Garbage men cleared out of the way as the terrific contraption spun to life. The man in a suit watched with hidden anxiety from a very safe distance with his potential funders.
"This will work perfectly."
The air hummed and hissed; the portal whirred and rattled.
"How does it work again?"
"The machine simply eats up the garbage, just like that. Simple."
A modest mountain of filth was slowly pulled but surely devoured from the barge, and the barge was left empty and unbroken. The man in a suit smiled in relief and threw a smashing grin at his prospectors.
They were skeptical. "There has to be a catch. What's the catch?"
"No catch at all. The waste is simply churned away. Think of it as a large garbage disposal."
"And none of it's recyclable?"
"Doesn't matter. That's the amazing thing, you see -- it's better than simply disposing of trash. It manages to transform it back into fully reusable resources. Watch, here, just a moment..." He turned to look at the machine. It was sparking around its round mouth, and finally upchucked an equivalently modest mountain of trees and minerals before being shut down into silence. A waft of clean, sweet air blew in from it, replacing the sordid stink of trash. "Even the air. Call it an...all-around general planet-freshener, if you will."
Their skepticism was replaced by excitement.
Within ten years, the Green Party had inflated this machine's greatness and ecologists were worshipping it daily and everyone thought of no better Earth-saving device than the amazing trash-transposer. Everyone would simply feel too guilty if they didn't bow down and acknowledge how wonderful it was. And everyone used came in droves to the garbage sites, paying a simple small fee -- otherwise they would be fined something even higher for contributing to overall Earth ugliness -- and they dumped their garbage into the machine and watched in unabashed, undiminished wonder as it flashed ad spun and roared like a tornado, ate their unwanteds, and handed them back the fresh beginnings. Earth was no longer a dirty place. There was no litter problem, because it was just such a fun spectacle to dump out your garbage now, why toss it on the curb? How uninteresting!
Thomas flipped the switch on. He flipped the switch off. On. Off. Repeat ad infinitum. He was the garbage man on duty today. It wasn't a dirty job anymore, but no less glorious. Instead of cleaning and collecting waste, he kept the machine in good condition. It never broke down, miraculously, and so he was reduced to its power controller. The switch-flipper. A family came up, he took their money, put it in the register; he watched them set their bags of garbage on the appropriate marked spot on the ground, and he waited until they walked the appropriate number of yards away, and he flipped the switch on. Most homes' collective trash took only thirty seconds to be gone with. Companies' took perhaps a few minutes, on a busy workday, particularly restaurants. He flipped the switch off. He gave the family a complimentary button or air freshener or somesuch swag and wished them a good day and watched them leave as the next vehicle pulled in.
It was Tuesday, at a crisp 7 AM, with the sky barely blue-gray now, and half cloud coverage. Thomas was sleeping in his work chair in his booth behind the glass screen. A few coworkers were watching the news, drinking coffee, scratching their chins and rears. They, too, had nothing to do right now. Not until noon would there be any real business.
"Hey, Thomas." Rusty poked him, then shook him. He yawned hugely and sat up, not even bothering to mumble.
"Check out the news," Rusty said. "They're talking about the machines."
"Yeah, they're wonderful, bes' thing thadeva happened to Earth." He yawned halfway through the last work.
"No! Well, looks like some of them aren't working well."
"Oh really?" This still didn't interest them, but until he paid attention, they wouldn't quit bothering him. He tiredly turned his chair about in place.
"Nevermind, you missed it. The news can't wait for you to look at it."
Thomas tiredly turned his chair back around, set his arms on his desk, and set his head on his arms. He could barely make out the others' voices floating in foggily through his half-dreaming naptime state. The words didn't make sense as they should, and instead his mind crafted new images and ideas and made chains of logic to create sense out of the words, and before he knew it, he was fully dreaming.
He sat up in startlement at the loud windy roar of the machine outside. Rusty was working the switch. Thomas looked up at him with bloodshot eyes.
