If you wanted an easy life in Reclamation, you didn’t let the bodies pile up. Dyson knew this from experience. If you kept the bodies shifting along nicely, then the fall from the conveyor belt in the ceiling almost always killed them. After all, they had no arms or legs to break their fall, so a snapped neck or a burst skull was practically assured. This being the case, it was an easy enough thing to spot the “A” or “B” branded on their chest, lodge the pitching fork under their chin, and heave them into the relevant chute.
It was when the bodies started to pile up that things got a little messy. If it was a busy day, or you were a little slow because maybe your back hurt, or maybe you were feeling a little demotivated because your wage allowance had gone down again, or your seventy hour week had suddenly become an eighty hour week, or because the Helping Hands didn’t like the look of you and had decided to break your shins, then the bodies would create something of a cushion in the landing zone, and the fall became less than lethal.
This wasn’t the end of the world, as such, but the way the torsos twitched and struggled and wept and stared at you was off-putting to say the least. At least they couldn’t scream– their mouths were sewn up before even the mechanical process that separated them from their arms and legs, before even the examination and branding. But they would struggle, which was odd, because they really shouldn’t have been aware of what was happening to them. They shouldn’t have had any references to pain or panic. Any references at all really, vat grown as they were.
Dyson used to perform a small mercy for the strugglers, twisting his pitching fork in such a way that it would break their necks, or at the very least choke them to unconsciousness, but on particularly busy days there was not even time for that, and he would have to hurl them, weeping and jerking, into the relevant chute. He wondered if they suffered more in the reject chute, there to be incinerated to ashes, or the reclamation chute, there to have their organs carefully and efficiently removed before being dumped in the wash tub, where chemicals would soften their flesh for easy removal. He doubted any of the bodies survived long enough to experience being flayed utterly to the bone, but the thought sometimes made Dyson wake in the night, wondering who was screaming, realizing, embarrassed, that it was only him.
Today the flow was steady and so far Dyson was on top of things. He was a good worker; dependable, stolid. Twenty years behind the fork will give a methodical man a certain state of mind. He will ignore the ache in his back, he will cease to wonder at the ticking of the clock, and he will put one foot in front of the other while his mind floats somewhere else in a kind of hibernation, waiting for the whistle that would signal his reprieve. Not for Dyson the crutches of the other workers in Reclamation. Not for Dyson the stims to keep the mind perky, or the licorice flavor-rubs to filter out the smell of bad cheese and disinfectant.
Dyson was strong. Dyson was efficient. Dyson hadn’t had a conversation with another human being in five years.
He jabbed with his fork and heaved a wobbling meat-sack into chute A. Behind him came the reassuring smack of skull on floor. He wondered if he was proud of his job, and realised with dull alarm that even if he was, would he recognize it? Was pride something he would know instinctively? Something that would reignite the blackened matchstick days? Unlikely.
Dyson would never know the feel of pride, but he could at least feel useful. His job was a necessary one, or course. Since the Great Malaise, ages long before his birth, the vat grown clones were the only viable source of protein in all of Valhalla. Without them, the masses would have to survive solely on the vending machine splodges of brown vegetable mass, white vegetable mass, orange vegetable mass, and on holiday occasions, yellow vegetable mass.
When Dyson had first taken the position jovially referred to as ‘Forker’ he had tried to give up the meat-patties. This was a usual thing, apparently, for new forkers. He had nearly starved himself to death before eventually giving in and bringing a patty to his lips. The vegetable allowances were simply not enough to live on.
To be fair, most of the masses enjoyed the meat-patties well enough. Oh, they knew where they came from, but there was a difference between knowing and looking into the weeping, terrified eyes of an adolescent quadriplegic about to face utter annihilation.
Every few months the Guiding Light would announce further progress in reclaiming the animal genome sequences from human donors, and there would be some token excitement and chatter at the possibility of conjuring a pig, or a cow, or even a chicken from the common cellular ancestry found in humans. The aim being, eventually, that they might resurrect the long extinct animals, and make them once again into slaves.
Dyson had surmised long ago that these announcements were inherently misleading in their optimism. After all, didn’t he shovel up the results? The twisted spindles of limbs and tortured flesh that were inevitably stamped with a “B”? The mutants who didn’t even need the fall to kill them, their lives already ended by erupting digestive systems or some otherwise betrayal of flesh?
