entire planet uninhabitable except by the most robust bacteria. And here he was, standing at the pinnacle of evolution: the bio-bay of a plastic-mining HabiSnail.
He heard a scuffling sound from the back of the chamber. His face set, prepared for a standoff; he’d figured that if he found any more stowaways they would be here, in the darkest bowels of the machine. He swung his lantern around the rear of a tank – four eyes reflected back at him.
“Alright kids,” he said with a stern but sympathetic voice. “Let’s go, only a couple of hours before the drop. You need to be safe back in the shell.”
Judging from her face, the girl looked about eleven, but her pregnancy was almost as wide as she was tall, so Beudelle guessed thirteen. The boy’s patchy facial hair gave him a year or two over the girl.
“Safe?” The boy retorted. “The shell ain’t safe no more. Never will be.” A mix of anger and fear shook the kid’s voice
“The shell’s been building for fourteen years just for this moment, boy. It’s the safest place for you and your girlfriend here. You two…you three,” he amended with a nod to the girl’s enormous belly as she pushed by him towards the hatch, “wouldn’t last down here in the slug for more than a month at best.”
“And how long do you think we’re gonna last out there? The shell is lost without the slug. It can’t move, it can’t mine. How are we supposed to survive?”
Beudelle understood the boy’s doubt – these young ones were about to be cut-off from the only life support they’d ever known. Although they’d lived their entire lives in the shell, it had always been supplied by the plastic mining and bio-gathering systems of the slug. And, as far as Beudelle knew, in the one hundred plus years of this snail’s operation, they’d never heard back from any of the seven previous shells.
“All you people have been training for the last decade for survival, pal. Haven’t you been following your lessons?”
“Farming? You think we’ll be alive long enough to harvest even a single crop?”
“Haven’t you been tethered, boy? There’s still some greenfood sprouting out there, and the slime trails will make it super easy. It’s been engineered, son. You all are gonna have a fine life. You’ll be epic, like the oldcool pioneers!”
“Engineered? That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘we hope it works!'”
“Hey now, this entire snail was engineered to create a habitat for you and your future generations. So far it’s been serving you just fine.” He gestured toward the door. “The slug has no room for breeders, the shell is built specifically for you and your family, not just to survive, but to build the new world.”
“You might as well be a d-printer, spewing the same rap over and over. You know we’re just getting dropped off to die.”
“Shut it up, boy – you’ll scare the girl.”
“I’ll scare her? You’re the one….”
Beudelle smacked him on the back of the head and shoved him forward through the hatch.
On his climb up from the bio-bay with his stowaways, Beudelle passed a small group of sluggers coming the other way. Cassidy moved with them, in the center of the pack. She’d probably just retrieved the last of her stuff from the shell. He smiled at her and she smiled in return – or at least he thought it was a smile. The exchange, just a glance really, was brief. Cassidy’s fiery personality attracted Beudelle from the start but it also rendered her a bit cryptic in some circumstances. Was it a smile or a sneer? Was the flashing dark in her eyes anger or anticipation?
The boy’s parents greeted the wayward couple with both relief and reproach. Beudelle only felt the relief, relief at getting the young stowaways out of his hands and back where they belonged. He didn’t like spending time topside; literally everything in the shell, incrementally built up over the last fourteen years by scores of d-printers reforming the juiced produce of the miners, was made of dull, dry, beige plastic. He couldn’t be sure whether his irritation was physically real or psychosomatic, but hanging out too long in the shell made his skin itch. The slug had plenty of plastic components but its skeleton, engines, mining arms, and robotics were primarily built from metal alloys and other oldcool materials that leaked and dripped with fluids; the slug felt organic and alive, while the arid, plastic housing that rode on top felt stiff and dead.
The stowaway couple lived high in the shell and Beudelle had to descend three levels of spiraling stairs to get back to the slug – a transit he eagerly accelerated by holding the rail and taking two stairs at a time. He remembered his eye contact with Cassidy earlier – was she angry with him for some reason or just excited by the impending shell separation? He couldn’t really be sure until he had her alone again.
“Sorry Beudelle. You’ll need to turn around.”
“What?” Beudelle spun in a circle to look behind him, nothing of interest. He looked back at the two wardens that stood in front of the door. This was the last unsealed hatch to the slug. “What’s up, Fedrik?”
Fedrik was a good man. He’d come over to the slug on the tour after Beudelle. They’d tethered together several times. Fedrik learned fast and worked hard.
“You need to head back up the stairs.” Fedrik replied in a flat tone.
“Why? Did someone leave something behind?” Beudelle shook his head. “Newbies. What’ya gonna do?” He smiled at Fedrik and then turned to the other one, Dree. Beudelle had never liked her much, but whatever, he didn’t have to like everyone. “We’ve only got a few minutes. What do they need me to fetch?”