"I thought I'd let you nap..." he said weakly.
"I can't with it on," Thomas said. Rusty shrugged.
"You're not supposed to go that close!" shouted an indignant customer outside as two teenage boys shoved by her. "Hey, hey you people in there! These kids are too close!" She waved at Thomas, Rusty, and the others.
"Turn it off, you've got the switch."
"Oh! Right!" Rusty pushed at the tiny lever. It barely budged, but not enough. "Crap."
Thomas stood quickly and rushed out the door. He was glad for his cleats that held him a bit more firmly into the dirt as he felt the suction of the machine as it created a ever-deeper vacuum around it. He never really got this close, and it was still terrifying and beautiful at once. It looked like one of those fair crafts, as if someone were dropping silver paint onto a lightning-fast spinning glass plate, and erected eight feet high sitting on its edge, clasped all 'round in a steel ring. Thomas made certain every step was steady.
The two boys were as close as might be safe; one had a cat in his arms which was puffed up to three times its size and sputtering murderously, clawing at the boys' leather jacket. The young men looked evilly pleased with themselves.
"Don't!" Thomas shouted hoarsely when he realized what they were planning. It was too late. The boy flung the feline directly at the device where its screech was drowned out by the thunderous roar of the devouring magic mouth. They watched to see what would happen next, and Thomas had an idea why. If paper and tin cans and cars gave you back trees, rocks, minerals, if air begot air, then what would a fully-living animal get you?
The spin reversed. The vacuum was suddenly filled again. Springtime air flooded the lot and a small pile of wooden planks, glass panes, and fine china tumbled out of the hole, followed by--
The woman screamed in horror. The boys fell back, tripped, stumbled, shouted, turned to run in a torrent of cusses. Thomas was shaking as if having a siezure while standing up, and his esophagus burned with bile as his stomach rapidly began to empty itself...
Kevin and Madelaine were processed by the interviewer and quickly sent home for a few days' vacation while the lot was quarantined due to 'mild contamination'. Rusty, Thomas, the woman named Eva Spriggs, and the two teen boys who did not talk at all to the others were all sitting in a small room, waiting to be interviewed next.
They had seen it. The other two hadn't. They were free to go. As far as they knew, it was nothing but a mild spill of hazardous materials. Nothing that couldn't be burned up and tossed away in a few days.
"Mr. Fontaine. Mr. Ramone." A man in a suit, or perhaps the same one, it was impossible to tell, was standing in the third doorway of the room. One door, the entire group had entered through. The second door, Kevin and Madelaine had exited through to be interviewed. So far no one had seen this third door opened.
The two boys looked up at their names. Ramone's face was wet with tears; the other had gnawed his lips almost down to the bone.
"Come with me," said the suit. They stood and followed him with numb steps. The door closed and locked. In ten minutes, two gunshots were heard. Eva sucked in a breath and wrung her hands with her pants. Thomas felt weak and nauseous again, and Rusty was stoic as he began to mouth a prayer.
Soon the second door opened and another (or same) man said, "Mrs. Spriggs," and she inhaled again and went with him. Thomas strained his ears and heard nothing even after ten minutes. Unless the room was soundproof...
Rusty was called in next. Another ten minutes.
They summoned Thomas.
He found himself sitting in a small interrogator's room and felt suddenly small and criminal though he hadn't done anything wrong. There were two men in suits. He couldn't even remember which one had called his name; they both looked alike to him.
One suit sat neatly across the table from him and spoke immediately. "Tell me what you saw."
Thomas did and tried not to be sick again.
The suits looked at each other and nodded. "That will be all." The sitting one stood and Thomas winced, expecting him to draw a firearm; instead, he opened a door Thomas had not noticed was there. "Through here."
