Ring of chalk

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In his dreams, Tarn saw a different world. His eyes would close and he'd drift into darkness and quiet, the thrum of the machines fading into the distance. Then a hand would take his and help him to his feet and he'd be elsewhere, far from his sleeping hole and the dark red caverns.

He'd be standing somewhere where there was no rocky ceiling, with only a blue dome high above. A small, winged creature would flutter about him, hopping between strands of a green plant - not like the dirty moss that occasionally sprouted in the caves, but long and luscious, drifting backwards and forwards on a light breeze.

Then he'd be in a muddy puddle, creaking wooden structures leaning over him while happy shouts emanated from glowing, open doorways and lights sparkled in the darkness above.

He'd fall into water, so much that it enveloped him, until he couldn't breathe, and through the water he'd glimpse the shape of something huge and gleaming, perched atop two broad slabs of rock.

Tarn had only ever known the trickle of dirty water that seeped from the showers. He'd never seen animals other than rats and roaches. He didn't understand how there could be a place without the cocooning ceiling of rock, or what would stop you from falling upwards. Each time he closed his eyes he saw a new sight that confounded him.

The hand that guided was always just out of sight. He could feel the delicate fingers but their owner remained anonymous, luring him from the real world, tempting him with a fantasy of promise and colour and potential.

He would wake, exhilarated and thrilled by the possibilities, only for them to be crushed beneath the rough, dug-out walls of his sleeping hole, only inches from his face.

The day would progress as it always did, with shouting and tiredness and pain. He would work the machines as he was told, as he knew best, for no purpose and with no understanding, then he would return to his hole, fall asleep and drift again to another place. Each time he awoke his head would feel bigger, and cleverer, as if connections were forming, every so slowly, and he'd see his constricted world with eyes anew. Sometimes he'd wake to discover he understood a new word, although he wouldn't dare use it out loud. The guards wouldn't like him using clever words.

After he'd discovered the body in the pipe, they'd sent him back with equipment to haul it out. Tarn had come up first and clambered out onto the gantry, then had helped Fiffdee and Fordeyate pull the rope hand over hand until the body reached the lip of the hatch, then dropped out onto the gantry with a heavy slap. The body was barely recognisable as a person, half the skin having burned away or blistered into a rash of pustules. What little clothing remained had merged with the muscle and bone so that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began. A thick slime dripped through the gantry to the floor below.

The guard shouted and brought his friends up. They stood around gawping at the body, laughing and making jokes about what would be served up as food later that day. Tarn didn't think it was funny.

It didn't take long for the smell to overwhelm the guards' amusement and they ordered it to be dragged down the stairs and over to the back of the chamber, where it was dropped unceremoniously into a deep pit. A flat, battered metal door was dropped down onto the covering, sealing it up and blocking in the fumes.

Then everybody got back to work. These things happened in the machine rooms.

Tarn operated his machine more efficiently than ever before, manipulating the controls with a fluid, memorised muscle movement. That's why they always put him on this one: he knew exactly what to do. As his arms turned and pulled and pushed, his mind and eyes wandered, following the metal side of the contraption upwards, where it curved in towards the enormous wheel that had to keep turning all day without stopping. Up past that, to the tubes and pipes either side which went up and up towards the roof of the chamber, before disappearing into the rock. He recalled the ladder, extending both down and up the inside of the pipe. Up was an unknown place, and his imagination fired at the thought. Perhaps that was where the enormous blue ceiling would be found, or the expanse of water? Perhaps above the machine rooms there were no longer heat and dirt but cold, clean, pure white and shining in the sun. He didn't have a word for it but had felt it once, in his dreams. What crouched above their heads, waiting to be discovered?

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