“Nothing to fetch. You just need to head back up the stairs.” Fedrik said.
“You’re done, Beudelle.” Dree sneered. No mistaking that for a smile.
“Wait,” Beudelle felt a cold sweat break across his entire body. “What are you talking about?”
“You sexually abused one of the apprentice candidates, Beudelle. You are done. You’re staying in the shell with the rest of the breeders.” Fedrik’s voice was flat, matter of fact.
“That’s ridiculous! I never abused anyone!” Beudelle looked back and forth between the faces of his fellow wardens. They were his colleagues, they sat in the council circle together, policed the snail. What were they accusing him of?
“That’s not what Cassidy says.” Dree’s voice seemed to sneer too.
“Cassidy would never say anything like that!” Beudelle blurted, losing any sense of control in his shock and frustration. “We engaged, yes, but it was entirely consensual!”
“Don’t make me laugh, Beudelle. Cassidy is no breeder – she’s as butch as they’re built.” Dree was spitting her words now. “Besides this is…what? Your third tour? You could be the girl’s grandfather.”
“I’m no breeder! Fedrik, you know that.” He looked at his friend. Fedrik’s face didn’t even twitch; it could have been made of plastic. “It’s just…it’s just a thing that happened between the two of us. I never would have touched her if she didn’t want it.”
“Cassidy came in as an apprentice. You control the entire program, Beudelle. What was she going to do when the one man that held her entire fate in his hands made a move on her?” Fedrik shook his head. “She said she was concerned for her safety.”
“This is absurd.” Beudelle said. His first encounter with Cassidy flashed in his mind. Sure, she was nervous, she didn’t want to get caught – but she wasn’t trying to get away. She told him she liked it, or that she didn’t mind. He couldn’t remember the words exactly. It had been so hot and frantic. “She was a willing participant.”
“The council was unanimous – you abused your position of power. Even if she were a consenting adult, you’d still be out, Beudelle.” Fedrik pushed him gently and pointed to the stairs behind him. “And she pleads coercion, not consent.”
Unanimous? How could it be unanimous? He was on the council. How did this happen? Cassidy must have gone to one of them with a complaint. They must have met without him, investigated – what had she told them?
“You screwed it up for Cassidy too, Beudelle.” Dree again, her voice so irritating that Beudelle just wanted to punch her. “She’s probably a sub-par slugger – and now we all know why she made it through. I don’t know why you accepted her to the program in the first place, the girl’s too small.”
“Sub-par?” Now that just wasn’t fair, Beudelle’s sense of injustice flared even larger in Cassidy’s defense. “She had record high scores in everything but the physicals! And she passed those just fine.”
“Ha, yeah. Record scores, with the help of the best personal tutor possible – the very same man who wrote the damn tests! Maybe she is good, but we certainly won’t be able to judge that until it’s too late, will we Beudelle? And by ‘we’, just to be clear, ” Dree brought her nose right up to Beudelle’s face. “I don’t mean you.”
Beudelle’s jaw dropped. It wasn’t like that. She wanted him. She liked him. She wasn’t coerced. Abuse of power? He didn’t…. She would sometimes push back but she always gave in and after she said…she always said it was okay, that she was okay. She liked the power, the excitement.
Fedrik stepped him back toward the stairwell. “Look Beudelle, no matter how you print it, you made a bad call here. There’s no repairing this one.”
Beudelle phased away from the current moment, replaying dozens of encounters with Cassidy. She felt anxious about being caught, but he reassured her. He was a warden after all, she didn’t need to worry. She wasn’t trying to get away, she was just nervous. Right?
The two men turned and passed through the hatch, closing it behind them. A high-pitched sizzle crackled in the air and the scent of a d-printer on overdrive knocked him out of his stupor.
“Wait!” He rushed to the sealed hatch and threw himself against it. “You can’t leave me here!” He pounded on the thick plastic until his knuckles began to leave blood. He slumped to his knees and put his hand to his mouth.
Beudelle was thrown onto his back as the entire chamber tilted around him. A crackling thunder shook the world as the shell tilted and rumbled off the mining slug, then with a final crunching drop, the sound ended. The low hum of the slug, now unencumbered, receded rapidly into the distance. A silence, unlike anything Beudelle had ever heard, swelled around him. Everything stopped, everything went quiet. The stillness made him spin with nausea and a burning itch spread across his skin. He rolled to his hands and knees and heaved.
Sexual harassment and rape are never justified, never okay, never deserved, and never the victim’s fault.
National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-4673 [24/7 hotline]
[hosts an online hotline]
9 to 5: National Association of Working Women
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
National Women’s Law Center
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
1-866-331-9474 or 1-866-331-8453 (TTY)
Jennifer Ann’s Group
Free resources on teen dating violence
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
1-800-273-TALK (8255) [24/7 hotline]