By A.P. Thayer
The mug is empty before I can stop myself.
I swore I would pace myself for first mug. Swore to make the mead last longer, savor it. It's all I could think about when we shuffled into Tavern 381F. All I could think about until I remembered the suicide from earlier.
Next mug. I'll do it next mug.
I look around the gray, windowless hall. Windows wouldn't show us anything but poisonous air and the scorched tunnels of the Warrens, anyway. I've been here so many times before, but it always seems a little different. Long rows of metal tables and crowded benches fill the cramped room, but weren't they wood at one point?
The sour stink of our bodies makes the walls press in. The day's sweat and grime are something we have to get used to every night. Black pipes drop from the ceiling and run down the middle of each table, like ferrous millipedes with spigots for legs, a worker at each one. And stalking between the rows of benches, those monstrous shadows, the Sentinels.
The familiar man across from me has pale skin, instead of my dark. The two women next to him are as different as he and I are. Flaming red hair on one, the other bald from the lice shaving. A woman who lost weight too quickly is on my left, her skin loose on her bones. On the other side of me the bench is empty. I can't remember what my neighbor looked like, but they'd left their mug on the table. Different heights, different genders, different skin colors, yet we all wear gray overalls and we all stare at our spigots the same way. Our differences don't matter to the Overlords or their Sentinels, why should they matter to us? We're slaves, here to drink our allotted mugs during leisure time.
Our forced leisure time.
It's not that we're stupid. At least, I'm not. I know our time is being measured out with these mugs. I know keeping us focused on this one good thing is how they keep us docile. It's another way of controlling us, but how are we supposed to fight it? When you spend the whole day stirring vats of molten poison and breathing in rotten air through a mask that cuts into your skin, there isn't much more to look forward to than the nightly mugs of mead. You gladly accept the forced leisure. You thank them for it. It's preferable to a Sentinel's claws.
I struggle to remember the warm, sweet drink I gulped down and the woman's face that shattered my focus. At least... I think it was sweet, wasn't it? There's a vague memory of it tasting like candied hope, then it's gone, along with the details of the suicide's face. Now there's a black hole where those memories used to be and a metallic residue in my mouth that tastes nothing like what I drank. Right? The mead is sweet. It's something worth looking forward to.
My neighbor is really missing out.
I run the meat of my thumb across the little notches on my mug. Shallow scratches in the cool metal. I wish I could remember scratching each one, but I can't. They all blend together because each one is the same story. Why would I remember any of them differently? Leisure time starts, I drink first mug, and I make the notch. Every night, six mugs of mead and one notch.
I should remember which one of the marks was my first one, but they all feel the same.
The smooth space I've chosen for tonight's canvas feels soft beneath my fingers. I dig into the pewter with my nail and score a trembling line in it. Pain shoots up my finger as I scratch the metal again, over and over. It'll take a while for me to work it into a real notch. Long enough to pass the time until second mug.
Second mug. I swallow the excess saliva in my mouth. I'll pace myself for it. Savor the mead and make it last.
This time I will.
It's almost second mug and the suicide's face keeps popping up in my mind. I finally remember. She's why I wasn't paying attention for first mug, why I wasn't focused. I'm not going to forget what she did to me last mug and I'm damned sure not going to let her ruin second mug.
Who was she, anyway?
The black pipe clanks and shudders and the spigot doles out my drink. The mead is gray, like molten lead without the sheen, and it smells like fresh air and green plants. They have those above the Warrens. I've heard the Overlords have whole gardens filled with brightly colored flowers and trees to shade them from the sun, to sit in and relax. We only see the sun at midday, the only time it's high enough in the sky to penetrate into the chasms of the Warrens.
Every once in a while someone tries to drink the molten lead in the refineries, hoping to calm the tremor in their hands. They get a wild look in their eyes before dashing towards one of the vats, howling for an escape. But it isn't mead. The liquid metal burns through them, burning them from the inside. Watching a worker choke on molten lead is enough of a deterrent to the other weak ones with shaking hands, at least for a while. Us smarter folk don't even consider it. It's only the loonies who try it. Or the desperate.
As the spigot finishes pouring the liquid into my mug, the suicide's face blossoms in my mind again. She drank the molten lead earlier today, right? Was that why I kept thinking about her? She smiled at me with cracked teeth before pouring the bubbling lead into her mouth. She took her time, wanted to be sure I saw. It was her last drink before escaping from the drudgery of smoke and poison. A final act against the Overlords and their Sentinel pets.
