David Loukidelis

Art by craiyon.com

The Breadmakers

August 14, 2022

Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.

Ezekiel 1:15-18

I was biking home from work on one of those days of summer when it’s not too humid outside and I can expect to arrive at my office without getting sweaty. I was nearly home, and since I can hop into the shower as soon as I get there I like to push it a bit harder when heading that way. Cassie had asked me to grab a couple of things from the store. Butter, some salad greens, mustard. She was baking at home; it was her dinner night. Sausages, salad, fresh bread; I was hungry. I dodged through an intersection after a quick glance to each side, ignoring the stop sign. Iowa stop. I looked up at the shady green street ahead of me, panting, working the pedals like a steam engine. Then something unexpected happened. I don't know exactly what, really. I was here and then I wasn't. Well, I was riding my bike and then I wasn't riding my bike, home from the store, my groceries in my pannier bags. But then I didn't have groceries or panniers, and I was on my feet in an empty room. That’s the only way I can really describe it. I was riding my bike, and then I was standing in this room; dimly lit, appearing to be a perfect cube, with a kind of grey cement-like interior. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed a figure standing in front of me, humanoid. It was exactly my height, of this I'm quite confident, and it was grey, appearing to be made of the same cement as the walls. The jolt of my apparent teleportation had me in a decidedly uncomfortable state. I did not know at this point that I had been abducted by aliens. I figured that out later.

The stone statue seemed to gaze at me under its prominent singular brow, though I could not discern actual eyes under the shadow. Its head resembled one those heads from Easter Island; those massive stone faces with large brows, long sloping noses, and pouty lips. For a few moments we stared at each other and only my ragged breath could be heard, escaping from between my lips, absorbed by the walls. I did not think to move. Then it spoke, with a calm and measured voice that was not altogether alien; a sort of gender-neutral announcer voice: "Hello" it said, though its lips did not move. It said this as if beginning a service announcement, like its next words would be "–please don't forget your bags as you depart the train." But there was a hint of solidity in the voice also – something formidable beneath its placid surface.

Now after a minute or so of staring in complete silence at this man-shaped thing, the initial shock of my teleportation was wearing off and replacing itself with a rising panic and disorientation. I tried to speak, but was only successful at moving my mouth into a kind of gape. Then the announcer voice again said: "Hello. Please don't panic, you aren't in any immediate danger." While hearing this from this man did not inspire me with a significant amount of increased assuredness, I was able to – maybe in partial credit to that soothing tone – regain my composure enough to say a word. That word sounded something like "Eeeugghwhaaa–?" which is almost certainly not the finest word ever crafted by a man but would have to suffice as the first one gasped by one man to an intelligent life not of his own species.

Though really I did not yet grasp this. If I had to say what my impression was of this creature at the time, I would have told you that I thought I was speaking to a man in costume. Again, this thing was exactly my height, with a completely nondescript smooth grey body; and when I say that it looked like an Easter Island statue, I really mean that it looked like if you took one of those big stone heads, shrunk it down to human size, and put it right on top of a body that was an equivalently abstract human representation. I saw no fingers or toes at the ends of its limbs. Shape-wise, it was like the creature had booties and mitts on, except that there was no seam or discontinuity at the wrists and ankles; no genitals, no belly button; just smooth grey skin, like an unkilned clay statue.

At this point, my throat unclenched enough that I could manage a few words, so I asked the only question that someone in my situation should:

"What… the fuck?" Again, not the best introductory words in the first inter-species conversation, but I did not understand myself as a diplomat for all humanity. In fact, I felt rather more like a beetle turned on its back, flailing. It spoke.

"Don't worry, I can and will answer your questions." Said my easter island head. And continued: "How are you feeling?"

How was I feeling? The question felt strangely abstract in the moment. I? Feeling? My cortisol-addled mind fumbled for self-concept, and attempted but failed to compile the cocktail of signals bouncing through its electric hallways into a descriptive word. My neurons scattered like cockroaches, each unable to bear the load being asked of it.

"How the hell do you think?" I managed, deflecting.

"Fair enough.", the being acknowledged, "In a purely physical sense, do you feel healthy?"

