Arwin fled from the blue bloods as fast as he could, heart racing from the danger and the pace, vaulting roots and gullies, swerving between trunks, and trying to find the most difficult terrain that might slow down the horses hot on his tail.
A thunderous crack sounded from above.
Arwin looked up into the pale, clear-blue sky. Something tumbled towards him. It seemed to grow larger as it fell. At the last moment, he threw himself to the side. Looking at the ground next to him, he blinked. Huh? A bolt of cloth?
Another sharp crack resounded through the forest. Arwin looked back and saw the nobles gesturing towards the sky. He looked up and more specks appeared out of the blue. They fell towards him.
He threw his arms over his head for protection and continued to run as bolts of cloth, all kinds of steel bolts, and even bolts of lightning slammed down into the forest floor around him. Bolts from the blue! The way the men had cast their hands towards the sky, Arwin was sure they were some kind of magic users. He was being attacked by spells! Apparently that was a lot less exciting in person than when it happened to other people in books.
Steel bolts painfully ricocheted off Arwin’s shoulders and back. A bolt of cloth caught the side of his head, stunning him. He slowed and stumbled around the forest floor. A bolt of lightning just missed him, splitting a nearby blue spruce instead. The tree moaned with despair as it fell into two pieces, one of which caught Arwin and knocked him to the ground, trapping him.
Arwin clutched his aching head and looked up at the three horsemen reining in above him.
“Let’s gut him!” the monocled man enthused with vicious glee. He was obese, with a fleshy face and small, pig-like eyes.
“No. I shall grind him into paste and turn him into fertilizer for my flowers,” growled Azamont.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen. Control your savage urges,” the third man said with icy calm. He was tall and reedy thin, a calculating look in his eyes. “Waste not, want not, as they say? He’s a fine, strapping lad. Look at the muscle on him. Why kill him when we can put him to work as one of our slaves? The livestock always needs replenishing.”
Monocle nodded reluctantly, double chin bobbing, looking like he’d prefer to see blood spilled. “Ah, make a blue collar worker out of him. I like it. Though it means the chase does lack a satisfyingly bloody ending.”
Azamont snarled with resignation, evidently seeing the other man’s good sense, although not happy about it. “Very well. Always the voice of reason, Tremblée. I suppose we should be grateful.”
Tremblée reached a spindly arm into a saddlebag and pulled out a blue, metal ring. He dismounted and snicked it closed around Arwin’s neck. It was a collar, much like a dog might wear.
Arwin heard the lock click shut and an immediate change came over him. This was worse than the blue field had been. Now, he wasn’t just melancholy, he felt downright beaten. He felt lower class. He felt hopeless. When they hauled him to his feet, his shoulders sagged and his back stooped. His only method of walking seemed to be the trudge: the slow, weary, depressing walk of a man who has nothing left in life and who moves only at the behest of his betters. He’d been transformed into a blue collar worker, and their slave.
They herded him through the evergreen (everblue-and-green?) forest until they came to a large, open area that looked like a dirty scar carved into the natural landscape. Other men in blue collars chopped down pines and spruce and hammered rocks to smithereens. Insufferably smug-looking men in suits with white collars stood above the blue-collared workers, the whites armed with whips and lethal-looking calculators. They moved and spoke in a way that that proclaimed their superiority to the world. Although, when then they saw their blue-blood masters, they transformed into weaselling brown-nosers.
Azamont kicked Arwin in the back, propelling him to his knees before a white-collared manager. “Put him in the blue man group. Work his fingers to the bone. Make him bleed.”
The white collar manager fawned up at the noble on horseback, his posture self-deprecating. “Yes, my lord. Of course, my lord.” As soon as the nobles had their backs turned, the demeanour of the white collar man changed. He became domineering and pushed a very sharp pencil into Arwin’s chest, drawing blood.
Arwin winced. But he made no move to defy the pencil pusher. For some strange reason, his will to fight had been sapped. What would be the point, after all? This man was a manager. Therefore, he was Arwin’s natural superior, wasn’t he? If Arwin fought back, he was sure to lose. It was inevitable because blue collar folk were naturally inferior. They were incapable of rising up against their betters.
The man thrust a business card in Arwin’s face. “See that, maggot? I’ve got a title. Says Middle Manager. Can you read that? You know what that title means, you pathetic worm? It means I’m better than you. It means I’m more successful than you. It means you’re just a lowly, inferior, no-good, nobody. And you’ll always be a no-good nobody.” He pushed the pencil into Arwin’s chest again.
Arwin gasped. That really hurt.
“Get your ass up. I said up!” The man’s whip cracked, eliciting a sharp sting from Arwin’s leg and drawing a fleck of blood.
Arwin rose, feeling empty of happiness, like his soul was a barren void of despair. What else could he do? This was his lot in life, wasn’t it? It’s not like he could ever hope for anything better. This is where he deserved to be. It was just the way he was born. He’d been made lesser than other men. He was stupid. Lazy. Incompetent. Incapable of anything in life. He could never become one of the white collars. And he could certainly never become one of the blue bloods. He was just a simple worker. It was his function to be used, a tool for others. Disposable, if necessary. Just like he’d been back on Earth.
