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ForumsShowcase → Of Hearts and Feathers (holy carp, a short story!)
Of Hearts and Feathers (holy carp, a short story!)
2011-06-20, 4:50 PM #1
All comments greatly appreciated (even it's just to say that you hate it -- in which case, constructive crits more than welcome). Thanks in advance for reading... LEST YOU DARE.

Hearts and Feathers

Lex popped first her head, then the rest of her pretty self into my workspace. She was all dreads, green eyes and crystal reason.

„Being Chief Engineer isn’t a job, it’s a goddamn profession,” I told her.

„Is that what your pa used to say?”

She winked at me. People from the Gardens were nothing like us here on Admin. Living on top of the tower’s nuclear reactor, we hardly shared their easy going manners.

„That’s right, God bless his soul,” I said and helped her into the chair.

„Well, doc, excuse me for being cranky, but it’s that special time of the month again!”

She smirked at my expression. With civilization reduced to seventy four people and two thousand square meters of vertical space, rumours travelled quickly. By my second year as Chief Engineer most people learnt better than to call me „doc” during the Coping Sessions.

I extracted the syringe from the chamber, managing not to tangle my hand in any of the vacuum pipes.

„Oh, do I really have to?” she asked.

The needle went into Lex’s vein. Her eyeslids slid closed.

The room smelled of sweat. She was the seventy third person in my office today, and my arm was giving way. My take on things was that Chief Engineers had better things to do.

I traced my finger across the tower’s diagram. The paper was withered with age, but all the seven levels were still visible in full detail, each level a cluster of corridor junctions, air filters, utilities, control panels, and access tubes. My finger stopped at the location of the secret emergency hatch.

Today is the day, I told myself.

Lex hallucinated longer than expected. Here on Admin we had little time for ceremony. I slapped her across the face, open palm connecting with soft cheek. Her eyes snapped open before she could say „Ouch!”

„This is a Coping Session, not a junkie trip.”

She frowned, trying to make her young face look as conteptuous as possible. I still had talent for pissing women off.

„I’m no junkie. And this is no Coping Session, it’s a drug dose! Why don’t you just call things how they are, Chief?”

Lex stepped out of the chair and almost fell on my desk, her legs wobbly from the drug. Using one hand for support she straightened herself up and walked towards the workbench. She pulled herself up and sat on the bench, making it blatantly obvious that I was not getting off that easy.

„You’re kidding, right?”

„Do I look like I’m kidding?”

And that’s when I knew I had her. Her rebel soul wasn’t the only reason I chose her for my plan. By the time she turned twenty, she was the best mechanic outside my team. It was no accident that she was the last in line for this Session.

„No, I guess not.”

A pull of a leverl and the spring under the seat uncoiled and the back of the chair jumped into a sitting position. The leather furnishing felt like a relief compared to the metal bench by the sterilization chamber.

„You do know what happened the last time somebody tried to make everyone call things how they were, right?” I asked.

It had been a rhetorical question.

„Nobody’s ever ready for change, Lex. Two years ago some of us thought we were. Well, we sure learnt our lesson.”

„What lesson, Chief? That life is better if we share it with the spirits? Please. Any spirits in particular?” she pointed at the sterilization chamber, „Maybe that one over there, with three stalks for where its eyes should be? Or the spirit of your chair? Or that hulking rock-like thing there in the corner?”

I looked at the corner. A pair of worn enviro-suits hung on the wall.

„Oh, right,” she said, switching her attention back to me, „You can’t see them. You can’t see them because they’re not there!”

„The only point you’re proving is that I’m in no position to take that away from people. Second rule of being Chief Engineer: don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”

„And do you know what the first rule is, Lex? It’s to have a replacement ready if you end up kicking the bucket using the wrong wrench for the wrong bolt.”

She waited for me to continue. I liked that.

„Keira had been bugging me for years about that now.” Keira’s name came out in a half-whisper, as if the imaginary spirits could carry my words to her Population and Occupation Control office across Admin’s hall.

„I just didn’t have the right man for the job. Not until I heard of a certain talented mechanic from Gardens with a strange wish to call things what they are.”

If she was surprised, she hadn’t showed it.

„What about your team? You’ve six people under you, don’t you think some of them would, you know, mind?”

„None of them agreed.”