I assessed my beating heart, the sweat dripping from my palms, and the dryness of my mouth. "Sure" I fibbed. “Who the fuck are you?”

"Glad to hear it.” It replied, ignoring my question. “You look… vital. Now, I understand that you are undoubtedly bewildered. I would like to let you know that you need not worry. You have been raptured."

I could not immediately respond. It waited.

"Raptured?" I repeated after a time, confused.

"Raptured, yes. I believe that is the correct English word. You have been chosen."

I thought about that one for a minute. It gave me pause, because up until this point I hadn't constructed anything with what my senses were feeding me; no higher-order analysis of what might be going on. I considered the being before me again and realized that I no longer interpreted it to be a man in a costume. It was not quite believable. The body looked almost decorative; it was too slender for the large, heavy looking head. This thing, what is this thing?

"Who are you?" I blurted, reasserting my demand.

This time there was no immediate reaction from the face of this stone man. I could not imagine what it would look like for it to take any expression but the stern, stoic face it had worn up until this point.

"I am a sort of representative" it spoke after a minute. "Or perhaps I could be better understood as an interface. I am a simplification; something that you can see and understand to make this process smoother. Humans respond better to a familiar figure."

It didn’t look too familiar to me, and I sure as hell didn’t understand. An interface?

"You represent God?" I asked.

“God?” It responded. I was fairly sure I heard the intonation of a question.

“Rapture. You said I’m being raptured.”

It did not respond immediately.

"I represent what you might understand as gods in the classical Greek sense. I can't describe them in any other way, except that to you they are like gods."

"There is no rapture in Greek mythology."

"You're right. I had to borrow a Christian word to find an appropriate concept, but I think it is apt."

"So I've ascended to heaven? The world is ending? I don't see clouds and pearly gates."

I was regaining my ability to speak properly, and some confidence in my diaphragm to take breaths without them sounding like ragged gasps.

"The world that you know is ending indeed. But no, you are not ascending to heaven. It would be closer to say that you will be going to the garden of Eden."

This revelation did not bring me much closer to understanding what was going on. But I began to think about the words that this interface man was telling me. The world that you know is ending. The garden of Eden. Greek gods. The world that you know is ending. I did not really believe this being to be telling the truth, but even if I wanted to I could not believe it, or even imagine it. I thought for a second of Cassie. At home, pulling bread from the oven; waiting for me to return from the store. I made this thought dissolve, and forced myself to resurface from my mind and meet the eye of the interface again. It could sense my puzzlement.

"I can try to explain further. That is my purpose for being here, talking to you, after all. Are you familiar with the concept of fermentation?"

"Like, in winemaking?"

"Or breadmaking, beermaking, yoghurtmaking. You humans use it quite adeptly. But yes, you have the right idea. Essentially, using a microbial culture to make food more digestible, or desirable in some other way.”

“I guess so.” I answered.

”The gods that created me ferment their food also."

This branch of conversation felt like a detour. I was still hung up on that "end of the world" thing. I forced myself to focus on what the interface was saying. Fermentation. I imagined grape juice, and little microbes consuming sugar and excreting alcohol. Desirable, indeed. I focused real hard on the interface, squinting my eyes. This thing. Could it be alien technology? I had ruled out man-in-a-suit theory; but can I really believe what I am hearing right now? I thought of bread. Flour, water, starter. Cassie keeps the starter in the fridge. Dough rising on the counter, then baking in the oven. The delicious smell. That stupid, placid stony face staring blankly in my direction. What kind of sick practical joke... they must have hit me in the back of the head, my kidnappers. That's why I think I teleported. They hit me from behind on the head so now I can't remember anything. They placed me here, standing up. Standing up? I looked behind me, half expecting another, maybe bigger, Easter Island man to be there blocking some steel door. I couldn't make out anything that hinted at an exit. The walls were just as bare and smooth, betraying nothing.

I turned back around to face it. I wanted to cry out for help. Instead I did something much more irrational. I lunged forward at the figure. I don't know why. Call it flight or fight; call it hotheadedness. I lunged at the grey man. I had half expected to bounce off its solid looking body like it was truly stone statue, and braced for the impact. Instead, I absolutely tanked it; bringing us both to the floor. The figure had buckled under my amateurish tackle, showing no signs of resistance at all. On the ground I scrambled up its body towards its neck and placed my forearm firmly under its stupid Easter Island chin. The skin of this humanoid was cool and surprisingly soft. I dug in with my body weight.