No. There would be no chickens or lambs or cows in fields for the masses to lord over. And even if there were, where would they roam? What would they eat? If there was not enough processed vegetable mass for the people, then what would you feed the livestock?
Dyson suspected, deep in his sleeping mind, that society was something like a snake eating its own tail. The animals were gone, lost ages past to the malaise that took not just the beasts of the air and field and sea, but a goodly portion of all that was arable. They would not come back, and even if they did, would they want to? Would it be any better to put a dumb animal on these conveyor belts, other than a dumb clone? Would their suffering be any less? Would they be any less significant?
These were ethical thoughts, and Dyson, who had shovelled away a million or more soulless meat-puppets to their doom, had put on a shelf his understanding of ethical.
The masses were harvested, their genetic material mixed and matched in a hurricane of sperm and blood and science. Then they were processed, re-birthed for fuel and food and replacement organs. Then they were eaten. Then they were harvested. So it went on. It was not ethical, it was simply a kind of monstrous masturbation. Fucking yourself on an epic, species-wide scale.
Dyson bent his back to his work, his black skin made grey in places with dust matted to sweat, his muscles shifting and sliding like cable, his heavy brow creased over a blank slate of a face.
He contemplated the week ahead. The work, mostly, of course. Eating the same meal he always ate in his cubicle sized apartment. The state-sanctioned video games and drama-vids until the eventual sleep, which he enjoyed most of all. The maybe trip to a bar, where he might drink synthesized coffee and think about talking to people, but never actually would. The mandatory visit to the Spank Bank, where he would enter a musky booth, stick his dick in a portal, and watch a randomly generated holo-vid of whatever was currently popular in porn while a machine sucked him off and swallowed his genetic material. This would, of course, be the highlight of his week. Then the work again, always, forever.
Dyson was shook free of contemplation as his pitching fork found a struggler. His arms began to move without thinking, taking the necessary steps to end the faux-life before him, but stopped as the inner him realized something his wandering mind had not.
The struggler was him.
Down to the shape of the skull. Down to the heavy brow. Down to the one eye green and one eye brown that other people might find alluring had he ever looked anyone in the eye. The struggler was him, not yet dead from shock or blood loss, alive enough to look directly up at him. And Dyson saw something he had not seen before in the struggler’s eyes. Beneath the usual hot panic and cold despair, he saw something that should not have been there. He saw recognition.
He felt an awakening of himself in that moment, as though his soul had suddenly caught up with his body after a long chase. He thought to cry out, to roar his outrage, to weep like a child and bemoan this fresh new horror. He did none of these things. He picked up the struggler by the neck, and hurled it into the relevant chute. And though his body shook, and his mind screamed, and his guts swirled, Dyson worked the rest of his shift without comment.
At shift-whistle Dyson hung up his pitching fork and made his way across the metal-grilled floor toward the awaiting elevator. He swiped out his omnicard, pulled aside the gate and stood with the likewise silent men and women of D-shift, all of them identically attired in the state-provided grey overalls and boots. There was a squeal that begged for maintenance as the elevator began its slow and juddering ascent from the basement levels. Dyson watched the other floors as he passed. The cutting room, the stamping room, the quality control floor, marketing, then the usual ten minutes of blank solid metal as they passed the laboratory floors.
Eventually they reached topside, which, as with everything in Valhalla, was really just a different basement. He trudged down the corridor, steps clanging in time with fellow workers, each of them filtering off into different corridors, their way lit by flickering track lighting. Those who lived in Valhalla made do with a little less than those who lived above them in Shangri La, who in turn made do with less than those above them in Nirvana. Dyson did not suspect it was a matter of class- they were all workers of one kind or another- it was just that the cleaners, maintenance men and council-workers were all based in the upper floors, and so by the time they reached Valhalla they had usually run low on an already stringent supply of fucks to give. Dyson supposed that this was just human nature, and that if he ever killed himself he’d be sure to do it on an upper floor, so that his body might be found before it had turned to cheese-paste.
Even the ad-boards didn’t work properly in Valhalla. Where the corridors in other levels rarely went a square foot without a neon billboard for this or that stim or sex-service, many in Valhalla had darkened, either fallen to vandalism or neglect. Dyson considered this a small blessing.
