Helga Louise Sorensen March 4, 2013
Far below the surface of the planet, Senior Vat Tech Watt Simms woke with a start. That dream again.
Vat Room H. He’d named the acre-sized glop in the vat, Helga. At one end of the huge rectangular vat, all the waste from the city above travelled down chutes into temporary storage silos, to be fed into the vat by the day-shift technicians. All day long the glop he’d christened Helga got a steady meal of dead cats, dogs, rats, slaves, kings, queens and servants. Plus all the retired plastic and metal she could handle.
Watt’s dream began with an average day at work and the thousands of corpses being folded gently into the mix. Then the conveyor belts would all simultaneously grind to a halt. He and his new partner Fleck would press buttons and reboot, reset, refresh, but nothing would get the conveyor belt moving again.
He would notice unrest in the corpses on the belts. They would twitch. Quiver. Stand up on shaky legs. Slaves, princesses, priests, not zombies but fully alive, would watch in confusion as reanimated cats and dogs ran through their throng hissing and barking. Then the conveyor belts would start up again, delivering their passengers, whose surprised expressions turned to horror, as they sank into the pink-stained yellow mix that was Helga.
The worst part was when the terrible queen, twice dead, once in life and then drowned in the glop, rose up out of it and stepped daintily through the grasping hands and bobbing heads of the churning surface. Spying Watt peering down at her over the edge of the vat, she would float up light as mist, to stand on the cement walk near him, regarding him intently, weighing the pros and cons of his life. Then finding him lacking she would stride up to him and plunge her hand into his chest. His whole body on fire, he would scream with pain, but there was no air….
That was when he always woke up gasping, drenched in sweat.
He knew he wouldn’t get any sleep until his new partner stopped fooling around and learned the job.
The clock on the wall of his cubicle indicated it was time to get up. Gliding through his morning routine, he found himself at the cafeteria, staring at his morning bowl of glop, trying to decide between Condiment #3, the parisienne and Condiment #8, the rio grande.
An arm jostled him, almost spilling his breakfast. “Come on. Live a little. Go for number eight this morning.” Assistant Vat Tech Trainee Fleck reached past him and sprayed a huge helping of Condiment #10, rocket blast, on his own bowl of glop. “This is the right stuff to start your day, Watt. Nothing lower than eight for me, mate.” He clapped Watt on the shoulder, almost knocking the bowl out of his hands, then pushed through the morning crowd to an empty table.
Watt sprayed a healthy dose of number three on his meal. The viscous mix rearranged itself into chunks of brown meat and colourful vegetables. He paused a moment to inhale the fragrant steam rising from the bowl, then joined his new colleague for breakfast.
“You look terrible.” Fleck was spooning stew double-time into his mouth.
“Why don’t you just pour it down your throat and get it over with?” Watt said. This new partner was just as irritating as the last one. There should be courses in diplomacy for the young. “I had that dream again.”
Fleck grunted and rolled his eyes. “You should go see somebody about that. It’s not healthy in a man your age.” His grin didn’t reach his eyes. “You spend too much time on your own. Come to the pool tonight for a swim. There’ll be naked lovelies from level four.” He waggled his eyebrows.
Watt nodded his head. “I’d like that. I have a project in the greenhouse to check on first, but I’ll meet you there later.” He gave his attention to his meal, bringing a spoonful of stew to his mouth. He closed his eyes, savouring the aroma. Melt in your mouth goodness. Condiment #3 was definitely the best, converting the tasteless cooked glop into food to delight a gourmet. He lingered over his bowl while Fleck went back for seconds.
Breakfast finished, they bussed their dirty dishes and headed down the stairs to the vats. Nine levels later they entered Vat Room H.
“Good morning, Helga,” Watt said to the glop as he walked to a control console. The heat and humidity hit him and droplets of sweat formed on his brow. He undid the first two buttons of his shirt and opened it a bit. Clouds at the ceiling dropped a constant fine rain. The fans kicked up a breeze.
