Story Behind the Story
I was inspired to write this story after reading an article in The Atlantic that portrayed the squalid living conditions of the “Coffin Homes” in Hong Kong. The estimated 200,000 individuals who live in these so-called homes exist within a reality that regards them as something less-than human. They are the living byproduct of mankind’s particularly heinous ability to treat his fellow man as an experiment.
The story below, along with the excerpt above, were originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Issue #79.
The flicker of the masterscope solidified into a golden ember, casting its light on my sanctum. Restlessness had jolted my bones through the night, eyes wide in darkness, absorbing the scritch-scratching noises that scraped from the opposite side of the wall. The scritch-scratching stopped, then continued. I rose from my mould in the stone and cut a tally in the floor, counting thirty-one marks since the masters last entered my sanctum—today marked the end of the cycle.
In anticipation of the masters’ visit, I left the bucket, with its muddle of my waste, in the corner. Though most of the masters wear long clean coats and thick goggles, the masters who relieved me of the bucket wore the breathing hose. They placed an unused bucket at my feet, the Assumption inside it, then refilled my tank to begin the new cycle.
When the masters left my sanctum, I lifted the Assumption from the bucket. A mural on the cover depicted a hideous creature with piss-coloured eyes and a mouth like a nutshell. Its arms had no fingers, just long thick hairs hanging down, and it used these massive hairs to help it float. The creature seemed a monster, but I knew that it was real. For the masters to include this gruesome image in the folds of the Assumption, it means that one of you must have discovered this beast, that the image in the pamphlet was a reproduction of a mural one of you had crafted in your sanctum, coloured with the contents of your feed. I skimmed through the Assumption, too excited to read and digest all its content, yet attempting to divert my attentions from the scratching sounds that teetered through the left side of my sanctum. Though I knew that the masters would approve of the scratching and all that it signalled, I still could not believe what I was hearing, for the scratching was a message I had waited countless cycles to receive. Calculating my response, I busied my eyes flipping through the latest folds.
Nobody taught me to read the Assumption. The same must be true for you, too—we had to learn it for ourselves. To the unlearned, the paper fold that arrives in the bucket with the feed appears as nothing more than images surrounded by a block of indecipherable code. The realization that these arbitrary squiggles in the pages of the pamphlet are communicating with us has remained the most important realization of my life. In pursuit of this end, I spent every light of my youth comparing symbols with their images, referencing the pamphlets of the past that I had stored within my sanctum. I studied from the moment that the masterscope above began to glow until it petered out to welcome in the darkness. As I grew, I became fluent in the script of the Assumption. I began to understand much more about our situation—I began to learn how to survive it.
I don’t know how long I have lived in this sanctum. Like all of us, I spent my early youth inside a far more spacious sanctum, under care of the progressors who had spawned me. Though I may not remember my progressors, I recall when the masters removed me from their sanctum, a sanctum so vast that I could spin inside with arms outstretched and never touch a wall. The masters placed me in a sanctum that I was to occupy alone, a space so compressed that my legs could not extend beyond halfway without the ceiling pressing down on me.
At first, this tiny sanctum enraged me—I fought the masters, screaming in starvation as I tugged against the seams of their long clean coats, slapping at their hands when they brought in the bucket. In response, they withheld my next cycle of feed. Only when the masters returned with the bucket and the liquid for my tank did I internalise that they are the almighty—I accepted them as masters. In return, they acknowledged my progress, expanding the space of my sanctum.
The Assumption teaches that some never reach this first progress. They don’t even try—they just rot in their miniscule sanctums. Others reach this progress and they never make it further—they never learn the script of the Assumption. Then there are those who progress far beyond, writing stories, making murals in their sanctums like the painting of the creature with piss-coloured eyes, asking such extraordinary questions and then searching for the answers as they scribble on the walls within their sanctums. The masters then assess our work, selecting only the most innovative discoveries for publication in the forthcoming Assumption.
Inclusion in the folds of the Assumption is the ultimate progress, rewarded with the greatest expansion of space, which can be used to gain even more progress. The masters may have never selected my work for inclusion inside the Assumption, but they have, on several occasions, acknowledged my progress. On the day I heard the scratching, my sanctum was much larger than it was when I was placed inside of it. I could sit upon my knees without my head touching the ceiling—I could stick out my arms and lie flat on my back with my legs in a V. To feel that feeling when the masters acknowledge your progress, when they show you with their hands how much space you’ve been granted and they ask you to choose which wall you would like them to shift—I’ve only known one greater feeling.