She reached under the workbench and pulled out three dusty books, each in its final stages of deterioration. The one with the print still visible on the cover read Ecotower Type B: Manual for Irrgiation Overrides. Lex protested no further.

„Bed time reading, more’s to come. See you in the morning.”

When Lex left, I swapped the sterilization chamber on the table for my coffee machine. A small celebration had been in order – a cup of blackest coffee for a job well done. Today was the day indeed. The deal was sealed and all that remained were the details. The details and the devil in them.

We started off with the basics. After Keira registered Lex as a member of my team and found someone to replace her on the Gardens, I introduced her to the rest of my crew. Wilburn on Food Processing started showing Lex the ins and outs of his level from the get-go trying to score a night in the hammock, and the engineer from her native Gardens gave her a lenghty congratulations and you-deserve-it-girl speech. The others were less enthusiastic but still treated her nice enough. By the end of her first day on the job, the only level left to cover was the reactor, Ted Gunderson’s domain.

Back on Admin, we took a breather climbing all the way down from R&D. We sat on the edge of the shaft, feet swinging down above the emptiness.

“Want me to go down there alone?” she asked after a minute’s silence that she spent staring at the elevator at the bottom of the shaft. I briefly wondered how the elevator’s spirit manifested itself to her. What could it have told me if Chief Engineers could participate in the Sessions? My conclusion was that probably, nothing interesting.


“No? Everyone knows about you and Ted. You don’t talk.”

“He’s a good engineer. There’s rarely a need to talk.”

The reactor ran like clockwork since he volunteered to move from Living to the tower’s lowest level two years ago, right after suffocating twelve people to their deaths: according to Keira’s official statement, a necessary evil.

“All right,” I said, “Let’s get on with it then.”

I put my tired hands the ladder’s cold bars and swung myself into the shaft. Lex followed me to the bottom of the tower.

After my feet touched the floor of the decommissioned elevator, I scratched a line into the wall’s rusty surface to compliment three others. I braced myself for my fourth visit to the reactor in the past two years.

The first corridor had remained the same. Faded, uneven lines of crude paint ran along the worn metal walls and branched into other corridors.

Blue for Cooling Control, red for Reactor Core, green for Radiation Monitoring. Yellow for Office.

The last line lead us under low overpasses where we were forced to crawl on our knees, across makeshift bridges, around patches of electrical wiring and through ventilation shafts. The path had changed since my last visit. More sectors had been closed off for failing the Geiger counter.

Ted sat behind his polished desk in the Office, capital “O,” razor-sharp face illuminated by the glow of his monitor. The tower’s first level’s sole inhabitant kept the room sterile clean. Soft rays of light from the low-watt ceiling lamps reflected in his polished desk and bathed the plastic cactus in the room’s corner in a ghastly light. Book shelves crawled onto each of the four walls.

“Hi, Ted”

“Hello, Chief Engineer.”

His voice was calm, the same manner that he used when necessity forced us to talk during Coping Sessions and power-related emergencies.

“This is my new assistant Lex,” I nodded at the girl behind me, “Lex, this is engineer Gunderson.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” she said and stepped forward.

“Never thought that Keira’d make you get an assistant. The spirits tell me you’re from the Gardens, girl?”

“That’s right,” Lex said to what must have been the talkative spirit by the artificial cactus before turning her attention back to Ted.

“You don’t mind working with me, I hope?” he asked.

Lex flipped back one of her dreads.

“Why would I?”

“My point exactly. And now that we’ve met each other, I’m sure you can show yourself around. Make sure you follow the lines, though, unless you want to end up losing all that fancy hair of yours in an off-limits sector.”

I nodded in approval. After she disappeared behind the door, Ted put his elbows on the desk and clasped his palms together.

“Hearts and feathers,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Hearts and feathers. Have you heard of a place called Egypt?”


“Well, Chief Engineer, before the tower, before the old world, people who lived in that place believed that when you died, your heart was weighted against the feather of truth. If your heart was pure, it would outweight the feather and you would be granted passage to the afterlife. But if the feather outweighted the heart, well, they fed your soul to a crocodile and that was that.”

“Fascinating,” I said with unconcealed sarcasm.

“Sure is. And don’t look at me like that. My heart is pure. And so was the heart of everyone who died that day. Mislead, perhaps, but pure.”

