Walled Off (Nine Of Cups)
rating: +19+x

by LAN 2D

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The Nine of Cups

Portrait by syuzhetsyuzhet



True pain arises from desire unmet.

Desire is born from a wanting ego.

Thus, to avoid pain is to avoid oneself.



👁


It's another day. The wind rattles the pipe and I push hard against the walls to stay in place. My arms and legs are flipped out, rigid, my bones locked. Another gust; I hold on, like a tick clinging to skin. Sometimes I feel like the only thing holding this place together.

I’m far from home, but the machine knows I’m still safe inside. It says so: cold vibrations sent through the air, from its iron lungs, through its metal veins. I shiver and it shakes in return. A larger one this time—I slide a few inches downwards, my fingers raw. I hate the cold.

No complaining, I’m not meant to be here.

The wind dies down for a moment. Could be one of its tricks. I decide to wait ten seconds, then I’ll go. The air smells like rust and there’s a tension in the pipe, like the world is holding its breath. Maybe it is. At this angle, I can see through the slits in the sheet metal. Light coming through, a faint breeze. Lines of white against my pale skin.

It’s been long enough, I think, so I breathe in, relaxing my muscles. I slide down, half a meter or so. Ever closer.

There’s a calm here. Against the vibrant grey and screaming wind, this place is simple. Forgotten. I could be here, I could make this my new home. I could live in the scrap metal arteries of this clicking thing. A living thing. Me. I could forget myself, I think.

It comes again. The air rushes by, each wave rocking my spindle legs; I’m just a blockage in a drain. The wind is thin and biting, dry like dead fruit. My muscles are exhausted—but I cling on. I am mind over matter. I could forget, as a choice; if I were to forget, I would be here, in this moment. No home to need, no one to call brother.

I breathe out. The machine breathes with me.

Grey to static. The wind’s needles pierce my limbs, and I become a quivering thing. Hardened skin. Cracked lips, hands on my body. A senseless current, writhing this way and that. Hard to breathe.
Harder to hold on. My fingers are slipping. No fingerprints left for grip, my palms as smooth as glass.
Hard to think. One moment here,
the next I’m

Spinning
Tumbling
elbow shattering,
Faster and faster, faster. a taste of iron,

And faster and faster
cruel disintegrating wind. changing… flakes of me. falling. And

—I snag a ledge. My finger cracks and pain flares but I’m desperate—I won’t fall. The wind screams hatred and I’m flung back and forth, legs colliding against the pipe with a violent echo. My body is a doll to it, limbs turning all the wrong ways. I can’t concentrate on the pain, I only see images. Blood-caked cuticles. My fingerprints unravelling into the air. The wind is freezing but I am burning hot, boiling! I will catch flame, I will scream until my throat collapses, my pale form, dangling off the edge of everything. But it’s only a feeling. Thus, one finger becomes two. Then three. We’re stronger together. Four. A hand. I undulate my body onto the platform and kick my legs away from the wind’s grip. Not yet dragged back into the abyss. I pull and the machine howls, creaking in a wicked rhythm. The metal shifts in tectonic movements, heaving cymbals crash against the pipes, the winds change direction, over and over, I can’t escape, I’m doomed, over and over and—

I pull myself up. I collapse. Here. I’m here.

Inside the box, the warm floor thrums and pulses, waves of heat washing over me, cleansing the pain away. I shuffle my battered body to the corner and lay my head against the wall. My sweet box. It feels like home. Gentle voices repeat through the metal, softly, so far away. But still, right next to me. It's warm. The wind screams through the pipe. COME BACK, it demands. It rattles and SHOUTS and touches my right arm, leg, but it can’t grab on. I let the hum fill my body and suddenly my blood is on fire but the pain is good, wonderful even, so I fit my body into that corner and listen to those voices, they drown out the wind and I open myself to them. Hot and cold. Hot and cold. Outside, left of the wall. I can close my eyes and pretend I'm one metre away. Through this metal barrier. A person doesn't have to be here! I can go, no one would notice. Please. You don't need me here. Just take someone else.

I hold my eyes shut, pressing my palms into my sockets until I can see the image of that life. Tessellations behind my eyelids become real shapes. It's so warm, the fire dances, embers linger in the air. There are others. Blurs of people I can’t make out. I press harder. I see a hearth with a mother. Muffled voices, the ambience of a family talking between themselves, people swaying side to side around a kitchen table. In there, the pipe is just another vent, breathing in the cinnamon air, generations of love in hand-knitted jumpers, the radio fading in and out, an old familiar tune. The curtains are drawn, I’m safe inside. The wind can’t touch me here.