"Don't move!" I grunted. It showed no intention of trying. "I'll break your neck like a twig if you move. Do exactly what I say." The interface again showed no signs of trying to disobey me, and I felt my initial burst of aggression falter a little. "Tell your masters, or whoever is waiting for us outside this room, to come in here. If they don't, I'll kill you. I want to talk to them."

"You can kill me. You'd only be cutting out your own ears." It said. This was intoned like a mother warning her well-intentioned but naive child against a foolish action. Though I was choking it, I could not hear strain in its voice.

"What?"

"This process does not require your knowledge of it to be successful. I exist here only for your benefit. You could kill me, and remain ignorant."

"Why are you here at all then?"

“My creators would like for you to know what is happening to you. Not necessarily out of concern for you as an individual. More as a test."

"A test?"

"Part test, part ritual. I cannot really explain without explaining something else first. Are you ready to hear what I have to say?"

We lay there, suspended partway through a bad action sequence; me on top, pinning the interface down, my forearm dug into its neck. I could not feel a seam there, or the bottom of a mask. I rolled off the limp figure, panting. It remained where it was on the ground. We lay there in silence for a minute.

“Fine, tell me what your gods want you to tell me.”

The interface turned its head to look at me. We lay there in parallel, regarding each other. Suddenly I had the impression that we looked like post-coital lovers. This image bubbled up in my frayed consciousness with a comedic timing that forced me to let out a haggard laugh.

“You are a strange creature, to laugh at this time. I will tell you what you need to know, if you are ready to listen.”

I did not answer. It understood my silence as assent.

“We were discussing fermented foods; something that your species makes use of across all your various cultures. You understand this process?”

“Basically. Sure.” I said, regaining my composure.

“Well, the gods that I have told you about. They also use a fermentation process to make food to their liking. These creatures, my masters, they are world-eaters. I mean this in the most literal sense. They devour planets to absorb energy. However, they will not eat worlds “raw”. They like for them to be… processed. Your species, humanity, acts like the bacterial culture. You see, your species can be relied upon to pre-digest the energy sources that the gods rely on: petroleum. This matter is distasteful to the gods in their raw form. Humans extract and convert it into palatable polymers, what you call plastics”.

I wasn’t able to immediately understand. My physical systems had again begun to signal panic. The rising feeling in my chest distracted me for a moment. Plastics. What the hell? I didn’t get it. These creatures eat entire planets for plastics? This isn’t real. This isn’t happening. I dissolved. My mind completely emptied itself and the room went fuzzy. When I refocused on my surroundings, the interface had not moved. It appeared frozen in its mock lover’s sprawl; this image was grotesque to me now.

“These gods use us for plastic?”

“Your species is quite reliable at converting rich petroleum deposits into polymer material, given enough time. Now that your planet, Earth as you call it, has become saturated with plastics, it is ready for consumption. You have been taken along with a sample of other humans to seed a new planet. Your batch will act as the starter to develop a new culture, in the microbiological sense of the word. To prepare this new world. In this way, the process repeats itself.”

My head spun. I thought again of Cassie, then of my parents. Friends. I felt a twinge of desperation. I closed my eyes. Then thinking of them became physically impossible, and I began inexplicably to think of the woman who had sold me my groceries only an hour or so ago, as best I could tell. A middle-aged woman, grey cropped hair, plump, and all cheerfulness. Clocking out of her shift at Valu-mart. Taking off her apron. Getting into her car. Turning the ignition. I could see her, clear in my mind’s eye. Then, inexplicably, I saw a little boy sitting at a kitchen table, watching while his mother poured orange juice into his cup. Then I saw a fisherman in an old boat, watching the water on a misty still morning. A pharoah of Egypt watching his slaves construct a pyramid. A woman working a loom in a sweatshop in India. Tribes at war. The painting of the Sistine Chapel. Jesus on the cross. A child swimming through a trash-filled canal in a Nigerian slum. A million more images flashed in my mind. A plastic injection mould opening up to reveal a red toy shovel. A plastic bag floating in the ocean. A doctor discarding a medical mask. I felt the weight of it; the sheer and infinite volume of human experience, crushing me all at once. Nobody to remember. Existing for no purpose except to create plastic. Fermented oil. How could this be?