“Ah.” He inhaled deeply. “The air smells like the perfume of a beautiful woman.”
Fleck looked at him. “That’s the air fresheners.”
Watt shook his head. He liked to get in to work a little early to enjoy the quiet and calm. The daytime lights snapped on and the two men squinted against the glare. As he had for the last week, Watt continued teaching Fleck the complexities of the readouts. Aeration, temperature, humidity all in mid-range; gas captured and directed to upper levels, optimum.
“You’re looking good this morning, Helga. I trust you slept well?”
Fleck put his hands over his ears and frowned. “I wish you wouldn’t talk to that stuff.”
“Vat techs have been talking to that stuff, as you call it, forever. Get used to it.”
“Yes, but they didn’t all mean it the way you do. It’s creepy. And sick.” Fleck folded his arms and faced Watt.
Watt shook his head. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it. The old girl grows on you.” He smiled and turned to address the mix.
“Good Morning Helga, Mistress of the Deep. Awake and face the day, Lady, awaken from thy sleep.”
Fleck shook his head. “Not even a good rhyme.”
The currents in the viscous yellow mix picked up speed and the bubbles grew bigger.
Watt smiled down at the mix. “May your day be merry, may you enjoy our offerings, and be pleased to grant us your generous gifts.” He bowed deeply. Fleck rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes.
Morning rituals finished, they switched on the conveyor belts. The rumble of the belts was the only music accompanying the procession of corpses on their final journey from the storage silos to the mix.
At midmorning Watt and Fleck, each with their own controls, guided nets of boulders from the ceiling, and lowered them gently through the surface, so as not to bruise the mix. When the boulders were safely on the bottom of the vat, they released them and slowly drew the nets back into their ceiling niches.
Watt nodded. “That’ll help her digestion. Can’t argue much with rocks that big.” Fleck peered over the edge of the vat into the pink-stained mix far below. Body parts floated up, sank, resurfaced and whirled away in the strong currents.
Late afternoon, they lowered a metal bucket at the front end of the mix, farthest away from the corpse-fed inlet, and removed a sample. They took a break while they waited for the bucket to return. Watt sat beside the vat with a good view of the mix. He patted his leg and nodded his head to the rhythmic sounds in the vast chamber. “Almost like sitting in a drum, sometimes. Don’t you think?”
Fleck shrugged and puffed a thick roll, blowing smoke rings towards Watt. Watt batted them away. “Shouldn’t be smoking in here…”
Fleck rolled his eyes. “Don’t go lecturing me on smoke when your girlfriend there is putting out tons of gas all day long.” A thin jet of hot air shot up from the mix and hit Fleck in the face, choking him and igniting his smoke. He pitched the glowing butt into the vat, scraped his arm over his singed eyebrows and glowered at Watt.
“Life is simple. Don’t insult the lady,” Watt said. He caught the bucket as it arrived at the edge of the vat. They examined the product shivering in the bottom.
“I hate this part,” Watt said. “Let’s make it quick,” They both dipped oversized spoons into the quivering sample and placed the mix into their mouths. In the warmth, it stopped shivering. They ran their tongues through the mix, and then bit down. It changed in consistency from relaxed to hard, then after a few chews, back to relaxed again. They swallowed.
“Whew!” Watt said. “I hate eating the live mix. But the glow is strong in this batch, eh?” He wiped his brow. “It’ll be a good harvest today.”
“Yeah. Too bad they cook off most of the alcohol. Now that would make great stew!” Fleck set the bucket aside.
“Hey, aren’t you going to empty that bit back in?” Watt said.
“It’s just a drop. Probably too cold anyway.”
“Don’t be stupid. Helga lives off dead people. She won’t mind a little cold.” Watt poured the remaining contents of the bucket back into the mix and pounded the bottom to release the last drops. They slithered over the lip and dived into the vat, leaving the bucket dry. He shoved the empty bucket at Fleck. “See? That’s how you do it.”