I knew her. She meant something to me. She said something before she drank, too. Why couldn't I remember what she said?
My mug's empty again. I forgot to focus. I forgot to pace myself. Damn her! Why did she matter so much? What had she said?
The empty mug shakes in my hand again. How are the tremors back so soon? The notches in my mug dig into my palms as I press them into the metal. I breathe slowly. I count.
One, two, three...
The notches quiet my thoughts down. The trembling fades. I control my breathing and I continue to count the jagged notches.
Third mug will come soon.
There is an empty mug on the table next to me, where my neighbor usually sits. It doesn't have any notches on it, only some letters scratched into the metal surface.
I watch the black metal spigot in front of me and push away the fading memory of some woman's face. I won't let her distract me a third time.
I pick away the last of the mead grit from my gums with my jagged fingernail.
Who am I supposed to not let distract me?
It's almost third mug and I can't keep that grinning woman from my mind. The cruel cackling as she looped a rope around her neck and threw herself from the catwalk. Or had she drank the lead? No, she hung herself. Right?
Her swinging corpse hangs from the edge of my black spigot. I press my eyes closed with my hands, willing her ghost to stop haunting me. She'd lost control of her bowels when she died.
The smell. It was like burning flesh.
She came back to me a few minutes ago. The memory was slippery at first, but I can't get rid of her now. She's ruined two mugs for me tonight, I remember that now, too. She isn't going to ruin a third.
Her body spun slowly beneath the catwalk, thick tongue lolling from her mouth as she said something to me. The fall didn't snap her neck, but she didn't take long to die. She didn't stop looking at me until her eyes glazed over. Saliva fills my mouth and I feel acid churning in my stomach. The world feels light around me and I can't stop what's trying to get out of me. I barely get beneath the table in time.
The gray liquid from second mug shimmers on the floor beneath me. Its metallic taste of the mead coats the inside of my mouth and an acrid smell burns my nostrils. The vomit feels cool on my feet as it dribbles into a floor drain.
"Don't drink your mugs..."
Her words hit me and bile rises in my throat again. How dare she? Who does she think she is, trying to take away my only pleasure? She's made me forget to pace my first two mugs of the night and the second one is leaking down the drain. My whole body is shivering, too. She couldn't take her life anymore and spouted nonsense at me so I could-- what?
I haul myself back up above the cool metal of the table and there's a full mug sitting under the spigot. I didn't even hear the clanking of the pipes or the spraying of the gray liquid into the metal. I've done it. The liquid shimmers as I stare at it and I raise the mug up to smell it.
It smells like machine oil and rotten garbage.
It'll taste fine.
I hold off on drinking because I'm determined to pace myself, not because of what some swinging suicide choked out to me earlier today. I want to savor the mead for the next hour because it's what I want. To make it last. Saliva fills my mouth, despite the stink and my convictions. Have I been able to hold off before? Is this my first time? Memories of other nights and other mugs swim past me until they finally sharpen.
Yes, it is. I've never done this before.
Something in the dark recesses of my mind whispers into my ear.
Because of her.
The hell with that! This is my decision! I force my hands down through sheer force of will and I keep the trembling mug on the table. I'm doing this for myself, because I can. No other reason, not because some crazy who couldn't hack it told me to.
There's an empty mug beside me, abandoned by my missing neighbor. I snatch it and run my hands over it. There are no notches around the outside. "A+G" is scratched into the side. I pour half of my drink into my neighbor's mug and set it aside.
It's done. Even if I drink the mead in my hand, I have another half mug for later. Wherever my neighbor's gone, I send them thanks. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them.
The Sentinel's voice is sharpened metal sliding into my kidneys. I hadn't heard it move up behind me. I can't fight it. Can't fight them. I raise the mug to my lips and drink, even though that voice inside me is screaming she was right all along, right to tell me not to drink. Shut up. I don't want to die. I drain the last of the mead and set it down before me. The Sentinel looks over my shoulder into the mug. It whirs and clicks, processing my actions. I can't breathe.
It finally moves away. I don't dare turn to look until the sound of its metal talons clicking on the cement has faded. My vision blurs when I do, like it always does when I look at them. They are vague shadows made of wings and claws and violence. It's just a hazy monstrosity moving down the aisle between other workers.
It's empty, but the other is not. Half a mug of mead remains, but I'm not going to drink it. Something's wrong with the taste and something, or someone, is whispering to me.