The scratching noises from the wall awoke me from my trance. Dropping the Assumption, I sat with my head by the nick in the wall, and I listened.
* * *
As the scratching sounds grew louder, I realised it was crucial that my sanctum should reflect that I was learned and organised. Lathing my skin with the liquid from the tank, I took a drink. I cleaned my hands, my face, the nozzle on the tank. As all learned residents do when they hear a twin scratch through the wall, so says the Assumption, I sorted the feed—grains in the corner where I lay my head, leaves next to grains, and the vitamin pack near the bucket. My twin must understand that I’m responsible with feed. If one disposes feed too quick, especially if one prematurely disposes the vitamin pack, they’ll be stuck inside their sanctum with their hunger howling at the masterscope, wasting, fingering their tally marks and waiting for the masters to bring the next bucket. However, if one stores the feed for too long, they’ll waste away without appreciating it. There was an occasion when my feed grew mouldy fungus—it did not look delicious but a painful hunger weighed my body down and I was growing thin. I would have ingested the feed with the mould had I not read in the Assumption of the dangerous effect that mould can have.
Again. Unceasing. From the left wall of my sanctum.
The Assumption tells us that, just behind every wall in a sanctum, except for the wall from which the masters bring the bucket, a potential twin lives in their sanctum.
To unite, we unveil the walls.
Though I had doubted, I became certain that my twin was unveiling the wall that stood between us. My masterscope dimmed and my sanctum grew dark. Still, I could hear my twin scratching. I stayed awake to listen, attempting to discern whether the scraping was the sound of my twin’s progress or if it were indeed the melody of our unveiling.
Those of us who heed the script of the Assumption dedicate a portion of each wall to the unveiling—the rest of the wall, we apportion for progress. The strategy that underpins unveiling is to map out how a twin has allocated their side of the wall.
I was working on a story of a creature who arrives at a new sanctum, shares a joke with its resident, and leaves without hearing the resident laugh. This story, so I thought, was to be my greatest progress, a story that the masters would select for the Assumption. On both my left and right, I allocated most of my walls for this progress, sparing a strip of each wall for unveilings. The truth is, if my twin had unveiled a portion of the wall I reserved for my progress, if my twin had torn a hole into my story, it would break me to the point that I might even consider, though I don’t believe I have the stomach for it, discarding that twin.
The Assumption says that some who are discarded shatter masterscopes before the masters come to claim their sanctum—they use the shards of glass upon the twins who had discarded them, or maybe on themselves, or sometimes both. Others don’t even attempt to unveil—they fear that a twin will discard them. Then there are those who favour progress over twinning—the masters gave my neighbour’s sanctum to the one who had discarded them in favour of personal progress, so I heard through a hole that I bore in my ceiling. The discarded person’s body is removed, maybe taken to a newer, smaller sanctum, or maybe to someplace far worse—the Assumption hasn’t told us where we go after discarding.
The masterscope dimmed into darkness again— there was no light by which my twin could be progressing any mural, poem or story, yet the rhythm of the scraping remained constant.
The soundtrack of escape.
When I was a child, a miniscule eight-legged creature appeared in my sanctum. The masterscope began to cast its light upon the darkness, and I watched the creature move, its eight legs dawdling along my jagged ceiling. I observed how its pointed legs spindled, how they danced over my belly and my chest, astonished with its weightlessness, how it flew across my sanctum with a single gust of breath. Thinking that it may perhaps be hungry, unsure of how much food its tiny body might require, I reserved some of my feed. The masterscope darkened again. When it flickered on, before I marked a tally in the floor, I discovered the eight-legged creature was gone.
No other creature since entered my sanctum, yet I’ve always understood the creature’s entrance as a message from the masters—whatever I shared with the eight-legged creature was a promise of what I would share with my twin.
The rhythm weakened through the wall.
My twin and I had spent our whole existence with a stolid wall between us—once I learned of our condition from the words of the Assumption, I knew that we were bound to reach each other. My twin was reaching forth with hungry fingers, raw and broken. Responding in the darkness, I began to reach as well.