“Is that what you keep telling yourself? Is this why you live here in seclusion? Because your heart is pure?”

“Hearts and feathers,” he said again. “I live here because I made a choice. A hard choice, but a necessary one. If not for me, your father and the others would’ve had their way and left the tower without the Serum. Without hope. Do you know how much life the reactor has left in it? Not that much, I tell you. Place is falling apart, and if not for hope, what do we have left to give? Do you remember? Do you remember, I ask you?”

I remembered. I had been in my late thirties then, an assistant to my dad and a good engineer in my own right. Locked up on Admin, watching alerts pop up one after another on the monitoring panels, fire and emergency notifications on the every level. Violence spilled out into the corridors and culminated in a stand-off on Medical.

It was through the intercom that I heard Ted announce that he disabled the air filters on the level.

Peace had been restored. A necessary evil.

“Right then,” I said, “Lex will be seeing you around.”

The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. Lex was buried to her neck in manuals, and whenever she wasn’t reading, I sent her off for on-site practice.

Disaster struck according to schedule.

We were going through air pressure calculation exercises when a red lamp lit up on the wall-mounted monitoring panel. A second later Wilburn was on the intercom.

“Chief? Come in, Chief. We need you on Food Processing, come in please!”

“I’m here, Wilburn. What’s wrong?”

“The power’s out, we’re running on a backup. Don’t know how long the filters are going to last!”

“All right, listen up. Suit up and get everyone to Living. Lex will meet you at the shaft. Yogesh out.”

Lex stared at me over her notebook.

“Well,” I said, “What are you waiting for, darling? Get yourself into an enviro-suit and go!”

“What about you?”

“An entire level wouldn’t lose power on its own for no reason. I think that…”

Another lamp lit up on the panel.

“Please come in, power’s out, require Chief Engineer’s presence on Medical, I repeat…”

“Evacuate the level,” I said into the intercom, “Get Dr. Hassan and everyone else to Living, and careful, Food Processing should be coming up as well. I’m on my way, don’t wait for me. Yogesh out.”

I stood up. Lex, an enviro-suit in hands, was all ready by the door.

“Why are you still here?”

Lex rushed out, leaving me alone. I took the remaining enviro-suit off the hook and encased myself into the yellow fabric. I then retrieved the syringe from the sterilization chamber, screwed on my helmet, and made way into the corridor. The usual queue by Keira’s door dispersed as the residents pressed their backs against the walls to give me passage to the shaft.

Climbing to the level had been easier than my usual ventures through the tower. By the time I reached Medical, the level had been empty. Unlike Food Processing, backup power was down as well. But while this could have hindered someone like Lex, I wasn’t Chief Engineer for nothing.

Running my hands against walls in the maze of darkness, I made it to the true heart of the tower: Medical’s chemical lab.

The backup generators hummed into life and lit up the room in the dark orange of emergency lights. My timing was impeccable. The lights illuminated rows upon rows of vials, cooking vats, shelves of encased components and synthesized materials. Enough to produce a century’s worth supply of the serum. Enough, I thought, to last until the very end.

With trembling fingers, I opened the control panel under one of the floor tiles. It was no secret that over the years I learnt everything there was to know about the tower’s safety mechanisms. The fact that I learnt everything there was to know about how to break them I mostly kept to myself.

It responded to my input. First, the characteristic thud of the lab’s door sealing itself, and then… Sunlight. A true-to-God-ray of sunlight pierced a crack in the wall. The crack expanded, the old emergency hatch that I erased from all the tower’s records opening with the screech of rusted metal.

I looked at the sun through the fog on the inside of my visor. The great orb in the sky, strung high above a vast, desolate desert. I averted my eyes from the blinding light and my gaze fell upon the corpse of the Earth.

Where once were lakes, now lay dry sand. Where once was grass, there spread miles upon miles of a bright, yellow surface, scarred with the spider webs of cracks.

First I threw out the vials.

Then the cooking vats.

Then the shelves.

I pushed the equipment out of the emergency exit, and what didn’t fit through the door I smashed with a metal stool, and when the stool bent out of shape, I used my hands. My vicious dance lasted a minute, two minutes, five minutes, forever. Soon, the lab was unsalvageable. The serum reserves spilled onto the floor, the equipment – gone, beyond repair even for someone as skilled as me.

