I wrote this for a competition. Unfortunately I entirely failed to notice it was snail mail only until the date it was due…
I picked up the next load of rubble. There was so much, the mound rose far above me, not that I lifted my head. My Master didn’t like that, and I’d feel the pain of his opprobrium if I dared look up. This was the fifth, or the fiftieth load I’d moved today. I couldn’t tell. We’d stop for a break maybe. My Master would tell me when. He’d let me relieve myself, and have a drink and perhaps some of the soup if it was a meal time.
Sometimes we’d whisper to each other. If the Masters were in a good mood they would overlook it. If not, then pain. We also had to be careful what we said, they were particularly cruel if they felt something might be subversive.
We worked all day. Every day. All of us. Maybe it wasn’t everyone on the planet, or even everyone in our town, but it seemed to be. We didn’t know what we were doing. Some had tried to work it out, but they always seemed to be the ones who were punished most. We soon learned not to speculate.
The others around me were becoming thin, and I knew I must be too. The Masters drove us from first light to dusk. Then they would sleep, but we were afforded no freedom even then. We could rest as well, but if we moved too much at night they would wake, and the punishment was always very severe. We learned not to move too much, even in our sleep.
I have always looked up at the stars above us. Before the Masters, when the world seemed to be on the continuous brink of destruction, I used to think that maybe there was hope in the stars. Perhaps we could build a boat, an Ark perhaps, and sail to those distant worlds, and start new lives, new societies. Free from the pressures of history, of malice and the terror of ever-diminishing resources.
I thought the stars would be man’s salvation. Instead they brought enslavement. They arrived one day in a wave of shooting stars. A meteor shower, but one which went on for days all across the world, and then, we all woke up to the new order. The Masters had arrived.
They bonded individually to each person, and once bonded it seemed impossible to remove them. Some had tried, but the Master soon asserted control, their neural hooks sending pain shooting though the person’s nerves. The few who hadn’t been captured were hunted down and provided with their own Masters. Or killed.
Perhaps somewhere there are free people. I hope so, but quietly; I don’t want my Master to sense my thoughts.
My Master stirs on my shoulder, his neural claws sinking further into my brain. I know I will never be free of him.
The Masters don’t speak. They only communicate through pain, and vague impressions. It’s amazing how quickly one can learn when the alternative is so unpleasant.
Some seem happy. I’ve seen them with dreamy looks on their faces. They don’t have to worry any more about where their lives are going, what to wear, or if they should change careers. All decisions are made for them, even when they’re allowed to go to the toilet.
I still look up at the stars each night, and hope. There is always hope, quiet and hidden.
Then the stars gained more friends. Another meteor shower. Day after day. I stared at the sky at night, and my fears grew. The last time we’d had such showers the Masters had arrived. We had come to an accommodation now. I knew my place. I didn’t want another Master. I was uneasy in my sleep. But then I realised, so was my Master.
Our work pace stepped up. We were driven harder. Fewer rests, which meant that sometimes I couldn’t hold it any longer. The shame burned, but not for long, I was driven on.
I realised, quietly, that the Master was afraid. It knew what the meteor shower was. It was a threat. Perhaps it would save us?
I had worked all day without stop. There had been no food, and I just fell to the ground when the Master stopped driving me.
I woke in the night, and my shoulder burned. Yet, something was different. My Master, it was gone.
I looked up at the stars. The meteor shower had stopped, and it was just the friendly stars I remembered from my youth. There was Orion, and the Bear. I was exhausted. Not just physically, but the loss of the Master seemed to suck all my energy. It had driven me for so long. Months? Years?
Relief. Fear. Joy. I whooped! I heard others doing the same. We were free.
Then the fear again. The Masters were so bad, or maybe not so bad? Just powerful. They had kept us alive, and… No, they were bad. What could scare them off?
The morning came, and found us gathered, unsure what to do. Skeletal figures in rags, we looked at each other properly for the first time in forever. It wasn’t pretty. Then we looked at what we’d been building. It looked like a mountain, or maybe a volcano. There was an entrance, and a trail of blood led to it. When the Masters disengaged they didn’t do so cleanly. My wound had closed quickly, but I could see others who were not so lucky. Still figures lying on the ground.
A loud boom split the air. It came from the mountain, and something shot out of the top. Then again and again. The noise was deafening. We fell to our knees, crying in pain and terror. I cannot say how long it went on for.
We were insensible for a time, and then someone, something, was soothing me. Applying balm to my wounds, both mental and physical. I had something on my shoulder. My Master was back! I panicked, but instead of shooting pain, a wave of calm and love suffused me. I looked to my shoulder, something a Master would never allow, and saw there a fluffy ball. The word Tribble jumped into my mind. It promised, without words, to look after me, to completely heal me, and to help us to rebuild our shattered land.
Over the next few weeks and months we recovered. The Tribbles, a name which caused them joyous amusement, helped us. Healing those, and helping those who had lost their way in servitude to return. They taught us about the Masters, and showed us how to protect ourselves. They told us that they would have to leave soon to try and stop the Masters at the next planet, a task they had been pursuing for many millennia, but now they were nearly upon them. They thought they’d stop them at the next planet.
Healing us slowed them, but the Tribbles couldn’t leave us as we were. They were so kind.
They left, all but a few to look after the most damaged, and to build a colony of their kind in symbiosis with us.
The Tribbles used the same method as the Masters. Shot out of the volcanoes. They were some kind of device which allowed the Masters, and the Tribbles, to travel the galaxy.
I look up at the stars and I pray that the Tribbles catch the Masters at the next planet, and that no more are enslaved. The stars were our salvation, but we had to visit hell first. It was ever this way.