"Will I...can I go back to work? What's going--"
"Through here," repeated he man. Thomas slumped his shoulders and obeyed. The door was shut behind him and he was left in absolute darkness. He looked around, waiting for his eyes to adjust, but with no light at all they never did. He began to grope around to see where he was and found that it was a fairly small, undecorated room, and he scanned the south wall, the east wall, the west wall, finding nothing, until...
At the north end of the square room, his hands moved across a steel ring covered in intricate carvings. He'd never been this close to one of the machines before, but he knew the feel of them by the memory of their sight. He felt queasy and frightened but didn't bother to move away; the room was too small to escape. He only watched from right beneath it as it flashed, blinding though dim, and lightning travelled along the spinning silver veins, like fog, like the eye of a tiny little hurricane and he was God looking down at it from Heaven, and then falling into it...
Back home, Kevin and Madelaine were both rendered mute by toxic chemicals they discovered had laced the water their interviewers' had provided them. Blindness soon followed, and then death. The garbage lot was cleared up however as the hazardous materials that had killed the entire crew that day were clean and gone thanks to the powers of the machine. No one found out what had come out of that device. No one knew except three people.
His ears were bleeding. His nose was numb. He was being carried; his stomach was warmed by the broad back of Rusty. Thinking of his abdomen he realized it ached with hunger. He hadn't eaten since 6 AM that morning; all the interviews, everything that happened, was all in one day...
Thomas muttered questioningly. "Oh, he's awake," Rusty said and set his coworker down on the hard earth. "Thomas, hey, Tom."
Thomas steadied himself with his hands, feeling the ground. It was thick, packed dirt, mildly damp as if it had rained yesterday, or was only very humid. He peeled open his eyes with some effort; they burned from the wind that had assaulted him from the machine, as did his cracked lips. He saw good ol' helpful Rusty leaning down to peer at his face, and behind him...behind him...
The sky was thick and olive green, the trees were brittle and broken, some shattered clean off at the trunk, the hilly ground was covered in sludge and reeking, decomposing garbage, and the starved withered corpses of alien creatures littered the ground, many stuck fast by the feet in deep tar-like trashy residue. Thomas wondered why he couldn't smell what obviously would be an assaulting olfactory experience, and realized that the reek must have wiped out his scent receptors. His nose had been desensitized before he'd even awoke.
The land that the three of them was on at this moment was a raised ridge, only somewhat filthy, but most of the slimy waste had slid downhill into the ravines between the hills. He could see sticking from the mud many old items, toys and furniture and old plumbing fixtures, plastic bags, glass bottles, mounds of mushy paper, dotting the bleak and dying landscape under the smoggy sky.
"Where are we?" He didn't taste the air when he opened his mouth to talk. His taste buds were blasted into oblivion as well, it seemed.
Rusty shrugged to the question. "On the other side of..."
"That machine must be a portal of some kind," said Eva.
Thomas stood and almost dusted himself off by habit, but decided not to bother. His clothes were already stained through from the dirty air alone, and his pants were muddy up to the knees.
"We never found the cat," Rusty said.
"Of course not," snapped Eva. "That was a whole 'nother portal."
"What do we do now?" Thomas asked wearily, looking around with a shocked sort of blindness. Rusty shrugged. Eva said nothing. "We keep going," he finally answered himself, after a moment.
And they did, though not knowing where to go. The land was endless as Earth's and soon their dry ridge was gone and they were trudging along in knee-deep muck, each laborious footstep making a squelch as it left a gaping hole. The sewage was so thick that the leg-shaped holes left in it did not refill with liquid until the group was well passed by. It did not take long for them all to lose their shoes, and then the lower half of their pants as they caught on tree branches and broken glass and junk metal, and tore away, leaving their bare skin exposed to be caught and torn next. The sewage ooze squeezed up between their toes and filled every line and pore of their skin, crystallized on every hair, burrowed under every nail. It smeared into the scratches and gashes on their legs and burned them, and soon the scratches began to leak their own puses, unable to scab, growing septic; the skin stiffened and sallowed and soon every motion and touch throbbed painfully up into their hips.