“How can this be?” I stuttered.

“I understand this revelation is traumatic”, my interface replied. “But you must consider that to these creatures, you are like insects. Your consciousness is only a theoretical idea, and they do not feel empathy for you. Your relative simplicity assures them that there is no great loss in your destruction. The universe will not miss your science, your math, or your art. Your discoveries are only rudimentary, and you are considered to be quite inanimate by these beings I have called gods. This conversation, my disclosure to you of your fate, assures them of your non-sentience.”

“The test?”

“Yes. I mentioned it as the reason why you and I are here. My existence is for the purpose of what is essentially a religious rite; illumination. The gods believe that by telling you what they are doing, they are giving you a fair chance to prove your sentience. They believe that if a culture of humans can preserve the knowledge you are now being given, over the span of a whole civilization, and avoid fulfilling their role as oil-eaters, then it would not be ethical to use and discard you for their purposes.”

I considered this for a minute.

“Yes, I will. I will preserve this knowledge. We will not forget.”

“I find this unlikely, personally. Again, this is mostly a formality. The possibility of you keeping this knowledge is quite remote, essentially impossible. You will be one of the first humans of your new world. Your life will be consumed by trying to survive. To find food, and create shelter. Your children, grandchildren and their grandchildren will live similarly. In all likelihood, it will be hundreds of thousands of years before your descendants are advanced enough to begin to record their histories in writing. By which point your stories will be ancient myths, if they survive at all.”

“Has… has this happened before?”

“Countless times. I do not know how many.”

The Easter island head looked at me placidly. I stared back into the stony face; the absence of eyes under its protruding brow; the long abstract nose with no nostrils. The face that looked so much like the statues I had seen in pictures from a dead civilization. I now realized with a reeling horror that It was no coincidence. This being was not created in the likeness of those heads. This was the original. The Easter island statues were imitations. Unheard warnings. My throat tightened, and my stomach dropped. I gasped for air, and could speak no further. It didn’t matter; our conversation was done.

“I have fulfilled my duty to you, human. Go forth, and multiply. Your descendants will meet me again one day. Goodbye.”

I stared blankly at the statue. It made no further sounds. And then everything disappeared again; the statue, the walls of the room disappeared like a movie cut. Now I was floating in space. I could see the stars, the milky way, the moon. And right there in the centre of my vision was earth. Our blue and white ball. I felt cold, but my body was sweating intensely. I hung there, suspended like an insect in a spider’s web. Then, as I watched, a shadow began to pass over the earth. From left to right, a black mass covered the continents, and I realized that it was being engulfed by something magnificent. In a few seconds it was gone. The shadow moved on, blotting out stars as it went, and I could see the stars that had been hidden behind Earth. No sign was left of my home planet. I stared there, where it had been, for a minute. My eyes fixed on the spot where my life and the life of everyone I knew had been lived.

Then, as I floated there, an enormous shape ascended into my field of vision from below. It appeared to me to be larger than the planet that had just been there, engulfing my entire field of vision. It was a collection of concentric rings, spinning around an invisible centre, creating the impression of a massive orb. On each ring I could see millions of eyes, like the eyes of a spider, all seemingly fixed on me. In the centre of the rings I could see only a bright white light that blinded me. It hovered there, and seemed to ponder me. I was empty, and could only look back at it with hollow eyes.

Then the scene changed again. I was back on solid ground. I realized I was kneeling. I looked around. I was in a field, with trees lining its edges. Above me the sky shone with the hue of dawn. I looked up and saw two crescent moons, one slightly above the other, hanging pale and low. I looked back down and realized there was another figure in the field, about two hundred feet from me. I forced my blurry vision to focus, and saw that it was a woman. She was kneeling also. From where I was, I could not see her face. She was hunched over, but I could see that her body was convulsing in dramatic shudders. She was weeping. I began to cry too.