The Adventures of Phillius

The room was on fire, it was impossible to deny. And yet Phillius felt strangely calm as he frantically pumped the handle up and down. It was, in the end, all in a day’s work. Beside him Charlotte wielded the hose like a scalpel, viciously quenching any attempts the inferno made to spread beyond the far side of the room. Her expression was focused and yet strangely empty, “In the zone” was what the STEM officials called it. Phillius would usually be joining her there, it was the most efficient state after all, and everyone must strive for efficiency. “Excellence, efficiency, and endurance” was another STEM motto, repeated endlessly in their broadcasts. Today, however, Phillius was feeling more nostalgic. He remembered his two brothers jeering at a STEM broadcast, so many years ago “in the zone” Travis said “zoned out more like…”. He remembered his Father whispering to his Mother after the broadcast finished, their hushed tones hiding their fear of changing times. Phillius’ Father had worked in the intestines of the city before they moved to the AM district when Phillius was three in search of a better life. It had been nice then, before the terrors came, the 186 rooms of the AM district were easy to tend, and there were never any terrors.

A sudden lurch wracked the room again, flinging Phillius and Charlotte off their feet to dangle by their harness straps from what used to be the floor. The fire blazed with a new light and rushed towards another pair of AM workers who barely managed to stop the inferno from overrunning their position. Their faces never even flickered, “Excellence, efficiency, and endurance” was STEM policy, and nothing could break them out of the zone. With another lurch the room righted itself again, and settled into a calm stillness, the terror was over. Immediately the fire was pushed back and back, there was no longer anything to fuel it. Phillius glanced over to where the safety officer sat next to two huge cables running up into the ceiling. The man had been screaming into the dendrite cable for what seemed like an eternity as the terror wrought destruction far and wide, but no help had come. In his Father’s day that man’s job had actually meant something, but now the return cable only ever produced STEM dogma, albeit at a much higher frequency during the terrors. Phillius turned and slowly walked toward his sleeping quarters, passed the blank faced workers who were already working to rebuild the torn walls and floor. They hauled up supports and beams from where they had been dumped by the KFC and fitted them into place, repairing the damage, piece by piece. It took them two days to fix the damage of a 10 minute terror, but the room was stronger for their efforts. Each flaw was removed, each deficiency rectified, and they would last longer the next time. Which was good Phillius mused, because the terrors were getting longer and longer. A cynic might suspect that someone were playing with them, constantly pushing their endurance and watching them squirm. But even STEM wouldn’t do a thing like that.

It was dawn when they came for him, a white cell of four brutish men dragged him out and over to the portal. Phillius barely had time to curse before they thrust him into the stream. Phillius had travelled the stream only once before when his parents brought him to the AM district and he’d had nightmares about it for three years. Phillius barely had time for a flash of remembered fear before the wave hit him, whipping him away from his home. As Phillius span, disoriented, he glimpsed the cell floating serenely nearby, and then another wave blasted them up once more. This continued for several minutes as Phillius gradually lost track of his surroundings. Once they shot through a series of huge heart shaped terminals, before plunging back into twisting, ever narrowing tubes. When Phillius saw the barrier he knew he was really in trouble. The grey shape pressed against the side of the stream it’s neatly typed sign reading “STEM, no blood permitted”. The cell flipped him excellently out of the stream and over the barrier before vanishing with the next wave. Phillius fought down his panic, he was in STEM, the centre of all authority. There were legends of places beyond STEM’s control but Phillius didn’t believe them, STEM knew everything, and STEM controlled everything. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad Phillius thought, STEM had been a kind organisation three years ago, before the terrors started.

There was a high cold cough behind Phillius. He spun round and came face to face with a tall thin man in a perfectly pressed suit. “Mr Phillius, of the AM district?” he asked, subtly raising a perfectly neat eyebrow at Phillius’ flustered appearance. Without waiting for a reply he snapped “follow me” and strode off down a corridor. Phillius hurried along after him, this was not what he had expected from STEM, but the he really didn’t know anything about STEM. Perhaps he should ask this strangely tall guide. “You’re the fifth one they’ve asked for you know” the man said, just as Phillius opened his mouth, “and you’ve certainly more of an independent thinker. The others had a far better grasp on STEM doctrine.” This was not good Phillius thought; perhaps he should make a break for it. “Here we are” said the guide, and thrust Phillius into the office. In front of him sat 13 richly dressed people evenly split by a long table of dark mahogany. “Phillius!” said a short woman in an excited fashion, “so glad you could join us. I’m a representative of the lateral orbitofrontal, and the others represent various other regions of our brain. We were hoping you could answer some of our questions about what’s going on in the abdominal muscle region? I’m afraid the previous workers we tried seemed to have little idea what’s been happening.”

“What?” replied Phillius, “are you STEM?”

“No, no. We are the brain, we make decisions which are passed on to our body by the brain stem.”

“So you are in charge? Have you been causing the terrors!”

“What in God’s name are the terrors?” asked lateral orbitofrontal, sounding less and less excited.

“I think he means you bloody exercise regime” barked a gruff man from the other side of the table. “I’m sorry Phillius, we tried to stop them, but they out-voted us” he continued glaring at the people sat across from him. “The terrors, as you call them, are a scheme concocted by my peers over there, in an attempt to improve the efficiency of our abs!”

“WHAT!” yelled Phillius, “you mean all that horror, and suffering, all that destruction, it was a sacrifice to make you stronger!”

“Oh please” snapped a bloated man from the end of the table, “you’re the only one suffering, you’re a freak! The rest of the abdominal muscle workers accept our doctrine, as you should. They don’t feel any pain, and we make sure that there’s no lasting damage.”

“No lasting damage!” replied the gruff man, “That was before you cut our nerve connection to them, now we have no idea what’s going on down there, and therefore no control, some nonsense about ‘mind over matter’. Did you think the place wouldn’t burn to the ground just because you obstinately deny it!” There was a short pause and then a short Asian man with tiny ponytail said coolly “As the voice of religion, I would like to point out that we don’t really care what they say is going on, as long as we believe the right thing.”

“Well I don’t care what ridiculous philosophy you justify this with, you have to stop the terrors.” Phillius’ voice sounded strangely faint to him, the room seemed to spin as the horrific truth hit him. “We are making the muscles stronger, but only after you repeatedly destroy them!”

“We can’t, they outnumber us” said one of the women, glaring at religion, “But it is not as bad as you think, your colleagues believe what STEM tells them, they have hope, and they are actually improving the abs. As for you we can have you transferred somewhere more peaceful, perhaps the fingers, the people there are much more articulate.” As she spoke, she slowly guided the dazed Phillius back towards the corridor.

At the entrance he turned back. “Just one more question; why is strengthening the abs it so important to you?”

Religion raised himself slowly up from the table and declaimed in his most solemn tone

“Because Marika said so.”