And it felt good.

The emergency generator stopped its humming and the emergency lights gave way to the lab’s usual ceiling lamps, but there was little reason to worry. I had plenty of time.

“Yogesh, are you alive?” came Keira’s voice from the intercom. She could not have possible known about the hatch, but after the power went back up, my little diversion had been blown. I smashed the intercom with the bent stool. Sparks hit me in the visor.

I thought about the crowd of people that must have been standing on the other side of the lab’s door and of their fury at the son of a man who died before he could force them to change. I thought of their hate for the man who had deceived them for two years, left alone with their precious serum. No matter. The room was to sealed until the emergency hatch was closed.

I took the time to savor the moment, the apex of my two-year plan. Standing in the ruined lab, sunlight in my face, I relived the two years after my father’s death.

My appreciation for tradition, my speeches about living with the spirits, talks about sanity and discussions about insanity, about accepting the new reality in place of the one that we could never have – all a facade. Persuading Keira that the Chief Engineer, the only person in the tower who could not take the serum, should remain as the one to administer the Sessions had been the hardest. Now, two years later, her mistake was uncorrectable.

As per the tower’s schematics, there was cable wire was wrapped around a pulley on the outer wall. Trying not to look at the terrifying surface of the dead planet, I attached the cable’s end to a hook in my enviro-suit and started my descent.

Step after step on the tower’s surface, slowly, a perpendicular suspension against the only world I’ve ever known. Under me, the foot of the structure was hidden by the skeletons of all those who passed away over the years.

My climb must have taken hours. Every stoop I took brought me closer and closer to the mass grave. As the piles of bones advanced on me, I thought of Lex. Of Wilburn. Of those who had been my friends and those who counted me an enemy. Of my father. Of Ted. Of the spirits of Ecotower Type B, of false hope, of the smell of coffee in the morning.

I thought of the sweat of a woman.

I thought about the details, and of the devil in them.

Finally, I reached the first level, a few meters above the bone pile. At first the hatch didn’t budge, so I pressed my feet against the wall and pulled with all my strength. The hatch snapped open and sent me flying back and then smashing me against the wall. I wiggled my body, gathering momentum, and kicked against the tower. The kick propelled me backwards and then into the emergency hatch.

My landing had not been graceful. I rolled across the floor in a tumbling frenzy, unsnapping the cable before it could drag me back out. The moment my gloved palms hit surface, I didn’t see, but rather knew that I was not alone.

Ted was waiting for me by the entrance, face concealed by the visor of his enviro-suit.

“What have you done?”

“Only,” I was panting, “Only what had to be done. Only what had to be done, Ted.”

“You doomed us all, don’t you understand? You waited this long to doom us, Yogesh?”

“Doom and illusion are not one and the same,” I said, finally catching my breath.

“Without the serum, they are! Don’t you understand? Didn’t your father understand? There is nothing left for us there!”

He pointed at the sky behind me.

“Nothing! With the serum, we had hope, hope that maybe this isn’t the only world worth living in! That maybe, just maybe, it’s not all that bad!”

“Life without change is not life, Ted. Not the life that humanity should have chosen. Salvation does not lie in contentment!”

“Contentment? Salvation?”

“Hearts and feathers, Ted! You said so yourself! Beliefs can be sacrificed, so can habits, so can illusions. But never people, Ted. Never people!”

He moved, or maybe it was me who moved first, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that one moment he was standing across the room and the next moment we were in each other’s grasp, my syringe piercing his thigh through the suit. I pushed the liquid in and Ted went limp. A necessary evil.

I spun him across the room and flung him through the hatch.

A necessary evil, I told myself, a necessary evil, a necessary evil…

The hatch swung closed under my push. I dared not look outside. As if in a dream, I followed the green line out of Radiation Monitoring to the elevator shaft.

I scratched the fifth line into the rust with the tip of my tool belt. This time, I was here to stay. The half-empty syringe was still in hand. I closed my eyes and injected the last dose of the serum in the entire tower into my neck.

When the hallucinations subsided, when I stopped hearing the whispers of the world and when my vision regained focus, my mind caught a glimpse of something distant, almost forgotten, shaping into form. A silhouette of a man, a man coming closer, closer, closer, closer, and then…

“Being the reactor isn’t a job,” the spirit said in an all-too-familiar voice, “It’s a goddamn profession.”