But my eyes are sore. And my mind is ruined from the descent. Look, I would love to stay. No, I have to leave now. I want to, I just—I’m, sorry. I…I'm sorry, I wish I could stay. If only we had more time together. I wish I could stay…

*

I’ve been in the walls my whole life.

It’s a barren landscape. They’re thin, like paper. Their form flexes and rattles around me, folding into themselves, more flesh than bone. There’s not much to do here, besides biting fingernails till they’re raw. Watching the metal mould from corrugated iron into stainless steel. Cramming my limbs into vents and waiting until the voices pass. I don’t mind. I’m stuck, you see. It’s not my fault. I’m stuck, not for lack of trying. I make do. The metal is unforgiving, the routine bends my body back and forth. I’ve learnt to stop expecting things. That way, when something happens, it’s not so bad.

I’m not alone here, don’t worry. I have company. There are others. I don’t think they like me—they might not even know I’m here. But I know them. I hear their hisses from far above. Their voices carried by the machine, echoing, echoing… and when the eels turn up, the machine goes cold. It lets them slither past me, down, down, down, down. Further down than I can fit. My legs don’t slide so well, I can only contort so much. I get stuck. Somehow, they always end up back at top. And I’m still here.

I couldn't wish for a better life. Cheers! I say, cheers! Nothing to lose, I say. No burdens, no weight on my back! No clothes to carry around. It's just me and the eels. I wish they'd stay, but they're busy. The machine gives and takes.

What would you say to a machine? What do people say to machines? I don’t even know what people would say to me.

Hello? I would say. Hello? How come you’re here again? What’s your name? Do you have any interesting hobbies? What’s your favourite sound? What do you do in your spare time? What do you like to do for fun? What are you thinking about right now?

And because it is a machine, it would try to be a person. It would have a voice and a name. It would have a good-enough face. And when it speaks to me, I imagine it will be in a small room on a chair, sitting upright. We would talk across a table and I would ask the most questions. I would ask for advice, and the machine would respond kindly but without interest. What are your hobbies? I wouldn’t know what to say. How are you feeling? Good, I think. What are you thinking about right now? I’m not sure…

I’m thinking about the outside. Outside this broken place. I’ve explored forests of petrified wood. Everywhere… walls and ceilings dripping with thick oil. It numbs the pain to carry on. If I stayed here I would be giving up. I’ve walked through hills and fields, red buildings of flesh. I always wake up somewhere else. In the long silence it whispers things with garbled words. It says things to me in my own voice… things I’ve never said…

I can’t be sure.

If it didn’t exist I wouldn’t either, I don’t think. We’re here together. If the machine stopped I would fade away, turn to sand, finally digested, finally free.

*

Crawl space. On my elbows again.

My spine scrapes against the top. It feels like sandpaper: a rough texture with its million scratching claws embedding into my skin. I lean forward and brace my shoulders against the roof. Not much room to move, but I can lift my legs just enough to shuffle forward. I don't remember where I came from.

The eels have come through here, that's for certain. The bottom of this space is wet and slimy, freshly cold. I can see their tracks in the liquid. Fat creatures, they are. Squirming things. They're pack animals, but they're also nomads. I've tried to find their nest. The machine flushes them out through these kinds of holes, so I thought I'd follow them. I thought I could escape. Now there’s no one to blame but myself.

I move my arm up, bend the elbow, move the other up. Elbow again, then arch my back, head against the roof. Tuck the legs, knees into my chest, extend the arms, relax the spine, reach out—all over again. I stick to my rhythm. That's all life is.

A crevice appears in front of me. I shift my weight and heave myself out of the tunnel. The surface of this new space is glass. My face in the wall, smeared between the scuff marks. There's nothing to see. I move on. The room grows larger as I walk through it. The heat builds, too. Soon I'm sweating into pools on the floor. The heat is feverish, oil in the air I’m breathing. The wall shines a dull grey, finished with bone and bruised atoms. Then, it opens into a much larger room. To my sides, the room stretches far into the distance, but in front, there’s a slab of metal reaching into the sky. Remnants of shattered bone are spread across the floor. They're in the walls as well—not by design; this is not the machine's doing. Its machinations are unknown, its punishments all left or all right, too far or too near, too much or too little. Not like this.

The wall is a mixture of undulating flesh and metal, and the bones are either pierced inside or lodged into the gaps between. Millions of pieces extend from its weird architecture. Some sharp, clearly broken, some larger: a curved spine outstretched, a pelvis shoved in halfway. I can't see the top. The darkness fogs my vision.

