A slave in the most fundamental sense of the word, Moe was responsible for picking strange fruit from the garden–which was his pleasant way of saying he plucked hanged bodies from the three dozen gnarled trees in System Square. It was his assignment–though The Elites called it a privilege–to remove the corpses before putrefaction set in. Those unlucky men and women who found their way into the garden were meant to serve as grim reminders of the price paid for disobedience, not to act as one more in a long list of public health concerns. What happened to the bodies after Moe loaded them into the hulking black truck that came by every day at seventeen-hundred hours, he couldn't say; and frankly, considering how this world operated, he didn't want to know.
Of course, that was Moe's job when he first began this dreadful assignment at the age of twenty-five, seven long years ago. As of late, it had become rare for the bodies to remain on the trees long enough to ripen. With every year that passed, Moe's garden produced more and more of the strange fruit. Thus, his assignment became less about cleanliness, and more about clearing space to make room for each new crop. If the yields grew any greater, he might have to request an assistant; and asking The Elites for something–anything–was not a thought he relished. The ruling class was not known for their compassion, nor sympathy.
Furthermore, to express any thought that ran counter to The System–a vague amalgamation of policy, ideology, and regime that would have, in the time of Moe's grandfather, been called a dictatorship–was tantamount to treason; and that included even insinuating that anything was not right or just within The System. For instance, if someone overheard Moe express his belief that every laborer was a slave to The Elites, it would make him a political heretic, a societal blasphemer... though only for the few days prior to his becoming a strange fruit waiting to be plucked by some new gardener.
The homely, soot smeared driver of the black truck–parked with its back to the open gate–asked, “That the last of 'em?” Having forgotten his designation years ago, Moe only knew the man by his working class name: Rick.
“Until tomorrow,” Moe said with a halfhearted smile, a tear in his eye.
“See you then,” Rick said.
Moe watched as the vehicle pulled away from the curb, crushed beneath a massive tire the foot of a nearby man, and sped off down the litter strewn street. No one came to the newly crippled man's assistance, despite his anguished cries; everyone in this world had their own problems to deal with.
His work finished for the day, Moe locked the gate to what had once been a city park, but now stood as a grotesque garden fenced in with chain-link, crowned with razor wire. He crossed the dry, dusty yard–effectively salted from years of piss and blood having been spilled–and approached the building that once was City Hall. The whitewashed walls, which used to welcome citizens, were now painted an imposing black.
And above it all, in the tower which used to house a bell, a sniper sat vigilant and trigger happy. More than once, Moe had been busy at work when he saw the sentinel, purely for fun, pick off some random person on the street. Worse still, Moe always thereafter heard a terrible laughter drift down into the garden, making it seem as if the dead surrounding Moe found humor in the fact that one more had joined their ranks.
Moe unlocked the door to System Hall, stepped inside, and bowed his head. Immediately, a massive hand smelling of tobacco and underarm sweat grabbed him by the back of the neck, forced him to bend at the knees. A second later, a cold steel scanner was placed at the base of his skull. As the machine hummed and beeped, the back of Moe's neck began to tingle, then burn. Fifteen years ago, when The System initially rolled out their new plan “for the people's benefit,” the identification chip heating up had been excruciating. Now, after having experienced that pain for everything from entering work to receiving his family's weekly stipend of food, Moe was used to the discomfort.
When the hot metal scanner was removed, the hand on his neck nearly threw Moe forward.
After he found his balance, Moe thought: Good to see you, too.
The black-clad Officer seemed to pause for a moment, then pressed a button on the side of his insectile helmet. In the overly authoritative voice Moe heard from everyone above his station, the guard said: “You're wanted upstairs.”
Moe stopped dead in his tracks. “Upstairs?” he asked.
“You a deficient?” the gorilla in a flak jacket barked. “Get your ass up to Mayor Donovan's office!”
Dragging his feet into the main hall, then up the stairs flanked above and below by a pair of Officers, a knot began to form in Moe's stomach. If Mayor Donovan wanted to see him, what was the chance it was for any reason that favored Moe? Five percent? Ten?
Standing before the reinforced steel doors to Mayor Donovan's office, Moe tried to steady his breathing... as well as his hands, and legs. Summoning all his courage, which was only possible because he knew he had no other option, he knocked on the door; and in that moment, Moe nevertheless considered bolting, but knew if he ran he'd just get picked off by the butcher in the bell tower. He might as well face whatever punishment he had coming to him, for whatever indiscretion he may or may not have committed, and hope The Mayor showed leniency.
From a speaker next to the door, the Mayor's voice sounded. “Enter.”
For the first time, Moe opened the doors to the office of the man who ran this city. He had been assigned here for years, but until now had managed to keep his head down and his profile low–because a secretary had given him a sound piece of advice. Sometime during his first week working at System Hall, the older woman had told him: “If you can make it through each day without the Mayor learning your name, you'll be fine.” So much for that.
Moe walked into the office and was struck dumb by a sense of near overwhelming dread. The sight of the spacious office was so jarring for Moe, because he'd never seen such luxury and beauty displayed with such arrogance. The white walls, gold trim, ornate furniture, shelves filled with books, display cases overflowing with valuables–it was more wealth than Moe could have imagined existed.
And to think, most subsisted on a sugar-rich diet of nearly spoiled cuts of mystery meat, stale bread a few molecules away from being plastic, and drank water contaminated by he didn't even want to know what, all so even low level Elites could surround themselves with treasures stolen and confiscated over the decades, and all under the auspices of The System. If a single Mayor of a modest city could possess this much wealth in his workspace, what kind of riches must furnish the palatial home of Darwin Nero, the head and heart of The System?
Not looking up from the paper he was reading, the man in a militant suit said: “It has come to our attention that, as of late, you have been struggling to keep up with your assignment.”
His stomach dropped out from under him, and he had to take a seat. “I'm sorry, sir,” Moe managed, eyes shamefully lowered to his fidgeting hands. “It's just that the workload has continued to increase over the years, and–”
“That is precisely why we are assigning you an assistant. She will begin tomorrow.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” Moe said. He hated voicing the words, because it was like thanking someone for switching from kicking him in the crotch to kicking him in the ribs; his situation was to be improved, but by how much?
With a wave, Mayor Donovan said, “You are dismissed.”
Through the city epitomized by decay and grime, Moe navigated his way home beneath the street lights–which, even during the day, glowed like beacons in the ever present miasma. He counted the twenty-three blocks, trying to keep track of how far he'd gone. He couldn't say this was true of all industrial cities (because Moe had never actually left the chancre he was born into), though he suspected it was: most of the buildings blended together in a patchwork of brick, metal, wood, plastic, and rot. In a city which looked like a jigsaw puzzle assembled with pieces from a dozen different puzzles, it was unbelievably easy to lose one's way. And in a city like that, losing one's way could mean losing one's life.