A man Moe's age shouldn't wheeze from climbing three flights of stairs; but a man his age–or any age, for that matter–shouldn't inhale nearly as much poison, which rose from the countless industrial smokestacks around the city of Salt River like oxygen off a grove.
Working at System Hall, Moe and his family were assigned a home unit in one of the nicer buildings in Sector Two. It wasn't as spacious, preserved, or clean as the buildings surrounding System Hall, in Sector One, but it also wasn't a closet like the units in Sector Five–where he had lived before being promoted, due to, what he had to assume was, sheer dumb luck resultant of some bureaucratic blunder. He went from a job and life he hated, to one he merely despised. So there was a sliver lining to that mushroom cloud.
After fumbling in his pocket for his keys, while standing beneath a flickering fluorescent bulb encased behind a dented metal safety grill, Moe unlocked the door to his dingy home unit. When he stepped into the first of only two rooms, he was met by the sight of his wife, Rachel, preparing dinner; his ten year old son, Steven, playing with a System approved toy (a brightly colored lump of plastic, with lighted buttons at each fingertip, meant to improve manual dexterity, encourage the blind following of orders, and prepare the child for a life of menial factory work as he pressed each button only when it lighted up); and his sixteen year old daughter, Nina, studying for her upcoming test in one of her classes.
“Dad!” the small boy shouted excitedly when he looked up from his game. He carefully set down the nicest toy he owned, then ran over to his father, wrapping small arms around the old man's legs.
“Glad to see you, too,” Moe said. He patted Steven on the back.
“Hey, dad,” Nina said, not looking up from her educational picture book. “What's this word?”
Moe walked over to his daughter, then stared at the word she was pointing at (beneath several pictures and pictograms of a housewife mending clothes). Concentrating on what little he could remember from his schooling, Moe said: “I'm pretty sure that word is needlework.”
“Oh,” his daughter said. “Thanks.”
Approaching Rachel from behind, Moe wrapped his arms around his wife's waist, careful not to touch the tiny stove on which she stirred a pot of grey, watery stew. He kissed Rachel on the cheek, and was about to tell her of his earlier talk with Mayor Donovan, when there came a startling pounding at the door. All four people in the tiny home unit jumped.
Moe rushed over to the door, grabbed the hefty, old pipe he kept there for protection, and called out, “Who is it?”
Though muffled by the door, the returned voice carried as much strength as the barking of a vicious dog. “System Police! Official Business! Open!”
He checked the peep hole. Distorted by the dirty, curved glass, Moe saw a fish-eye image of a man in all black, protruding in places from the thick armor he wore, crowned with an helmet that was part gas mask, part riot gear. A bandolier full of weapons and tools was strapped across his chest, aside a big tin badge shined to a gleam. Everything else could have been stolen or forged, but the badge pretty much proved the man was who he said. Anyone not authorized and foolish enough to be caught wearing the symbol of The System (a capital letter S, bisected and umbrellaed by a capital T), was subject to immediate torture, subsequent torture, and eventually a slow, agonizing death.
Quickly, Moe opened the door. Before he had a chance to fully step back, the jackbooted militant pushed his way inside. He then turned to Moe, stood at attention, and said: “I have orders to collect your child.” He pressed a button on the side of his helmet, and Moe could just barely see a few words ghost across the inside of the lenses to that carapace. “Boy. Age ten. Designation N7X7.”
His hand tightened on the pipe. “Collect him for what?” Moe demanded.
“He has been selected for a temporary assignment in Phoenix, who we produce for and supply with retail and consumer goods.” He pressed the button on his helmet again. “He will be working as a stock boy.”
“You said temporary. What happens to Ste–N7X7–afterward?”
“That's your call. He could be sent home, or he could remain in Phoenix.”
“If he stays, what will become of him? He's only ten, and–”
“I don't want to go,” Steven protested, wide eyed with sudden terror.
Moe looked at his son, a familiar knot tightening in his stomach. “You have to go, at least for a little while. You've been assigned. There's nothing anyone can do about that. We knew this day would come. Remember?” He looked back at the insectoid authority, waiting for an answer.
“He would become property of the company he works for, provided with food and board until his sixteenth birthday. Then, he could apply to become a citizen of Phoenix. He would also then be eligible for reassignment.”
Moe looked over to Rachel, who had turned off the stove; she was standing in the background of this whole messy scene, wringing her hands, alternating between a smile and a grimace. Her beautiful eyes were like those of a startled rodent, jerking back and forth between her son, her husband, and the Officer.
Moe then looked down at his boy, and saw a whole new future open up for him. For whatever reason, Phoenix–which sat on the edge of Arizona Bay, and was rumored to have fresh air, parks, and numerous shopping and entertainment centers–needed bodies, and his son was selected from the bottom of the barrel. Just as Moe had been chosen randomly for reassignment, so was Steven. Dumb luck seemed to run in the family. And he hated to admit it, but Moe knew he had to send his boy away. Forever.
If Steven was to have any future, he had to take this opportunity to leave. There was no argument. He could come back here after getting a taste of a better life, grow up resentful and angry, work a menial job, risk being robbed, kidnapped, or killed on any given day, and eventually die of lung cancer, or in some industrial accident; or, he could leave home, never return, and live a long, healthy life as a slave of better bearing. There was a frightening deficiency of freedom everywhere, but nowhere more so than in this industrial city, where people were machine parts to be used, worn out, and discarded. It was rumored the Elites got to walk around surgically enhanced by state of the art filtration systems attached to their tracheae, while the peons had to breath smoke and soot as their lungs rotted them from the insides out.