The manager cracked the whip again. “Get your sorry, blue-collar ass over there and start breaking rocks, maggot.”
Arwin meekly complied. He found a sledgehammer and started on a small boulder. For hours he complied without question. The hammer went up, then it came down. Stone chips flew. He repeated the process. It was back-breaking labour. Though he was no stranger to such work, his hands eventually grew red and blistered at the unending rhythm. Each swing drew power from overworked muscles. Sweat poured off his body, soaking his clothes. He became as filthy as all the other blue collar workers.
As they worked, an obese, blue man, totally nude, periodically streaked the blue collar workers, rolls of fat jiggling in waves as he jogged. He’d run up to each slave, turn around, bend over, and bare his backside the poor worker. The sheer size of the nude man’s buttocks made for quite a full moon.
The white collar workers, probably because they were never targeted, did nothing but laugh and encourage the uncouth behaviour.
“Here’s your free astronomy lesson for the day, boys,” a white collar worker howled.
“Any of you want to have at it with your telescope, you just let us know,” roared another.
When the mooning happened to Arwin, he found himself much closer to the moon’s crater than he wanted to be and threw up his arm to shield his face. He fervently hoped nothing would emerge from that crater. Luckily, it remained quiescent, with no signs of volcanic activity.
A whistle sounded. The middle manager came over to Arwin. “Eating time. You’ll need the energy for your next shift.”
Arwin dumbly nodded and shuffled off towards a crude wooden canopy that the other blue collar workers were gathering under. On the way, he watched as the white collar workers met in a picturesque white gazebo. Eating like gluttons, they downed ice-cold lemonade and feasted from a buffet of succulent delights: barbecued steaks, stacks of corn cobs, bowls of caviar, lobster tails, a dozen kinds of bread, and an array of pastas. There was so much glorious food laden on their tables that it could have fed all the whites and blues together twice over and still remained only half touched. Much of it would go to waste.
The blue collar fare was much less appetizing. It consisted of luke-warm gruel, one ladle per bowl. No seconds. Arwin took his and planted himself in the dirt under the wooden roof next to his comrades.
As he ate in misery, something nagged the back of Arwin’s mind. Something was wrong, something about his situation. But what? Was it his nutritionless food? His downtrodden lot in life? When such rebellious thoughts dared invade his mind, he felt a flare of anxiety. Instinctively, he tried to bury them. But they would not be denied. Something in his subconscious refused to be kept down. Near panic, he could only watch as the rebellious emotion wormed its way up and burst from within, swamping his mind with illicit ideas.
Arwin’s eyes widened. He remembered. He remembered who he was and why he was here. This was no natural place for him. It was a prison unfairly enforced on him by the white collars and the other self-styled elites. He had to break free.
He wanted to rise, but still found it difficult to control his body. His movements were sluggish, resisting attempts at independent action or freedom. He reached up for the collar and experienced a nasty shock as he tried to unlock it.
“Careful, son,” the man next to him advised. “That’s not wise.”
Arwin looked over at the speaker. Like everyone else he’d seen so far, the man had blue skin. Arwin flexed his fingers, trying to make the pain go away. “How do I get it off?” he asked.
The man looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“Off?” asked another with a blank look on his face.
“What do you mean, off?” asked a third, equally unable to comprehend.
“I mean off,” Arwin replied. “I want to remove the collar. How?”
The third man shook his head. “Oh, we don’t take them off. Never. We’re blue collars. Taking them off would be trying to step above our lot in life. That’s not right.” He shuddered, as if just thinking about the idea scared him. The others nodded in agreement. They each slid a handspan further away from Arwin, putting distance between themselves and the fool talking about removing collars.
Arwin shook his head. “This isn’t your lot in life. It’s no one’s. Unless you choose it for yourself. No one is born into this and we shouldn’t be forced into it while those whites and blues lord it over us, doing little to no work themselves. They’re no better than we are.”
The blue collar workers rapidly slid even further away. They all refused to meet Arwin’s eyes.
The one beside Arwin shook his head, very serious. “It is our lot. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Besides, they remind us every day,” another man noted, gesturing at the white collars. “They’re our betters, so they would know.”
Arwin grew angry and the emotion helped fight the magic controlling him. “This is not your lot in life. You feel like this because they’re manipulating you into believing it. It’s a lie.”
“It is?” someone asked. Despite their illicit nature, Arwin saw his words slowly reaching a couple of the workers. Others were listening, even though most pretended not to be.
“Yes. It’s all lies,” Arwin affirmed. “Everything they tell you is. They’re no different than you or me. No better. They only make us believe it so that we stay beaten down, slaving away for them, making their lives better while we take less in return for our labour.”
“But, that’s not fair,” a man said, scratching his head in thought.
“No, it’s not,” Arwin agreed. “They’re selfish.”
“Selfish?” the man beside Arwin asked.
“They steal from others or trick them into giving up their fair share for less in return. They take more than they earn or deserve. The white collars are selfish. And the nobles are worse.”