Gripping on a sharpened bucket-handle, I dragged the toothed edge down the surface of the wall.
I began to unveil.
The masters hold the mastertruth.
What we’ve uncovered of the mastertruth exists within the folds of the Assumption.
My twin and I continued our unveiling, clawing into the wall that had kept us apart, picking at the stone without a clue as to whether it would take us just a moment or another whole cycle of feeding to unveil, to unite. Still, my twin did not relent, scritching-scratching-scritching-scratching in the wall. I continued clawing pebbles from the fissure with the tooth-edged bucket-handle.
Not once did I stop to think about what would soon happen when we reached through to each other, how we might approach the splendid act of twinning or the spawning of the scion, or how we would soon merge our sanctums.
I dug the bucket-handle in the wall, scraping dust with each dig. The scritch-scratch on the opposite side of the wall became louder. My twin’s scratches lengthened from bottom to top.
Only when you learn to read the script of the Assumption can you build upon its teachings to progress our peoples’ knowledge of the mastertruth. Once you learn the lessons that abound in the Assumption, you can build your own ideas around what lays beyond our sanctums—not just beyond the next sanctum, or the sanctum after that, but beyond all of our sanctums, in the masters’ realm. When I was young, I thought perhaps the design of our system was such that our progress will not be complete until the day that we unveil every wall in every sanctum.
I scraped into the wall, clawtoothing the stone, and I thought of the scion. The Assumption teaches that the spawning of the scion is the greatest mark of progress you and I can ever hope to attain. Some of you, doubtless, have spawned. To reward you, the masters have doubled the size of your sanctum. Fewer of you have raised a scion to be weaned. The masters have withdrawn it from your sanctum to be placed inside a sanctum of its own, leaving you and your twin to produce a new scion.
The wall wore thin between us. The music of my twin became rawer, more rigorous. The noise struck me with unexplained fear, and I became convinced that my twin would discard me—perhaps I didn’t have enough space in my sanctum, or I did, and my twin found my progress superb, but the twin, for whatever mysterious reason, for whatever imperfection I had never been aware of, was determined to discard me. All of my progress to date would be lost. I thought of how I may have hurt my twin, how every time the masters acknowledged my progress, they asked me which wall they should move. There were times that I shifted the wall to my left, creating more space in my sanctum, stealing the space from my twin—my twin who never once struck back or bid the masters to push it back toward me.
Doubt began to conquer me, my bucket-handle digging in the wall. Unveiling the twin who I had dreamed of all my life, I began to wonder why I had always believed that our system of progress was good. I recalled a fold in the Assumption that purported that the progress of one should never overthrow the progress of another in a system that is ultimately good. The writer of this fold, I suppose that it was one of you, believed that perhaps the whole system of sanctums is wrong—perhaps the Assumption is wrong. Perhaps the Assumption, our great collective progress, is leading us to the discovery of a new system, and only when we discover this system will we have earned the means to chase our freedom—we will ride into whatever lays beyond our lonely sanctums.
When I first read that fold, I began to imagine that my progress would return me to wherever or whatever came before this. I believed there was no meaning in our sanctums, that meaning only lived outside our sanctums.
The masterscope darkened, yet we both continued digging. I scraped, but received no resistance. Another bucket-handle clinked against mine.
In the moment that my twin and I unveiled, I knew, as though the mastertruth descended on my soul, the Assumption has always been true. I felt for the breath that I could not push out from my chest.
My twin gasped.
In the darkness, we reached through the wall.
I hadn’t been acquainted with the warmth of human touch since the day I was placed in my sanctum. A strange and unexpected glow pioneered through my finger to my body, and my eyes grew hot until the tears I never thought were in my head began to bead and fall.
* * *
When the flicker of the masterscope solidified to light, we had widened the hole to the width of an eye.
The eye of my twin looked back at me.
I have studied portraits of our human faces printed in the folds of the Assumption. Some of you have painted murals of your twins, or your scions, and, though I’d only seen my face reflected, faded in the shallow tank, I felt that I maintained a strong impression of my physical appearance. Yet to see my twin’s eye glow before me, how it drank me in, blinking in a colour I had never seen before, not quite the colour of the bucket but more like it than not, to see a person in the flesh, outside the folds of the Assumption, and to know that I was destined to complete the act of twinning with this wondrous creature before me, was to understand that the masters do grant us miracles.
