This poem is one in my @notaleptic series of poems where the Twitter bot of the same name provides the first line or lines. I wanted to put a Jewish hero into one of my “creepy off-planet work assignment” poems, with the help of a Jewish sensitivity reader. I’m very pleased with what resulted.
a year on a desert planet
one contract, danger pay,
surrounded by people you don’t know,
talking in a language you don’t speak.
not for lack of trying. your vocal cords
won’t rasp quite right. you understand
but can’t muster answers. you work
for water and for words, stimulants,
vocabulary. you wonder why everyone
sounds afraid. the lightning doesn’t
strike that often. the quakes, sure.
you’ve never seen heavy labor
this spooked, and there aren’t
enough bots. maybe a third of
what you’re used to. but you can’t
ask questions past “is there a
problem?” no, no problem, but
some of these engineers don’t act
like engineers and some of these specs
don’t have symbols you recognize
even with the dim familiarity of the
written languages you can’t read.
you’ve never seen so many workers
leave a contract, here then gone,
probably paying fines out the nose
and no one is replacing them but
no shift bosses yelling about slowdown.
they all seem pleased. they smile
and you don’t like that, bosses shouldn’t
smile like that, they’re never satisfied
at the best of times. less workers means
more food, double rations, extras—
that’s suspicious too, they should be
holding back. you think about leaving,
remember the penalty clauses and
go back to shifting sand and grit.
you ask a bot when no one’s looking.
it speaks your language. it has
nothing useful to say. you feel silly.
it telling you no sorry bye is the last
time you hear your language spoken.
five mandated rests go by and
they stop work. The transport is coming.
That is what being massed like this
at the end of a big contract means,
but instead there is a black slab
like the dark of space if space
had teeth. The bosses are here.
Bosses are never here at the finish.
Bosses don’t take transport with you.
You feel the panic before you see it
break out, before the chanting, before
the guns. You do what you learned
from your parling who fought the endless
war, before it ended: fall down, play dead.
The floor is slick with blood, the noise
unbearable. You don’t dare look, but
with bullets ringing in your ears
the tearing sounds still make it through,
the light is unbearable but you
cannot let an eyelid twitch. You know
you must smell alive, all sweat and
piss, however much cooling blood.
The sounds are too big. The screams
fade, but the stomping and crunching
and shrieking goes on. You cannot look.
Inside your eyes the light makes
ominous patterns, color bursts and
sometimes a great shadow. You
can smell past the blood now,
bird, meat, rot. Now the light
is flashing color that makes you
feel sick like transport. Light
shouldn’t smell like decay.
So many things are touching you,
so many dead things. Pikuach
nefesh but you are dizzy from
breathing so shallow or breathing
at all. You want to gulp air but
it’s dirty. Pikuach nefesh,
you chant to keep your eyes closed
drawing in thin covert streams of air
to the beat of the words against
the horror here. the bosses had
transport, but it’s as far away
as your grandfather’s moon
while you play dead in blood
it becomes the Sh’ma. The sounds
and smells are less. The horrible light
has not become less so. You run out
of choices. You urinate down your legs,
impossibly slowly, like your dead bladder
is slowly letting go. Nothing approaches.
You have never been so happy to be
unimportant. You have never been so
glad to be b’nai Yisroel, however this ends.
One god. Whatever has been released is
not Hashem. All you can do is keep davening
slow as a breath, hear O Israel. All you
can do is lie still, and think of transports.
The sounds of devouring are gone but
it could come back, and you cannot look
with your eyes, you know somewhere
in your spine it will destroy you
or give you away. Keep them closed,
pray the Sh’ma, avoid notice,
Adonai echud . . .
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