The sun of the world set after only a few tiresome, treacherous hours of trudging, and the green sky was briefly lit up in a spectacular ruby-amethyst conflagration. The three humans paused, panting though it burned their tongues to hang open their mouths, and they watched the flaming clouds until the sunset finally burned away into dark, brackish dusk. The could not sit, or they would sink, and it was likely they would be rooted down and dead like the critters all around. The most rest they could have was only to stand still.
"We...need to rest," Rusty wheezed.
"Well, we can't," Eva snapped bitterly, "Or we'll sink in and drown."
"I know that," he snorted. "Why don't we sleep in the trees?"
So they went towards the nearest patch of trees and attempted to climb the sturdiest-looking ones, the ones with bark that didn't instantly shatter at the touch. Simply pulling both legs from the sludge was an exercise in itself. Before, in walking, it had been one at a time; now it was as lifting oneself from a swimming pool suddenly, except many times worse. Their legs were heavy, sore, and infected. Their arms could hardly move. The air was so corrupted that good air to power the muscles was impossible to get. But...at last, Thomas made it into the nook of a tree where he could stretch out his legs, gingerly to set his ankles on a branch, and his back and head leaning against another one-
The trunk sharded with a rifleshot CRACK! and he tipped backwards and headfirst at the muck. His face collided with first the branch and then the mud itself before beginning to sink in, and his frightened thoughts dashed to drowning. He scrabbled at the slime with hands and feet to sit up, but every time he set part of himself down it stuck and went under, and now his rear was sinking, his back was arched up painfully and his face now was wet and he could feel gritty, foamy slime getting into his eyes and nose...
Rusty was down from his own tree in an instant, on his feet, and put his arms around Thomas' waist and heaved the smaller man out with a wheezing effort. He wobbled but stayed sturdy enough to set Thomas down on his feet before leaning against what remained of the broken tree. He was panting with an odd and gaining heaviness, each breath intaken whistling, each outgoing puff of air strained. His arms were hanging limply and he began to sag. His face was bright red and he was soaking with more sweat than either of the others.
"Rusty? Are you...what's happening, are you okay? Rusty?" Thomas pressed on, growing more agitated with fear as his friend went weaker and weaker at the knees, breath rapid and hissing and squeaking like a dog killing a chew toy.
"It must be---it must be some kind of lung condition," Eva said sharply, safely perched in a tree. "My youngest kid's got one of those asthma things, I guess this air must be--"
"Well what do I do!" Thomas shouted. "What am I supposed to do?!"
"I don't know, my husband takes care of all the doctor stuff!"
Rusty bent with his hands on the mud, one on his throat. He was squealing at a fast three breaths per second. Thomas fidgeted in panic. This wasn't supposed to happen! He never knew this about Rusty, or about anyone, or how to deal with it! It was probably the most simple thing to take care of if only he had the knowledge to do so!
Rusty suddenly sucked in deeply, with a teapot noise, and he clenched his teeth shut and squeezed his eyes, from which a steady stream of tears were flowing, apparently of their own free will. His nose and mouth were running with mucous and he kept his mouth shut, holding in that precious dirty breath for one, two, three...ten seconds...At half a minute he gasped it out and sucked in another and almost hyperventilated again but stopped, forcing his breath to be calm. The high noises of his tight throat were diminished now. He nodded and gave a thumbs-up and a weak smile.
"Jesus H. Christ, you scared the hell out of me," Thomas said, not angrily.
"Sah...suh...sorry," Rusty said.
"Too much stress," said Eva. "Sometimes when my youngest--"
She screamed. The men looked up.