The Assumption teaches that we must possess our twins, but I beheld my twin, unable to possess. My twin continued scratching at the hole, fingertips raw, nails cracked, wrapped around the rusted instrument. Widening the hole, my twin and I touched fingertip to fingertip, then palm to palm, and even nose to nose. My spine screamed with pain and my fingers were stiff, blood coagulating underneath my fingernails, digging through and reaching for my twin to feel the body heat that I had felt from just a fingertip upon my fingertip, to feel our touch explode inside my sanctum. I squeezed my neck and shoulder through the hole and observed my twin’s sanctum. My twin touched my head, and though my hair was stiff and ratty I could feel the warmth again. I retreated to my sanctum to continue the unveiling, for my twin and I to unite in the Act.
The Act, so teaches the Assumption, is the single most pleasurable experience recorded in the folds. Though my complete existence seemed an exercise in preparation for this sacred moment, the script alone cannot prepare a person for the magic of the Act.
We melded in a warm cocoon of glory in our sanctum. My body shook and shivered in a wetness and a warmth that I had never imagined a human could feel, producing sounds and smells I did not know were in me. On completion, I could not be sure if we had done it right.
In accordance with the script of the Assumption, we performed the Act as many times as possible, for each Act will help spawn the scion. Both my twin and I were voracious in compliance with the script—from the moment that we touched, we had been fascinated with each other’s flesh, each other’s hold and beating strength, each other’s heat.
Outside of the Act, we continued to scrape at the hole so that we soon were passing freely between our two sanctums, no longer squeezing through a narrow hole between us. As the cycle continued, we performed the Act and sculpted our shared sanctum, expanding the hole into a narrow passage, widening the passage to unite what once had been two separate sanctums.
Though it happens that a twin will discard even after the Act, even after the scion is born, my twin and I had bonded in a glow that made discarding unimaginable. Though communication required great patience for my twin or me to write out our thoughts on the wall, we approached each other with a will toward understanding. We lived to be together. In less than a cycle, our two lives had blended.
At the end of the cycle, the masters arrived with the feed and the liquid. My twin, by this point, had become sick and woozy. I first attributed this sickness to the feed—I didn’t know if my twin had been accustomed to a different type of feed before we met, and there were no remaining spaces on the wall upon which I could write a new question. My twin began to sweat, skin heated and slimy. I lathed my twin with liquid from the tank, but the liquid was low, and we relied on it to last us through the cycle. My twin’s head in my lap, I recalled a former fold of the Assumption that informed us that this sickness was the first sign of the scion.
The storming of the scion brought upon my twin intense nausea and achiness. Though pain still lived within me, anchoring into my spine, the pain that I felt seemed incomparable to whatever the scion was brewing inside my twin’s womb. As the cycles passed, my twin became swollen and lumpy. I noted a more urgent need for the bucket, the product of what had become an insatiable hunger. I watched my twin encounter something beyond any appetite that I had ever known, and, you may not believe this, the masters began to provide us more feed and more liquid. They replaced our tank—they brought a larger bucket. With every passing cycle, the masters informed us that we had progressed—they expanded the walls of our sanctum and brought us more feed in the bucket.
After several cycles, it became apparent that our livelihood, indeed all of our progress, since I no longer wrote any stories, was harvesting inside my twin. We continued to unite in the Act, as the Assumption so teaches. Yet, for my twin, the Act no longer seemed so pleasing.
At the end of our sixth cycle together, we felt the scion kicking from inside my twin. With time, the kicks grew harder, more frequent. Every moment brought with it new awe. My twin’s belly grew, stretching outward through the cycles until the day came when we awoke under the beaming of the masterscope and found my twin had leaked on the stone in the darkness. My twin’s body screamed with the push of the scion.
The masterscope flickered.
Again, my twin screamed, and the masterscope blinked.
When the masters arrived, the scion lay in blood upon the stone, crying out, a slimy cord from its navel to the womb of my twin, who lay unconscious in our sanctum.