He trudged along, and when he passed a glowering contingent of Helping Hands, each a different shade of black in their poorly fitted plastic armor, he kept his gaze to the floor. Dyson was a big guy, and people liked to pick fights with big guys, especially if they knew that said big guy would not fight back. The Helping Hands said nothing at first, though one spat at his feet as he passed. Dyson walked on without comment.
“Why you looking at your shoes, clone-fucker?” called a voice behind him. “Don’t you know you can’t fuck your shoes? Why would you fuck your shoes, you clone-fucking mother-fucker?”
Dyson kept walking, resisting the urge to shake his head. He considered himself to be fairly dumb, but the Helping Hands would always make him feel like an unsung genius whenever they opened their mouths. He supposed that creative thinking was not a prerequisite to recruitment. Not that he’d ever suggest so. The Helping Hands were given relative autonomy in keeping order, and were enthusiastic in doing so. They might think you drunk and disorderly, or loitering with intent, or looking at them funny, and then they would enjoy breaking out every single one of your teeth with a billy-club before hauling you to a holding cell.
The holding cells were up near The Right Hand of Allah, and were supposedly each of them bigger than Dyson’s apartment. He guessed there might be an irony in this, but he was not interested enough to dig for it.
Dyson rounded a corner and started as he almost bumped into a figure. A pasty white face with x’s for eyes looked up at him from under a tatty beret. The figure stepped back, revealed as maybe a girl or maybe a woman– difficult to tell under the makeup, even if she was dressed in a manner to showcase as much of her skinny frame as possible. She didn’t so much wear as ride a black mini skirt. A striped black and white top floated above her midriff, thin black braces pushed against clementine breasts. Her thighs were bare until the knee, when cheap stockings took over until the whole ensemble ended abruptly at a pair of ridiculously large red shoes. She grinned broadly with red lips and yellow teeth, put a gloved hand behind her back and produced a bladder horn, which she honked at the same time as her other hand squeezed her breast. She gave a salacious wink that may have been textbook, if such a textbook existed.
Dyson blinked, puzzled, so abruptly pulled into human contact that he struggled to remember how human contact was supposed to go. The mime clearly wasn’t a street entertainer, because street entertainers in Valhalla were rare as saints. More likely she was a sex-worker, the last bastion of entrepreneurialism in a world of government rationed sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Up against the state-sanctioned mega-whores and digital sex booths, common street walkers were constantly adapting to more and more specific kinks to stay in business. Dyson supposed that clown-fucking was among the least harmful of these.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, but the words came out as bone-dust. He squeezed past and continued walking. The mime followed in step, matching his gait, wearing a comic expression of misery. Dyson turned to look at her, and tried to remember how smiling was supposed to go.
The mime’s eyes suddenly widened. She put a hand to her mouth as though shocked, and with her other hand lifted up the front of her skirt. There revealed a perfectly pale pussy, the jet black pubic hair shaved carefully into an exclamation mark.
Dyson cleared his throat, making room for unfamiliar words. “I don’t have any money,” he said.
The mime sighed, then put two fingers to her lips, eyebrows raising in quiet question.
Dyson shook his head. “No, no vaporettes either. No stims, no pills, nothing like that. Sorry.”
The mime bowed her head, looked at him with all the sadness in the world, and slowly rubbed her gloved hand across her belly.
Dyson sighed. Then fumbled in his overall pocket until he pulled out a half eaten mash bar. The wrapper advertised it as chocolate flavour, its manufacturers knowing full well that nobody remembered what chocolate actually tasted like. “Here,” he said.
The mime took it with a smile, and then raised her eyebrows in question again. She put a fist to the side of her mouth and stuck her tongue into her cheek. Dyson was a little while understanding the pantomime.
“Oh. Thank you, no. No, I have to get home. You have a good evening.”
The mime shrugged, took a bite of the mash bar and skipped away down the corridor.
“Don’t go back that way!” Dyson called after her, his voice cracking with unfamiliar exertion. “There’s Helping Hands back there. Looking bored, you know?”
The mime nodded, threw him a smart salute and then marched primly in the opposite direction.
Dyson watched as she disappeared around a corner, then he watched the space where she had been for a while. Then he turned and walked on, alone.