A muscle in Fleck’s jaw twitched. He looked Watt up and down, as though calculating how much effort it would take to toss him over the side. Then he shrugged and walked past him, jostling him with an elbow towards the vat. Watt caught himself on the edge. “Idiot,” he said, under his breath.
They prepared to harvest a quantity of mix from the front end, where digestion was complete. Watt stood close to the outlet and monitored the opening of the gate and the out-flow. Rotors on the other side sucked out the sludgy mix. He covered his ears, but still imagined he could hear screams as the mix was gouged and torn away from the main body.
“Okay. Stop the flow,” he yelled to Fleck.
Fleck nodded. “Just a little more. Got to make our numbers look good.”
Watt frowned as the mix continued to leave the main vat. They’d bled off a huge harvest and the part that was coming through now was thin and soupy, floating with undigested pieces and groups of digestive cells. “Stop the flow,” he commanded and strode towards Fleck.
Fleck scowled and flipped the switch. The gates closed, severing the harvest from the main mix. The air pressure rose and fell, squeezing them.
Heated to the boiling point on the other side of the gate, the harvested mix hissed. Watt covered his ears again. “Sorrow, Lady, for any pain we may have caused you.” The mother mix roiled below him, sloshing back and forth in the vat as the remaining portion redistributed itself. Gelid pseudopods formed and fell back, formed and fell back, increasing in girth and height. “You’re a good girl, Helga. A beautiful girl,” Watt crooned. “The best that ever there was, and we appreciate your efforts and the pain you endure so that we may live.” He continued speaking in a soothing tone until the pseudopods decreased in size and the surface of the mix settled into the vat and resumed its normal slow currents.
“You act like that thing’s alive,” Fleck said, jerking a finger at the mix.
“It is alive, you bloody fool,” Watt shouted.
“Okay, it’s alive. But it’s not bloody sentient. You really need to have yourself checked out, old man.” Fleck glanced at the time clock on the wall. “I’m leaving. See you tomorrow,” he said, and stomped off to the stairs, leaving Watt to close up for the day.
“Young idiot. Don’t pay him any attention Lady. He doesn’t understand.” He watched Fleck walk along the side of the vat. No yellow pseudopod snaked out to wrap itself around his throat and drag him screaming to his death. Watt remembered to breathe again when Fleck made it safely out the door.
“But he will, finally. Won’t he, Helga?” Watt turned off the feed of bodies to the belts and waited until the last body was interred gently into the mix. He flipped the switch and the conveyor belts all rumbled to a halt. He set the overhead lights on automatic, the controls to sleep, checked readouts once more and patted the console.
“Good night Lady,” he called over the edge of the vat. “Sleep well… until we meet again.” He felt a tension in the mix. “Please go easy on him, Helga. We’re running out of trainees.”
A column of yellow mix as thick around as a man’s waist reared up a full man’s height out of the vat beside him. He stopped in his tracks and looked at it. It swayed slightly, regarding him, though it had no eyes. “You poor old thing,” he said. “Lonely, Helga, aren’t you? Lonely and sore, I bet, from that last bloody harvest. I’m sorry, old girl.” He reached out his hand to the column. It moved towards him, then returned to its original position. Tense. Wary.
“Poor old thing.” He turned away, fetched a chair up against the side of the vat and sat down. “Did I ever tell you the story of the little mermaid?” He placed his hand on the edge of the vat. The pseudopod relaxed, leaned over and touched his hand. It was as warm and dry as his own. “No? I thought it was your favourite story. Well, here it is again, then.
“Once upon a time there was a little mermaid who lived in the sea.” The chamber filled with the sound of waves lapping a shore. Watt nodded at the Lady’s sound effects.
“She loved to watch the sea birds fly so free.” Cries of gulls echoed in the air.
“Her best friend in the whole wide ocean was a whale, who used to sing to her.” The mournful song of whales filled the chamber. “See, Helga? I knew you heard this story before.” He settled himself in his chair. The pseudopod leaned gently against his hand.