-- THE END --
2011-06-22, 5:37 PM #2
I trimmed 500 words away for GREAT MOTIVATION. :)
2011-06-22, 8:12 PM #3
There's some typos and tense issues, could do with some out-loud proofreading maybe. Also what's up with your upside down quotation marks?
2011-06-23, 3:53 AM #4
Hey Thrawn[numbarz], thanks a bunch for reading. I proof read this over and over again over the past few days, but of course, no guarantee that I haven't missed something in the grammar department...

What did you think of the story overall? Was it worth reading? If not, was it too slow, or perhaps confusing?
2011-06-23, 5:20 PM #5
I've skimmed it a couple times, and every time I do I find either basic grammar mistakes (e.g. "If she was surprised, she hadn’t showed it") or typos ("A pull of a leverl and the spring under the seat uncoiled and the back of the chair jumped into a sitting position") or just generally clunky, awkward prose ("She reached under the workbench and pulled out three dusty books, each in its final stages of deterioration"). You should try and focus on basic readability before worrying about plot and pacing and stuff like that.
2011-06-24, 3:36 AM #6
Great, thanks for the examples. Helpful stuff.

Thanks for mentioning that you skimmed it, by the way -- to me, this means that the opening is not exciting enough to pull the reader in.

In my opinion first comes the plot, then the readability, though. Story's written, it exists, now's the time for editing and making it, well, easier on the eyes. :)

>>She reached under the workbench and pulled out three dusty books, each in its final stages of deterioration

"She pulled out three ancient books from under the bench. They were covered in dust."

Works better?

>>"If she was surprised, she hadn’t showed it"

Should it be, "Had she been surprised, she hadn't showed it?"

Tenses were always my biggest problem. I read a lot and they still don't come naturally to me.

I found this:

Though I have a feeling that I'll pass all these tests with a 100% score and will still continue making mistakes. Which sucks. Another exercise I'm planning to do when I'll have a bit of time is taking a story or two that I like (something by Jason Sandford, Tim Pratt, or Harlan Ellison) and re-writing them word by word by hand.

Anyhow, thanks for the input, very helpful. I didn't notice that leverl typo btw. Cheers.
2011-06-24, 12:25 PM #7
Originally posted by Koobie:
Thanks for mentioning that you skimmed it, by the way -- to me, this means that the opening is not exciting enough to pull the reader in.

Well, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I don't really ever read writing that gets posted on forums unless someone I know links me to it and specifically asks me to. I guess it's my ADD, I usually just scroll through and read a few random sentences. :v:

Originally posted by Koobie:
>>She reached under the workbench and pulled out three dusty books, each in its final stages of deterioration

"She pulled out three ancient books from under the bench. They were covered in dust."

Works better?

Kind of. The thing with that kind of description is that you don't want to slow down or stop to describe things, you want the description to be a natural part of the narrative. So if you wanted to tell the reader the books were dusty, you could have her cough at the dust stirred up as she withdraws a book. Or if you wanted to tell the reader the books were old and falling apart, you could mention how she opens them carefully to keep the binding intact. That way you keep the momentum of the narrative going instead of kind of pausing the story to go "the books were old." This is important with all description.

Originally posted by Koobie:
>>"If she was surprised, she hadn’t showed it"
Should it be, "Had she been surprised, she hadn't showed it?"
Tenses were always my biggest problem. I read a lot and they still don't come naturally to me.

I'm pretty sure you should be using "shown" not "showed." I might be wrong here (I haven't actually checked) but "showed" sounds really awkward.

Originally posted by Koobie:
Anyhow, thanks for the input, very helpful. I didn't notice that leverl typo btw. Cheers.

No problem! Sorry if I came off as harsh btw, I just had my wisdom teeth out and I'm kind of grumpy haha

For what it's worth I remember reading your stuff years back and you've made a ton of improvement, I just went back and read your first few paragraphs and they introduced the story pretty artfully :)
2011-06-27, 1:39 PM #8
Damn, man, you were more helpful than some dudes who peer-crit (yeah, I made that up) on amateur writing boards. Thanks a bunch! Peace.

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