Her torso was clamped within the mighty and large jaws of a long-necked, eyeless beast, its head resembling a polished silver eagle skull. It had no teeth, only a sharp hook on the end of its beak, and its beak edges were fine as razors. Eva Spriggs was sliced in half with one good gyration of its jaws. It walked around the trees on its very four long deer-like legs towards the men. They couldn't move. They were too weak to get up to run. They only watched as it came to stand before them, as tall as a giraffe with all the same proportions, and viewed it in amazement as it bent its head down towards them. Thomas now saw that it wasn't eyeless; it had a row of seven tiny, black-bead eyes on each side of its face. A single nostril gaped on top of its beak, but was crusted over and unkempt.
"At least I'll die quick," Rusty said as it turned its head sideways and bit off his.
Thomas had to get out of here. He was making slow revelations in his head the entire time on this world. The garbage disposals did not transform refuse into good materials again. It dumped the garbage here, and then stole its resources back to Earth. When the cat had gone in, what came out was not in any possible way a cat, but a cat-volumed half of...something else. They had good reason to want to kill humans. But Thomas didn't want to die. He had to get back and tell everyone what he knew...before the company kidnapped him and threw him through another portal. They already know.
He tried to pull himself out of the mud and found that sitting there so long had caused him to sink in a fair bit. Not even the strongest tug of every last reserve of energy he could muster could displace him now.
His head was soon chopped off into the beak of the monster and spat out to sit next to Rusty's. By the next day, they were gone beneath the mud.
"I'm not sure I liked the way you dealt with all of them," said one of the suits.
"Which ones?" said another.
"All of them. You were too inconsistent. Like you were having fun doing away with them in different ways. You shot the boys, you poisoned two of the workers, and you tossed the rest in a portal."
"Well, they had to make sense, of course. Those three poor workers died almost instantly from the hazardous materials. The boys weren't even there, of course. Someone might ask why two hooligans were there at a garbage dump, and then it might get to...well, you know. What happened. So I had the bodies roughed up and we dumped 'em in a gang area and fired a couple'a gunshots into the air and left for someone else to find them."
Shrug. "I also wanted to test out that poison. I didn't make it, I found it...it came out of one of the portals. I've been trying to get specific things out of it for a while to learn all I can about that other world."
"Well, I've actually gotten...signs of intelligent life. It's definitely not just a bunch of strange animal aliens. There is a dominant, sapient life-form there. I'm worried..."
"Worried that they'll reverse engineer the portals and get revenge, you idiot! You never think anything through!"
"It's too late now! How can I pull these off the market?! I'm richer than everyone in the world because of my 'invented' technology!"
"What--why did you say it like that? ' "Invented" '."
"Well...I didn't exactly...invent it. I actually..."
"Reverse engineered it."
The angry suit sat back in his chair as the sentence reverberated through his mind like a resounding, solemn drum. "So they..."
"They were fiddling around with the idea when they accidentally sent their own prototype through itself, or something like that, the scientific texts are a little hard to decipher."
"Idiot. Stupid damn idiot. Goddamn." Sigh. "I'm out." The suit stood.
"What was that?"
"I said I'm out."
"No, not that. That."
It was like a whirring, crackling tornado, and it was opening right into this very building, like many buildings around the world at once, because They were not so stupid as to only have one prototype. They knew better. They had originally planned to use these portals to meet other worlds and make friendly contact and friendly trades. But no; this chance was ruined, and this evil and abusive planet had to be destroyed before it could corrupt anymore planets.
A river of stinking sludge poured in and flooded the room in minutes. All over, every trade made, or rather, every cheap and dirty and stolen backhanded barter, was being undone--taken back. All the good, clean things were being restored to their home. All the filth was set on Earth where it was created. All the sweet air exchanged with the broken green atmosphere. The ozone replenished; Earth's died and gaped. The streets ran black. The houses were torn apart and replaced with rotting, termite-infested, shattered trees. All was made as it was in the first place. Everything was right with the worlds. Except for one detail.
Back on the alien planet, the cat, unharmed, was an honored souvenir to its new owners.