It could be some trick. I could be dreaming. I don't know what's at the top. It could be anything! I can't escape, I can't escape. It's not something I could do. It's not me. You can't run away from your life, you're a coward, it's not something you could do. Forget that old tune.

I watch my body. My hands place the bones into piles. My legs move towards the wall. You know better than to try. I watch them pull the bones out, and slowly, place them onto the floor. Gently, now. You can't leave this place. I know it's better this way, but I shiver in the heat. There's a mountain of bones and the wall is clean. Well done, I say. At least you can do that. Well done, I say.

I say a lot of things, because I’m a liar. Half of this hasn't happened. I’m in a dream! You’re dreaming! Just close your eyes and think grime-filled thoughts, because they're the only things you have. Feel the weight of your bones, because at least you can't lose them. You’re disgusting, but that’s okay. Yes, I’m with my kind here. All eels can do is slither and cower. There’s nothing for me here, because you’re nothing. You’re a parasite, feasting on the hard work of others. You can’t exist without blaming someone else. The machine isn’t real—it’s you. Don’t you know that by now? I hate you. If you understood that you wouldn’t be here. Leave. Didn’t I tell you that? Didn’t I make myself clea—

Yes, you did.

Close to the wall, I can hear the eels screeching far above me.

If you’re right, if I am a creature, a parasite, if I am nothing but pus and dirt, I shouldn’t wallow as a person. If I am an eel, then I should join my kind.

*

There’s a voice that says I’ll never leave. That this place is all there is. It’s my voice, I think. Not one created by the machine.

It gives me scraps to eat, otherwise, I would starve. I once received a shell I was sure was filled with delicious meat, but the only rooms I could find were soft. No pipes, no gears. I had to use my teeth. It's a cruel puzzle when you’re as desperate as me—but at least it’s something to do. I’ve gotten very good at being hungry.

It gives me things that I can’t use. Little bits of mechanisms, sometimes bones whittled into small shapes. Maybe I’m missing something.

I think it knows what I’m thinking. I went a whole week without thinking once, to see if things would change. I sat in a little pool of water and waited until my mind had nothing left to give. Then, for the first time, the machine put me to sleep.

I was in a rare expanse at the top of a small mound. I could see far into the distance, but nothing was illuminated; it was as if I could sense the shape of the open space like a bat in a cave. The only detail in the dark was the complex of pipes and pistons in the roof, interweaved like geometric stalactites. They flashed with computer lights. Small white ones trading places with red and orange.

I remember walking. My feet were caked in some kind of rough brown substance; I walked as if floating. I walked until the sequences of computer sounds filled my empty brain up with nonsense, and until that nonsense became nothing too. As I carried on, the cavern walls curved inwards, becoming a slight slope of brown sand, spilling slowly down. I walked past artefacts of large mechanisms, buried but intact. As if a great design had only its horns exhumed. Or as if the cave was coming apart, pieces of itself lodged into the floor after a long fall from the top.

I didn't stop to inspect them. The dream sent me onwards into the dark.

It closed me into a smaller hallway, carved out of the body of the cave. Extrusions of metal pipes passed through, vibrating with heat. They went from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, packed together like straw. I had to weave between them to continue. Now, the mudded surface had become flat metal sheets; the whole space was bound together by bolts and screws. The air was thick. My lungs felt coated with bitter fumes.

Then, finally, the hallway emerged into a tall room with a wide area, reducing in width as I looked upwards. The cylindrical ceiling ended in a single point: a hole two feet wide. The metal surrounding it was stained a faint green in patterns of splash marks and mould. After a minute or two, the room shook with a mechanical groan. It wheezed and spluttered, pipes spraying steam and shaking in anticipation of something. Then they stopped, and from the hole a torrent of black and white bodies began to fall. It was a continuous stream, coming down like rain. They splattered onto the floor, spread out across the room, and slowly began to wriggle themselves into an entrance in the centre I hadn’t noticed before. I waited, curious. For some reason, I was frozen in place. When the stream had finished, all that was left was the crowd on the floor. White bellies overturned to dark green scales. They shimmered and slithered, concentric lines pulling themselves into the entrance. It was a hypnotic dance, but the closest thing to nature I had seen. All had one destination and all found that destination. They fell into the entrance hole, sliding down, silently, into the dark underneath. It was a quiet ritual, and soon it was over, and I could move again.

I blink my eyes and my mind is suddenly clear. A dream? A trick? I don't know if that happened then or now, but it hasn't happened before and I'm breathing and I'm here. It's happening, I'm sure. I pull back the thoughts and feelings I had left behind. Feelings of fear and hate. Loathing like bugs crawling over me. I let them pass.