“… and the little mermaid and her new prince lived happily ever after. Until of course the time came, as it always does when the new prince grows old, that the little mermaid needed another new prince to take care of her. Then the old prince, who she loved so dear, and who loved her back more than anything, helped her find a new prince to take care of her when he no longer could. Just like us, eh?” he stroked the pseudopod. “Golden Girl,” he murmured.
“Did I ever sing you the song about the fair in Scarborough? No? Well it goes like this…”
“Did I ever sing you the song about the girl who only lived twice…?”
He went through his vast repertoire of songs. They were all accompanied by the crash of waves, cries of sea birds, and songs of whales.
Hours later, he woke up; the lights were dim, the pseudopod had returned to its vat, the chamber was filled with the sigh of waves washing up on a beach.
The tension in the air had vanished. “That’s my girl. Go easy on the lad, Helga. He’s not bad. Just young.” He got up and tiptoed past the vat, singing quietly,
“Her eyes, they shone like the diamonds,” and hummed the rest of the tune all the way out the door and up the long climb of stairs.
The bad dream stayed away the rest of the night and Watt slept well.
The next morning Fleck staggered down to breakfast looking haggard. “I had that dream last night,” he said, clutching his chest.
“Oh you did, did you? The one with the terrible queen, was it?” Watt applied Condiment #10 to his bowl of glop. “Nothing like a little rocket blast to get you going in the morning, eh lad?”
Fleck groaned and cast a bloodshot eye on his own bowl of morning chow. He eyed the condiments for a long time before reaching a shaking hand to Condiment #3, parisienne. “No, too flavourful,” he said, moved his hand to the number one nozzle and sprayed a gentle helping onto his mix. It promptly congealed into gray porridge, no sugar.
Their work day passed without event. Fleck was quieter than usual.
The next morning Fleck showed up late for breakfast. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” he said.
Watt regarded him thoughtfully and took an extra serving of Condiment #10. “That’s too bad. I do hope you’ll start getting a good night’s sleep soon.”
Fleck nodded and ate a half portion of mix with no condiment.
Another calm day at work. Fleck didn’t say a word, but cast constant glances at the mix.
The next morning Fleck didn’t show up for breakfast. Watt enjoyed a hearty meal, then went to Fleck’s cubicle. The door was locked. There were sounds of a struggle within.
“Are you alright, Fleck? Should I call for help?” The thumping and groaning continued. Watt sighed. He paced. He chewed his nails. He folded his arms and waited. Checked his site for messages. Answered some.
Finally the door opened. Fleck’s hair was dishevelled, his eyes had dark rings around them, he was dressed in yesterday’s wrinkled uniform and he smelled bad. The room behind him looked like a giant had picked it up and shaken it. Movement on the ceiling caught Watt’s eye. A thick ropey pseudopod was slowly retreating into the air duct. Splatters of yellow mix clinging to the walls and broken furniture flowed together into a small pseudopod and followed the path of the larger one.
Fleck closed the door gently behind him.
“How are you?” Watt said, laying his hand on the young man’s arm and looking him in the eye.
“Not bad, all things considered. I had no idea the Lady could be so… persuasive.”
Watt nodded. “Do you feel like a bite to eat?”
“Yes, I believe I do.”
“Condiment # 10?”
“No. Maybe I’ll have a small helping of the number three this morning.” Fleck rubbed a bump on his head. “Work my way up.”
“Glad to hear it.” Watt said, gently guiding a limping Fleck down the hall towards the cafeteria. “I’m truly happy that you survived the initiation, lad. You’ll be wanting to perform the morning’s greetings to the Lady Helga yourself, I suppose?”
“Yes. That sounds about right.”
“Well. I’m glad you finally saw the light.”
“You would be, wouldn’t you? Couldn’ta just told me? Explained things the way they was?”
“Who’d believe it?”
“True. There’s always that.”