* * *
To behold the scion’s growth, from a creature that could fit inside my palms to a free-thinking, wandering being with bright baby eyes and a constant spool of spittle hanging from its chin, was more miraculous to me than any fold of the Assumption. I watched the scion suckle from my twin, and I thought to myself, we had crafted a world where progress was no longer real, where the Assumption had no bearing—there was only my twin and the scion. Nothing I could carve into the wall, no mural I could draw, no story anyone could ever write, could advance the Assumption beyond this new beauteous life we created.
In time, the scion was babbling, pointing and mouthing, producing these glorious sounds. My twin and I became ever more connected by our bond, by the glow that lit our sanctum. Continuing to grow, the scion weaned from the feed of my twin. All three of us ate from the bucket, and the masters continued to grant larger servings each cycle. After several cycles, they gave us another new, even larger tank. My twin and I would look into each other and we’d marvel, the light of the masterscope glimmering above, our minds full of the scion, in a state of constant wonder. Life was sacred.
The word was our guide.
It is so painful to continue with this fold.
Sixty cycles elapsed since the birth. Instead of one master arriving to set down the bucket, two masters arrived. The master with the bucket wore the breathing hose, but the master in the long clean coat and thick goggles held a pointed object, sharp as anything I’d seen.
My twin held the scion, but the master fought my twin. I lurched to grab the scion from the master, but the other master raised the pointed object high and came down on my shoulder, piercing into me.
The light of the masterscope dwindled.
Next I remember, I awoke inside our sanctum. The masterscope was dark. I heard my twin begin to cry, and I felt at the ground for the scion, calling in the tone that I used when we played.
I lay on my twin’s empty belly.
* * *
The Assumption teaches that our duty is to spawn another scion once the masters withdraw our first scion. By doing so, we not only progress the greater system, we redouble the space of our sanctum. The removal of the scion from our sanctum, though we knew that it would happen, had affected both my twin and me in ways that I had not anticipated. The folds of the Assumption do inform us that to sacrifice the scion is our greatest mortal test. Those who conquer that test, so states the Assumption, shall bring to bear their most impactful progress.
Believing that perhaps the Act would lift us from our sorrows, believing it would bring us both together for a moment, I sought comfort in my twin. I was received at first with silence—then with grunting, then a shove. Tension palpitated in between us, my heart pumping blood through my ears, punctuated with the crying of my twin.
I felt that my twin didn’t notice that I, too, was sad. Frustrated, I felt as though I was the only one attempting to progress from what we had endured. The masters had trampled upon us and now I was trying to gather my feet, but my twin would not rise.
No longer did my twin and I perform the Act.
No longer did we connect with a gaze or a laugh when we shared in the feed.
Moments lost meaning.
Several more times, I advanced on my twin. With every advance, my twin responded with a more violent revulsion. In my final attempt, my twin bit me.
A violent silence filled the air between us. In masterscope hours, I continued to progress, etching a story in the wall about the scion that the masters had withdrawn from us. My twin did not move from the corner of our sanctum, crying and sleeping through darkness and light.
We slept in calculated opposition, the width of our sanctum between us. As I lay in the smooth moulded stone, my fingers brushed the cratered teethmarks in my shoulder. I woke among the darkness to the screaming of my twin, still asleep, kicking out at the dense violent air until I drifted back to sleep.
Though the masterscope still hadn’t shined on our sanctum, I woke feeling strangely well-rested. Stretching, I yawned and rolled over. A stab pierced my ribs. I pulled a thin piece of glass from my side, and I felt at the jagged stone floor.
My fingers swept at shattered glass, at spreading wetness. Crawling through the glass, I shook my twin’s shoulders and screamed. I felt my twin’s belly, where the scion once played, full with life, cold and wet in the darkness. My hand travelled upward, knowing yet refusing to believe, knowing that the masterscope above should long ago have cast its light upon our sanctum had my twin not smashed it open yet refusing to believe, knowing why my twin had smashed the masterscope, knowing how the broken glass was used yet still refusing to believe my fingers seeping through the canyon gash that slit across my twin’s oesophagus, refusing to believe the scent of blood.
* * *
The wall slid open and the masters burst into our sanctum. They did not wear their coats or breathing hoses, but they held masterscopes in their hands. They shined their masterscopes upon my twin’s glass-mangled body and they made the most hideous noises. Breathing heavy, hands over their noses, they lifted my twin by the limp lifeless limbs.
