I wake up a week early in an unfamiliar room, with blood on my hands.
I’m slumped on an uncomfortable chair in a cold, clean room lined with metal drawers. I can scarcely stir. The usual post-Letherol fug. I’ll just have to wait it out. Video screens in my peripheral vision play endless corporate propaganda. Smiling workers on loop. Eye-rolling stuff, but then they aren’t for my benefit. A Letherolated worker wanders through the sterile room, glancing at the screen as they pass and mirroring the glassy smiles. No doubt the video has the same beatific effect on me when I’m under the influence.
In between loops the screen displays a ticker showing rolling corporate metrics. The current share price of ChangCom. The current production rate of London 3, our unit. The time and date are displayed in the corner. I’m not scheduled to wake up for another week. What’s gone wrong?
I’m on a monthly cadence. Three weeks of work, one week off. It works well enough for me. Three solid weeks of work — night and day, no breaks — earns me enough to be able to afford that week of leisure time as well as the drugs I need for work: Somnul to override the need for sleep, Energon to prevent fatigue, and Letherol to blank the mind. Some choose other cadences. My elder brother John chose a sixty year cadence. He planned to work solidly for forty years, then enjoy a twenty year retirement. Better ratio that way. Our mother wept as he left for his first day of work. She knew there was a chance she’d never see him again, that one of them might die before his shift finished. As it happened, John died ten years in. Heart failure caused by Energon complications. John was sensible, a long-term thinker, but his gamble didn’t pay off. I’m more prodigal. I want to enjoy all stages of life, even if the returns are poorer. The thought of waking up an old man, my youth devoured by Letherol, terrifies me even more than the thought of not waking up at all.
I wasn’t always on Letherol. I couldn’t afford it; few could. I used to be conscious for every stultifying moment of every interminable shift. I started off as a box hauler; my dexterity isn’t good enough for the manual fabrication work that robots used to do before the Industrial Regression. Endless back and forth across the factory floor, stacking boxes for export to First World countries. Sorry, Zeroth World countries is the term I should use. To say otherwise ruffles the feathers of the caste of middle managers we call politicians, who preferred to invent a new tier and grudgingly promote the likes of China rather accept our own demotion.
Anyway, that all changed when an investigative reporter infiltrated one of the London units. The footage that leaked onto the net was uncomfortable viewing for those who had been shielded from the worst of the Regression. Workers performing their duties like dead-eyed zombies was expected. It was the untrammeled weeping and gibbering that was truly unpalatable.
ChangCom’s share price plummeted. A month later, Letherol was subsidised. Now we’re practically all on it. Happy little automata.
Not all. Some resist. I usually pass at least one fundamentalist at the gate when I start a shift. Two weeks ago it had been a chunky guy with red hair and wild eyes. He wore a badge that said Remember, and held a placard that said Experience + Memory = Humanity. I’d brushed quickly past him. I feel grudging admiration for those like him — they certainly have greater fortitude than I do, preferring to remember every grinding moment out of philosophical principle. Mostly I pity them. My life experience may only be a quarter the length of theirs, relatively speaking, but it’s a life of unbroken leisure. Other than the brief recovery period, it’s as if the drudgery never happened.
I almost never see the same protestor twice. I suppose they inevitably cave in to Letherol.
The fog lifts and sensation returns. I cautiously stretch my limbs then stand up. A man in a pristine white coat enters the room. It’s my supervisor, Spencer. He scowls at me through owlish glasses.
“Where have you been, Neuman?” he says irritably. “Room 87, now. I want this business concluded.”
I know I should tell Spencer that my drugs have worn off, but he turns and stalks off before I can gather my wits. Not knowing where room 87 is, I scurry after him.
Room 87 is a metal room like the one I woke in. The first thing I see when I enter is Spencer talking on his phone, his back turned to me. The second thing I see is a man I recognise as the red-headed protestor from two weeks prior. He’s lying semi-conscious on a steel surgical table. He no longer looks so stocky. I realise with horror that his right arm has been amputated at the elbow and cauterised. Dried blood cakes that side of the table.
“He says he’s working alone, sir,” says Spencer on the phone. “He claims to know nothing about the Cell. Says he’s just a non-violent protestor. No, I don’t believe him. He knows the seditionists all right. He’ll talk.”
Spencer hangs up and turns to me. I arrange my face as best I can, adopting a serene, glazed expression. I pray to be sent on an errand so that I can calm myself and think.
“Last chance, Caffrey,” says Spencer to the man on the table. “Names. Give me names.”
Caffrey moans insensibly and utters limp protestations.
“So be it,” says Spencer grimly. “Neuman, remove the other arm.”
Caffrey begins to shriek piteously and I can no longer conceal my horror. Spencer looks at me with alarm.
“My drugs,” I say, apologetically stammering. “The dosage. Wrong dosage.”
Spencer nods with a mixture of concern and impatience. He opens a cabinet and takes out a jar.
“Speak up sooner next time, for your benefit as much as mine,” he says, proffering a handful of Letherol. I stare at the blood-red pills but do not take them. My body is frozen with indecision. I want to be released from this waking nightmare, but to embrace the nullity of Letherol is to accept complicity.
Spencer frowns at me. “Take the pills,” he says in a voice as sharp and precise as a scalpel.