There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Wishing Well

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Imagine, if you will, a hole.

This is not a hole in the ground. The ground is a long, long way down. This is a hole in all that's above the ground. Two thousand feet of steel and concrete, gradually encompassing everything below, entirely separating the earth from the sky.

It's a strange place, if you were to look at it from the outside. Its edges are several miles of slow build-up; thin and dirty containment zones with barbed wire all around. These places would be considered miserable as sin by the standards of the early 21st century, but they're really quite tame in comparison to some of the horrors of the early 22nd. At least, they are for now. The people in them live in dread of when the construction deeper within catches up with them, but they try to make the best of what they have. They don't look behind them much.

This slow build up eventually rises higher, and higher, and higher. The gaps are fewer, the buildings filthier. Until eventually there's nothing at all but a singlular mass. Its tops are covered in irregular houses and towers, built by people desperate to stay at the top and not be absorbed themselves.

There is nothing below. Or rather, you can see nothing below, so you imagine it doesn't exist. Not to you; you only see a grey and unpleasant skin. But every now and again, you come across a hole. Miles and miles apart, these are rare things, usually square or circular.

And all around their edges, the people come to pray.

Imagine a human society on earth. Any such society that depends on the dominion of the powerful on the weak needs its safety valves. If you want to build your rich plantations or half-baked utopias, you need someone whom you can safely exclude but still use as a source of labour. The Romans launched endless campaigns to staff their mines with able-bodied men. The Qarmatians of medieval Arabia built what appeared to be a communist paradise- if you ignored the thousands upon thousands of slaves who toiled to provide the necessities of life. The Americans transitioned from dependence upon chattel slaves to dependence upon migrant workers, for whom they kept finding unique ways to stamp on and humiliate.

But you know all this already. This is all ancient history. The year is 2110, and the question is why this place has been allowed to exist for so long in a world dominated by a thin elite. The answer is simple: surrender. The slums which housed the workers grew and grew, only being regulated when it affected those on the outside. As long as a steady supply of workers kept emerging to go to work, they could not care less what happened within.

But eventually, the number of workers began to decrease. Fewer and fewer people emerged from within the walls. And nobody understood what was happening. Were they dying? Were they finally dying?

Everyone wanted an end to the ache. Most couldn't afford the new brain transplants, and even fewer could afford to go to sleep. But as long as they ached, they'd be sure to ache a little less, and have their needs taken care of by people who ached a little more. So what would they do when not enough people came out of the slums any more?

They sent people in to see why the numbers were, gradually, declining. And it became obvious: nobody saw the point. It was becoming miles and miles to get from the centre to the outskirts, and passing through so much territory was dangerous. It was too much trouble to go to just so they could be exploited when the rising gangs offered such better wages. And so, more and more, there was just a hole, an unproductive, bleeding hole, and it would never stop growing.

It was given up for dead. Barbed wire, walls, attack dogs were placed around it. The perimeter would be reassessed every year, and adjusted accordingly. There was not enough political will in what remained of China to do anything about it.

These places popped up all over the place, surrounding what had been cities and then spreading beyond that, faster, faster, more. A name was given to them: the New Kowloons. It was obvious why. Little else was.

And thus, imagine the holes. They are the only gaps that even exist any more. As you circle around them, they look up at you. They are frightened, and hungry, but you see many smiles among their faces. You wonder why that is.

The answer is quite simple. These people spend their lives under the glow of an electric light. There is no sunlight, except through what are known as the watering holes. They go their whole lives without seeing any, and to be able to reach one and see the sky is an aspiration that can take years to accomplish.

The food and water supply is sparse. Those on the top eke out a living bartering the rainwater that falls on their heads for food and supplies. They have become the leaders of a caste system, and the heads of the militia gangs that guard and scrap for territory. They dominate the watering holes, charging through the nose in order to allow people to, for a second, feel something real.

Food comes from three places: artificial farms deep within the slum's bowels, natural farms on the rooftops of the upper layers, and the intermittent aid drops which plummet from the sky. Needless to say, there isn't enough to go around. The should-be-dead litter the streets, twitching and groaning from drought, starvation or old age. They splutter and collapse and ooze into the gutters, their minds fragmenting and reforming as every new kind of hell infects them. And all the while the rest of the populace shuffles by, eyes cast upwards, trying to forget the inevitability of their fate as it claws at their ankles.

Imagine a helicopter. It is black, and sleek, and moves efficiently over the roofs below. The sun shines brightly, and the faces dwelling below are so small and scared. The shadows move, and are solid, regulated movement over a state of endless flux.

Imagine a gun. A shotgun, to be precise. Imagine that it's being held by a woman. She's about thirty, and has known no other life but this. She eats, she sleeps, she fights, she sings to her daughter, she survives another day without collapse.

She lives around the middle of her structure. It's not the grinding existence of below- if you've got this far up, then you either have gangland connections or a particularly marketable skill. In her case, it's the former; she works as a part-time enforcer for the Ching Shih Dynasty, a family of drug-peddling warlords with pretensions of kingship. But beneath the golden thrones they're just the same crooks as all the rest. The rulers rule and the poor obey.

