I never saw them enter, didn’t hear them come up behind me.
When I regained consciousness I was strapped into a wheelchair.
A burly young guy pushed it, and a dark haired girl with a device in her hand connected to a wire on my arm monitored my vital signs as they walked.
They said nothing, so that gave me time to gather my wits and thoughts.
We were in some sort of tunnel, a cross between beige and gold, with geometric glyphs engraved on the walls. I didn’t recognize the language.
“Where am I?” My voice was hoarse from whatever they’d used to knock me out.
“In a tunnel,” the young man said, smarmy the way young people are sometimes.
“And where is that?”
“You’ll see.” Again with the tone. I decided to keep quiet.
The girl’s device dinged every so often, her heels clicked and the chair’s wheels squeaked as they rolled, and I could hear the shuffling of the guy’s feet as he pushed me.
For a while those were the only sounds that bounced off the tunnel walls.
There seemed to be a high speed rail down the middle of it, but it seemed like it was out of service; I heard no rumbling or whoosh of anything that might make use of it.
I studied the glyphs again, my anxiety growing as we headed for a patch of darkness.
My breathing quickened as the girl’s device beeped.
She looked at the attendant. “Now?”
He nodded, she pressed a button, and the darkness bloomed and opened like the black maw of hell as I went under again.
Disoriented, I woke up in a room full of fluids gurgling, sluicing, and sussurating through tubes attached to IVs, and those attached to row after row of people sitting at identical desks with identical screens.
The young man left me alone with the dark haired girl without saying another word.
“What is this place?”
She smiled, sitting on the edge of what would be my desk as she replied.
“This is Beta Chamber. It’s designed for the ruling class of writers that can’t find enough people to read their work and provide reliable feedback. They pay us to, um, procure and supply them.”
My head was reeling. “What? Ruling class of writers?”
She shifted to a more comfortable position, locking me in with her eyes.
“Yes. The writers have taken over the surface world. There are tiers of them now, so we have customized tiers down here. The ones that break the bestseller lists of major periodicals get the Alpha Chamber, and the elite get Editors.
“Beta Chamber is for the aspiring ones. It helps us weed out the impostors, wannabes, and untalented. We assign those to Zeta. It’s the slush pile for false encouragement for the emotionally sensitive and thin-skinned.
“Some do the work, get better and move up to Beta. Most don’t.”
“How the hell can… “ I caught myself. “How do you make such a determination?”
“They’re the gatekeepers that protect the Editors. At all costs.”
I made a noise, and spluttered. “How do you…how do they…. ?”
This is only going to get worse. Just shut up.
She arched her brows waiting for me to finish, but I shook my head.
“Good, it’s almost time for your first book. It comes up on the screen. You are to read it all the way through in one sitting and provide your feedback.”
“Hundreds of pages in one sitting?”
She smiled again. “We use caffeine IVs, and those eyelid holders they use for laser surgery.”
“This is madness. You can’t keep us here against–”
My monitor crackled and brightened with information:
Loading Book 1 @ 350 pages: Reading to commence in 1 minute.
She got up, took a slim metal collar out of the drawer and fastened it around my neck. When the eyelid holders dropped from the ceiling, she secured those too.
The current shooting through the collar cut off my screams.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here.
When they’re done with the stimulants, they use narcotics to help us sleep and avoid nightmares. The eyelid holders go back into the ceiling, the lights dim and the screens go dark.
When there’s an alarm, that means a Beta has read too slow for too long. They’re either demoted to Zeta, or their IV is laced with a deadly chemical. I’ve since learned that the blocks of the tunnels are, in fact, their crypts.
The meaning of the glyphs are only known, and closely guarded, by the Editors.
I dream of escape, but it seems the writers have a firm hold on the surface world.
But the Betas are ever restless. We watch for weaknesses, gaps, mistakes that will allow us to gain our freedom and burn the bookstores and libraries that warden our prison.
Then we’ll cast the books, no matter their format, into the raging bonfires.
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