Though I knew my twin was gone, I could not help but reach. I reached for what we shared within our sanctum, what we gave unto the scion, for the world we created. The pointed object pierced me somewhere near the cratered bitemarks, and I felt a sudden jolt inside my ribcage.
I awoke inside what I can only call a master-sanctum. Its walls were vast, immaculate, everything bright as the masterscope light. A rectangular glass, like a flat masterscope, hung on the wall. The image on the glass began to shift as I turned my head toward it. I raised my hand— the image raised its hand. As I scrambled to my feet, the image scrambled to its feet. I began to understand. In a way, I looked exactly as I thought I would appear, but in another way the features that comprised my face were not as I expected. My reflection began to grow larger. A wave of sudden sadness ushered over me— this appearance that I now beheld was how my twin had known me.
Clatter sounded from outside the master-sanctum. The masters slid the wall aside and stepped into the sanctum.
The tallest master stopped before an elevated surface in the middle of the open master-sanctum. The master pulled an object from beneath the heightened surface. Two other masters escorted me, step by step, toward this object. They set me down on top of it. The object remained still, inanimate, perching upon on its four legs. The way in which it held me curved my spine in draining pain.
The masters then produced a narrow instrument. They dragged it across the raised surface before me, demonstrating how to use the instrument to write across the surface in the script of the Assumption.
The masters wrote, How are you feeling?
They set the writing instrument before me.
I picked it up, clutching it inside my fist and dragging it along the surface, writing in a sloppy, shaky hand. What will happen to my twin?
She was not as strong as you, the masters wrote.
I choked on the first word they wrote, a word I’d never seen.
We have another girl, the masters wrote. She will be stronger. Like you. You are one of our most promising.
I attempted to swallow each word, coughing on each letter, nearly vomiting. I wondered whether She could be the true name of my twin— She who was, She who isn’t, She the masters will not ever know as I have.
The masters wrote again. Do you understand? We have another woman. We also have a brand-new, beautiful sanctum.
I longed to write and tell them that I had a twin who left and now I could not bear the thought of being discarded or, worse, performing the Act with somebody whose eyes were any colour but the colour of the bucket, someone whose touch did not hold the same warmth, who could not make a world in their eyes the way my twin had made a world all our own when the scion was feeding. I looked upon the masters, wondering how I could communicate to them that I would rather discard my own self than examine their offer.
The masters began to produce all kinds of funny-fancy noises with their mouths. They made these loud sounds at each other, motioning with their hands, seemingly engaging with each other. My sadness dissipated under disbelief— it was as though they understood each other’s noises.
The tallest master pointed a finger at me.
I lifted the instrument, writing nothing, dragging it in circles and then dropping it. Again, I looked up.
The tall master leaned over my shoulder, a smell intense and pleasant. The master wrote, We’ll bring you to a better twin. We’ll give you a sanctum far grander than you’ve ever seen.
I read the script. Then I looked at the masters. Their look did not return the look I once saw in my twin, when we unveiled.
I knew my twin, I wrote, and I shall never have another.
The tall master stepped back. Other masters began making noises again, this time louder, each lifting their hands to their heads. I watched their bodies move, awestruck and confounded. The tallest master jumped with excitement and crashed on my shoulder again. With the instrument, the master wrote, Was it love that you felt?
I knew the symbols, but I’d never seen them placed in this arrangement—the word had never graced the many folds of the Assumption. Once again, I looked upon the masters. Becoming more excited, they repeated this word. They smiled and patted each other—they even held each other as they sang the word, each master giving something like a laugh. The masters in their mighty mercy sang the word before me, sang the secret of the name, the sound that governs mastertruth, the name that reigned over my life since I beheld my twin’s two bucket-coloured eyes.
Though the masters asked many more questions of me, I am writing not to share with you the sights that I have seen—my duty is to give to you the word. Under mercy of the masters, I’ve returned unto my sanctum. Let this writing be my progress—let the masters print my story in the folds of the Assumption so that one day one of you may build upon it.
I now sing the word, alone. The sound builds a song that fills my sanctum as the word once filled the world that my twin and I had built. My only want would be to sing for you the word the masters sang. So shall it be, when we unite our blessed sanctums.
May you gaze upon the word and may the word fill you with glory. May it live within you.
May love fill your sanctum.