The woman's job is to make sure that the tenant farmers on the Dynasty's northern properties are providing their quotas. These are people who are allowed to live and work on the many rooftop farms owned by the gang, as long as they give a certain quota of food to the Dynasty each month.

She does not like the work. She does not like hurting people, or forcing them to give more than they can. She does not like yelling, shooting, or inflicting pain.

But then she thinks of her daughter's laugh, and the beginnings of decaying teeth, and blue eyes crinkled in a smile.

She shoulders her gun and goes to work.

Imagine a company called Prometheus Laboratories. This company has a patent on certain materials, which essentially amounts to a patent on a certain type of procedure if performed properly. This procedure involves removing the brain from a body and inserting a new one in, so that aging will never be a problem again.

This company sources its brains from a variety of people. The demand is fairly low, because of the expense; but the expense is such that it's a very important source of income for them. Therefore, they can afford to pick only the cream of the crop; excellent genetics, unearthly beauty, a lack of any known disease. And nobody capable of finding them.

But although they can patent the genetic materials and synthetic tissue necessary for the procedure, the law prevents them from legally patenting the procedure themselves. And, as always, scavengers begin to hang around the large predators. They offer cheap and nasty procedures, using lower grade products and synthetic materials different enough to avoid an unwinnable lawsuit. These companies cannot afford to pick supermodels from a lineup. They need something else- an easy and cost-effective source of bodies.

A lot of people aren't interested in beauty, or customisation. They're just interested in not aging, in not having to exist daily in a slow descent towards the twitching madness. They won't pay as much as the super-rich, but they'll pay enough.

Where do the brains come from? Why, mostly from genetically grown clone-stock, of course. No, we can't disclose any information about the process, or our facility. Yes, there are sometimes willing volunteers- we have people in Chongqing who take care of their every need, and they usually come to us excited about the new, better lives we can make for them. Really, we're almost a charitable institution- giving the worthy poor a new, better life, away from the New Kowloons or the Yellow River Ranches.

There are no cloning facilities, of course. And the vast majority of people are taken, not made. But there are some volunteers; a few who believe the billboards plastered on the edges of roads, or the adverts bellowed out over the watering holes. They enter a room, smiling. It's not clear what their expression is when they leave.

Imagine that you also have a gun. Imagine that you are standing on a helicopter, 50 metres above the surface, you and your compatriots training your weapons on a single woman standing below, who screams as she attempts to dodge the tranquiliser shots.

This woman fires at you, but a shotgun's range is not quite that far. She misses, and fires again, and again, yelling and sobbing while she does so. One of your darts hits her. You give a whoop, and your colleagues cheer and clap you on the back. As she falls asleep, the helicopter's screeching blades swoop down below, its wheels looking like great talons.

You're not a bad person, you say to yourself. You are just doing your job; someone has to do it, after all, if the world's going to keep turning. And besides, you've been told that the brains are fine. They have all their comforts dealt with by specialists in Chongqing, who make sure they'll never want for anything. Really, you're helping this woman; bringing her out of poverty and to a brighter future. You consider her as you haul her on board. Pretty. This one will sell for a lot.

You own a silver watch and gold cufflinks. Your flat is rich, tasteful, expensive; mercenaries willing to fly over the New Kowloons can earn a lot of money. You have no bookshelves and no paintings. You have a television, a computer filled with tasteless pornography, and a grey table.

Sometimes you stare at the table, and feel things you don't have names for.

Imagine a child. She has been wandering for days, scared and alone. Her mother did not return one day. She told the child never to leave the little flat they dwell in, but she needed to eat, and drink, or the pains would come. She'd felt the pains before, when she was very little, and she never wants to feel them again.

Imagine begging. Imagine being sneered at, crushed in crowds, pushed down crowded staircases and breaking your fall on kicking knees. Imagine finding yourself desperate, and alone, and wanting something, anything, to bring your mother back.

Imagine her mother's eyes.

The child knows where she has to go, but she resists going there. Her mother wouldn't want her to. Her mother would tell her that she must never think about them, but she does. She knows where to go to get food.

And finally, desperate and cold, she enters a golden room, where a dynastic prince sits on a golden throne. She explains who she is and who her mother is. She explains how her mother has taught her to be careful, reliant, good with a gun, fierce with her words. She explains how she would be a good enforcer, given enough time. How she could learn very easily to yell, or shoot, or inflict pain, if it'll stave her own pains away.

The prince's mind considers her. The prince's mind smiles to itself.

Imagine green eyes and a smile of decaying teeth, singing the songs of the old country. Imagine not being a child any more.

Imagine all of these things. Imagine your daughter is alright. Or, at least, imagine she's alive. Imagine you are rich, you are powerful, you are alive, imagine that you were the captor instead of the victim, you have the tranquiliser gun. Imagine that you are not here. Picture these images, keep them hard and whole.

Keep your mind together. Pray that the plastic bag you are contained in does not break, as you slowly sink to the bottom of the upper Yangtze. You are not aware that you are inside a plastic bag, but your synapses keep firing anyway, screaming in pain and confusion, forcing you awake when all you want to do is die.

So imagine, and keep on imagining, so you can stave the hurt away for a few frail moments in the dark.

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