A slowly growing anger rose within the blue collared workers around Arwin. Faces once dull and haggard now twisted with emotion, perhaps for the first time in a long time. Some murmured to themselves, giving voice to dangerous thoughts.
Arwin pressed his case. “They’re not real leaders. They’re just using us for their own gains. They don’t care about us; they don’t treat us fairly. Look at us. We work all day, breaking our backs for them. We eat this garbage,” he lifted his empty bowl up, “while they gorge on all that.” He pointed at the gazebo. “Why? Why do we get gruel for our hard labour and they get to feast when all they do is watch us work and tell us what to do? What gives them the right? What have they earned?”
The men all looked over at the gazebo. Faces connected to ravenously hungry stomachs grew angrier at the sight of the white collars stuffing their faces and reaching for more, or worse, taking one bite of something and then carelessly tossing the rest away. Blue-collar stomachs rumbled.
Arwin pointed at his collar. “How do we get them off?”
Some of the men looked uncertain at the idea of actually doing something to change their state. Others were bolder. Some were dismissive.
One of the men jeered. “Maybe you should ask for magic help. The Dark Enchantress lives just over yonder in the swamps. Ask her to take it off for you.”
The others laughed.
“Would she help?” Arwin asked, serious.
More laughter. One man answered. “Some say she’s a crazy old crone whose power is as great as she is ugly. Others say she’s a violent young bitch, whose power is as great as her breathtaking beauty. The one thing everyone agrees on: she’s evil, through and through. She’d kill you as soon look at you.”
Another blue collar man leaned forward, a furtive look on his face. “I heard that she’s a cannibal. Whoever is foolish enough to venture into her territory, she snatches them and carries them off to her dinner table. Then she proceeds to eat them. Raw. They say she loves the taste of raw flesh and blood.”
“Probably eat you just as soon as look at you,” the previous man said, glancing over his shoulder with a fearful look on his face, as if he expected that talking about the Enchantress might summon her. “The only person she’d ever help is herself.”
Heads nodded in agreement. The mood of the circle grew even more fearful. Another man, older, spoke. “It’s babies she likes best. She spirits her way into houses in the light of full moons. She steals our children and grandchildren while they’re still in diapers. It’s their new, tender flesh she’s after. Because it’s the most succulent.”
“No, it’s their youth she wants! She eats them to stay young. She uses them in elaborate magical rituals and their youth allows her to live forever.”
“And she always leaves a substitute in their place. Fills the cradles with goblins and vermin and the like.”
“She rides a broomstick, has wild hair as coarse as metal wires and her eyes are as red as blood. She’s the most hideous creature in existence!”
“She’s a witch!”
The fear in the men was contagious. Arwin felt it affecting himself and he’d never even met the Dark Enchantress. “So, what you’re saying is, she wouldn’t help.”
A man sharply nodded. “Exactly.”
“Well, if she won’t help, then the Enchantress isn’t a very helpful suggestion,” Arwin noted, trying to remain calm. “Anyone have a better idea?”
The man next to Arwin hesitated, then spoke. “The collars work on blue tooth technology.”
“Bluetooth?” Arwin frowned. “Wireless tech? Here?”
The man shook his head. “No. Blue tooth. Teeth. Like mine.” He opened his jaws and pointed inside his mouth. His teeth were a very light blue. Then he pointed to a hole in the front of his collar. “You need to insert a tooth, here. Then it can open.”
Arwin felt a little sick. “So we have to knock someone’s teeth out to escape?”
A blue collar worker chuckled. “Good luck. Blue teeth have really deep roots. Trying to remove a healthy one would probably just break it. Then the tooth wouldn’t work.”
Arwin frowned. “Damn. I wish there was some other way to open these things. I don’t really want to start pulling anyone’s teeth.”
“If only there was a key we could use,” one man thought aloud.
A bulb flashed over Arwin’s head, startling him. But it was gone so fast that he almost doubted it had actually been there in the first place. He blinked, then spoke. “Say, how about a dental key? If it’s for real teeth, would that work?” He’d once seen a dental key in a museum. They looked like a t-shaped corkscrew, the kind used to open wine bottles, but for teeth. They were no doubt extremely painful to experience firsthand.
The man beside Arwin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, maybe. But what’s a dental key?”
“I heard of them,” an old timer put in. “Not used any more. Hard to find. Heard they’re only found once in a blue moon.”
Everyone looked disappointed at that.
Thinking of the puns he’d encountered so far, a horrible idea came to Arwin. “Oh no,” he groaned.
“What’s wrong?” the man beside him asked.
Arwin shook his head in unease. “This world is literal, right? I’ll bet we have to find an actual blue moon.”
Half the group instinctively glanced upwards.
“But it’s daytime,” said the old timer. “And our moons are white and red. Blue moons are rare. They only happen after a forest fire or volcano. Due to dust particles in the air. Then the white moon appears blue temporarily. Besides, how could we possible reach the moon itself?”
But Arwin wasn’t talking about that moon. He sighed. “Guys, we’ve been staring a literal blue moon in the face all day long.”