There is one left, still twitching on the floor. It lies in a puddle of its own juices. Just a step away from its exit. Away from the exit.

Its eyes are fogged over, but I know it can smell me. I behold its paralysed body. Up close, its scales interlock like crystals, a multicolour being of light, on one side. The other is silvery grey, with shades of deep green. It's shaking as I pick it up. My friend. The first time we've really met. I'm sorry. I place a finger on its cold body. Mucous-covered and slippery, but it can barely writhe away anymore. I’m sorry. I caress its scales against my arms, my chest. I shiver in guilt, but I don’t stop. Cold pleasure slides across my back, my legs. All the hair on my body smoothed over with its oils. I feel newborn. The only part of myself left untouched is the soles of my feet which take me towards the hole. The exit.

I’m expecting the room to shake again. Something has to change. Come on, change! The walls should be collapsing, the wind should be raging. It’s hilarious! Machine, come for me. I dare you. Machine, try to stop me! I’m here! Machine! I’m here. I’m going to make it out! Can’t you hear me? I’m not supposed to be here! You should be disgusted, I’m pathetic. Look at me!

But I’m left in the silence.

Standing before the exit, I sit down. I place my left foot in the hole. Then the other. I slide my new self towards it, bracing my arms on either side of the entrance. I can feel a warmth coming from inside. A faint pulsing warmth.

I let go and the hole takes me, a curving tunnel. I slip through like one of them. I can’t see or hear but I know I’m moving because I can feel the air stream by.

There's a rush. The force changes ways as I turn.

I'm falling, sliding. Then I slow down. Stop.

I'm in a closed space. A corridor. The floor is soft. I wince—there's something in front of me. I walk towards it and push—

it swings open,



I fall.


And hit the ground.

Bright. I blink. All at once. Lights coming from different directions. A window reflecting rays of sun into my eyes—lights in action, beaming from up and against, left, diagonal. I can't see clearly. The floor is wooded and golden, with brown knots in manufactured rows. It shines in the sickly yellow light. Hard surfaces and right-angles in front of me. A large object to my right—a table, standing on pale corinthian legs. The room smells of cooked meat. I'm blasted by the tune, the thousand sounds at a time… a song I've heard before.

Take me back to the good old days…

I love those old fashioned ways…

There are figures. Moving about, chattering things I can't understand. Far taller than me. They're pale behemoths. I can't make them out. Unclear, unreal. They hand things to each other. One stokes a fire and the room erupts into a burning heat. I can't be here. Scents of charcoal and braised beef smother my nostrils. Warm milk, those things swaying, back and forth. Tall loving things with hollow eyes and mouths. They smile at each other.

You should be proud of yourself!

What?

You're here. You made it, well done! I'm so proud of you. Apple slices and carpeted walls. We're so proud of you. Stop, please, I— Come here, you’re so brave. A hug, almost suffocating. You’ll be okay. Don’t worry. You’re safe here.

They turn to me. I can’t move. They surround me in their embrace—long arms wrap around me tight. Its boiling and my skin is feeling things I can’t—I can’t breathe—my heart is racing and they whisper things in my ear—I love you—you’re so special to me—I’ll never forget you—that’s because I love you—you’re my favourite—has anyone told you how wonderful you are?

I scream and shudder, my bones shatter and I throw myself against their cage—raw throat, nails and teeth scratching—Let me out—
—they frown—I break from their embrace—

Towards the entrance. Past the towers of meat and bone. They aren’t following me, they could grab me—come back—let him be—it’s okay—he’ll calm down soon. Past the fur-covered surfaces, past—let him go—sweet aromas of rot and invisible knives piercing my lungs and—I reach the door.

It won’t open. Why won’t it open? I was just there. If I move it this way, no—how did I come in? I remember coming in this way. I can’t move it. Where do I go? Let me in, please. I asked nicely. Let me in! I’m sorry if you’re angry, I didn’t mean it. I would never do that. It was an accident. It was him, it wasn’t me. I’m sorry. Machine, let me in.

Please. I miss the quiet nights, I miss the meals you would make for me, I miss your touch on my skin, I miss your rooms, your maze, I miss the way you spoke to me. Please, machine, take me back. I'm pounding on the door. I can hear the echoes! I'm not dreaming! I’m sorry for everything. Please! I'm sorry! I won't leave. Ever. Please. I know you can hear me! Let me in. They’re coming, now. They think something’s wrong with me. Take me back! Take me ba-

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