Tom Critchlow
experiments in hypertext thinking
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Red Rust

Gormen is my horizon and my home. This towering city of red rust stuck on the side of a dead asteroid. This crumbling outpost a legacy of a crumbling empire.

I am seven when the Computer chooses me as the next Controller of Gormen. Aghast, I rebel in the only way a seven year old can. I run away. Through the corridors and hangers of this decaying city of red rust, I flee. Pursued by a great horror that I can’t name but I can feel - I flee through the great hall where the daily meal is being conducted - hundreds of people dancing in a mad orchestra of routine and tasks to feed the workers - I flee still.

Through the lower levels the people of Gormen are covered in red dust, the red rust of this place literally killing them from the outside in.

You never truly escape the red dust but as you climb through the the levels of Gormen somehow the air becomes thinner, purer, less dust.

I run.

I flee through the sleeping chambers, where the bodies of dormant workers appear like hulking beasts. To me, they appeared non-human, grotesque perhaps. Vile. Noises and smells that my seven year old body, as yet, doesn’t understand. I flee past the air vents - constructions so big that I have to crane my neck to comprehend them. Their thundering noise is somehow calming to me - reassuring that this city is still breathing, still alive, still doing what it should. The mechanics of this community are alien to me - workers and machines and servants and the high court and the mess halls and the engineers and the scientists and cooks and… I don’t understand. I can’t understand - just like Gormen the meaning of this place is layered up - layers of people, metal, rust and routine.

I run.

As I ascend Gormen to the higher levels, the noise retreats and is replaced with the glow of lighting that is too bright. Too false. The people are no longer covered in red rust but their eyes reflect the false light. They are empty and lifeless - motions devoid of the quickness and primal qualities of the workers of the lower levels. And yet here there is less rust. Less dust in everyone’s hair, in everyone’s clothes.

The library. A place I’ve been many times for education but never on my own. I see the librarian coming towards me and truly see with my eyes the monstrosity of a creature half man, half machine. Oil sheens on his metal surfaces while his human eyes burn with a look of knowledge that appears demonic. A creature who has traded form for knowledge - to give up his humanity to become all-knowing. All knowing and ponderous. I can easily outpace him and this, finally, gives me my first taste of freedom. These upper levels are steeped so thickly in tradition and etiquette that it is as if the whirling system of people and things move only in regimented movements, a limited finite way of being - destined to repeat infinitely again and again their movements and conversations.

Still I run.

I lose my way more times than I can count - dead end passages, locked doors, great halls that are colder than death itself. I stumble into a room filled with dancing lights, flickering and beautiful but when I see the faces of the trapped people - wired from every part of their body and a state of rapture on their faces, drooling and muttering and smiling and laughing an empty sickly laugh, I turn and flee. Those faces haunt me as I stumble on - still running and still scared but now I have been running for so long that I am feeling free - the solid pounding of my feet on the metal floors of Gormen reassuring me that this is physical and real.

What characters will there be in this story? The spiders of Gormen - the computers’ eyes and ears forever creeping on, and over everything. The rust, of course. Spick who will become my best friend from the miners - his infectious laugh and real human energy in his eyes but lacking the understanding of education. Mervyn - my assistant and mentor forever faithful but forever lacking, bound to the rituals and mechanics of the system. And Braun - the first voice in the senate and the puppet master of the upper levels. But there is plenty of time for that.

Still I run.

Down a long, narrow corridor I emerge into the observation deck. A hundred windows blazing with the radiance of the carpet of stars in the night sky. It will take me years to find this place again, and the next time I see it somehow it won’t be as beautiful as this time. Seven years old and heir to the whole of Gormen, I am able to put aside the looming dread and gaze out across the surface of the moon. Is the towering construction of metal and people Gormen or is the moon Gormen? Where does one truly end and one truly begin? I can look out over the valleys and mountains of the moon - everywhere tinged the same red color - and look up at the stars. Like pinpricks in the curtain of night, they hang motionless and yet twinkling. I am tired and lie down to rest. Rest perched on the very edge of Gormen - as far from the belly of the beast as I can manage. Many miles overhead the machines we call crows wheel and toss in some imaginary wind buffeted by space and tracing some pattern known only to the Computer. I feel for the crows out there in space with no air and no heat. How can those machines not lose their minds? Already my brain is confusing humans and machines - already my perception of things is losing it’s grip.

I will look back many years later, once I have become the Controller truly and know every chamber, every air vent and every crack in this majestic ruined place - once I understand how the rituals work and how the machine functions - the system made of humans and metal, of brains and computers. I will look back and wonder what did I know of Gormen as a seven year old? Gazing out from that observation deck - what did I know of the true nature of Gormen? This spiraling city of red rust. Perhaps, I will think, I knew it better at that age than I ever did again.

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@tomcritchlow