They're telling me not to drink it. It sounds like a woman.
Something about all this is wrong.
I grab the other mug and pour it out beneath the table.
There, I've done it, suicide. Happy?
I run my thumb over the A and G on my neighbor's mug. Where did the Sentinels take her?
The sullen shuffling and throat clearing that filled the hall subsides as fourth mug approaches. Everyone's eyes are on their spigot. Hands tremble as they hold their mugs under the metal nozzles. In this moment, more than in any other, we are the same. It's not when we're choking on fumes in the Warrens beneath the gleaming spires the Overlords live in. It isn't when we're shuffling in line to pick up our masks before work or when we're packed shoulder to shoulder on hard dirt to sleep.
It's now. Heartbeats away from that blessed, slate colored mead they dole out to us.
Or it used to be.
I feel the letters etched into the metal of my neighbor's mug. I scratched my calendar. She scratched initials. I've rubbed them so much, my fingertip is raw. It catches on the jagged corner of the A and my skin is peeled away. It doesn't hurt like it should. Drops of my blood cover the surface of the table, thick and dark.
Her face came back to me quickly after third mug. So did her words and the memories from earlier in the night. She was right. I'm not going to drink fourth mug. I remember now.
The Sentinels stand at the edges of the room. I keep them in the corner of my eye. Their demoniac wings flutter and the pale overhead lights glint off their metal talons. All of us have seen what those talons can do.
It's how they killed her.
But I'm in the middle of the hall. I'm far enough away they might not see me right away.
The pipes clank and shudder and I hold her face, what she told me, in my mind. The gray liquid fills the mug and I hunch forward, getting ready. The Sentinels haven't moved. I can feel them in the same place. My heart is pounding out of my chest, roaring in my ears. The spigot shuts off with a clang and before that traitorous need inside of me forces me to drink it, I grab the mug and pour it out under the table.
At first, nothing. Not even my neighbors notice me. The pale man in front of me, my friend Oslo, gulps down the mead with ecstasy plastered over a face with dull eyes. The Sentinels haven't noticed, either. Cold liquid runs past my bare feet, trickling into the floor drain. The drains are there to collect blood, but for the third time tonight I watch silver mead dribble into the grate.
Silver? I thought the drink was gray before.
I keep my head down. I don't call attention to myself. The blurry Sentinels hold their posts. My hands won't stop trembling.
"Don't drink your mugs... so I can see you soon."
Her final words.
She explained to me how the mead worked. How she disabled her mask so she wasn't getting drugged anymore. The admixture they feed us, the same one that's in the mead. She could remember and she kept begging me to do the same. To remember her sitting next to me every night during leisure time, holding hands beneath the table, our legs touching.
And I finally was.
She fought the Sentinels when they came for her. Tried to fight them. Who are we to stand against such horror? They ripped her apart.
I had loved her. I did love her.
The palsy in my hands is uncontrollable, from both the anger and the withdrawal. She couldn't take it anymore, so she fought and tried to get me to fight, too. My bones rattle inside me as I stand, straining the chains that keep us in place during our leisure time. Withdrawal isn't going to take me. I couldn't fight then, but I can now.
I'll see her soon.
The Sentinel is beside me and I didn't even see it move. It pieces together what happened, clockwork brain whirring and clicking. There is a crackle of a distant voice in its ear as it gazes under my table. Its talons stretch forward and pluck her mug from my convulsing hands. It places the metal under my spigot and unscheduled mead pours out of it.
Its voice is like broken glass dragged across my scalp. It's holding the mug up to my face, the 'A+G' right under my nose. It wasn't machine oil and body odor I smelled before. It was death. A death stretched out over the rest of my life as a slave.
My voice is harsh and cracks. I had only used it to whisper my love to Adriana before.
"I love you too, Gryth."
The blurry form before me steps forward and fills my vision. I'm not sure if it's the mass of the monster or the withdrawal, but the light around me dims. My knees knock together but I refuse to sit in front of this thing. A single talon presses down on my shoulder. Pinpricks of fire erupt where the metal pierces my flesh. The Sentinel smells like the mead. It does not ask again. The mug is pushed closer to my face.
With the last control I have over my muscles, I knock the mug away. For the last time that night, silver liquid runs into the floor drains of Tavern 381F.
The violent blur before me flickers and my own blood runs into the drain, too.
I will see you soon, Adriana.