“Make your selection,” the Officer said. “Now.”
Tears in his eyes, Moe knelt before his son. One hand he put on the boy's shoulder, and with the other he motioned Rachel over. “Steven, you have to go, and your mother and I think”–Moe looked over to Rachel, who sadly nodded–“that it would be better if you stayed in Phoenix.”
“I don't want to!” Steven shouted. He then began to struggle, but Moe tightened his grip.
“Listen, I don't want you to. But you'll have a better life if–”
With the irrationality of a child fueled only by fear and confusion, Steven shouted, “You do want me to go!” Flecks of spittle sprayed Moe's face. “You hate me! Why else would you send me away?”
“No, son, we love you.” Both Moe and his wife wrapped their arms around their only son. From across the room, Nina looked on in paralyzed horror. “But listen to us: you have to go. You'll thank us later, when you're not dying of–”
“I'll never thank you!” Steven screamed. “I hate you both!” He wrenched himself free of his parents, and ran behind the Officer. “I don't want to live here any more.” Pouting, Steven spun away from the people who gave birth to and raised him.
The Officer turned and pushed Steven forward. Before the door closed, Rachel called out: “We'll always love you! Never forget!”
When the door slammed shut, the expected noise nonetheless startled the three people left in the small home unit, their nerves and emotions rubbed raw.
Then, a silence descended upon the room. No one knew what to say. And really, there was nothing to say. This was just the way life went. And with the alternative being an eternity of nothing, this was at least livable.
That's what everyone told themselves, anyway.
The morning after he reluctantly threw his son headfirst into the maw of The System–in order that the child might have a better life, and a modicum of freedom–Moe stepped into his garden to tend to the strange fruit, and was met by an unknown person.
At first, seeing her approach, he had been startled. Then terrified. Was she there to take over his assignment? Kill him? Or for some other reason entirely?
But as she drew closer, Moe remembered that he was supposed to be getting a new assistant.
Though the lines on her face and the streak of grey hair at her temple indicated she was approximately Moe's age, everything else about her seemed to radiate vitality. Most people in Salt River walked with some sort of a limp, acquired from working twelve hour days on concrete; but this woman seemed to almost glide, a small hop in her step. Most shocking of all, though, was that she was whistling to herself as she drew closer.
With an outstretched hand, she said, “My designation is B1L1. But I go by Billie.”
Moe took her hand and shook, not expecting the tight grip she returned. Everyone he met (who wasn't an Elite) had a weak handshake, resulting from a lack of physical strength, mental energy, or general morale. Everything about Billie seemed so alien in the beaten down existence that Moe knew. “My designation is N3M0. Moe, to those at our level.”
Following their quick introduction, the pair began their work. Almost instantly, they fell into a rhythm. With only a few words exchanged, Billie picked up the assignment as if she had done it before. This absolutely shocked Moe, who figured he would need to train and retrain whoever he got stuck with. Cutting bodies down from trees didn't take a genius, but there were tricks here just as there were with any assignment–like making sure the knees were bent in the right direction, so the bodies didn't knock into one's ladder as they crumpled to the ground.
After they dropped their third body of the day, Moe asked, “How did you do that?”
“Do what?” Billie asked before stooping to grab the legs of the corpse.
“Pick up on the job so quickly. When I used to work in the disposable shirt factory, some of the people who got assigned needed so much training they were eventually just neutralized.”
As they moved the body to the gate, Billie said: “I just watched what you did, and tried to do the same.”
“You did? Well, damn, good job. I was worried The Elites were going to stick me with a deficient.”
Despite the stiff ankles of a corpse being in her hands, Billie chuckled. “Glad you approve of me.”
Moe stopped beneath a tree, flanked by hanging bodies a day or two old. “Was that a laugh?” he asked over the buzz of flies.
Suddenly self conscious, Billie looked down. “Yes,” was all she said.
“I'm sorry. I was just shocked. I haven't heard anyone, who wasn't an Elite or a child, laugh in... years.”
Billie looked up, a hint of a sad smile on her face. With a shrug, she said, “It beats being miserable all the time.” Then, she gently pushed on the corpse, starting Moe once more in motion.
Two hours before the truck arrived and signaled the end of their day, Moe and Billie completed the removal of all necessary bodies, something which hadn't occurred in years. Normally, Moe worked right up until he heard the truck rumbling down the street toward him.
“Since we have some extra time,” Moe said, “what we do now–which I haven't been able to do much of in too long–is clean. Papers and debris blow into the garden from the outside, especially after a smog storm–and you know how violent those winds can get. The fenced in yard tends to collect crap and contain it, for us to deal with. Not to mention items that fall from, or are torn from the fruit.”
“Oh,” Moe said. He shook his head. “I call the bodies strange fruit; a little denial makes the assignment more bearable for me.” Before he could catch himself, he added. “Makes me feel less like I'm helping destroy a fellow slave.” As soon as he said it, Moe went stiff. He stopped breathing.
“Strange fruit,” Billie mused. “I like that.”
Moe exhaled, relieved that maybe she hadn't heard him clearly. He'd have to be more careful in the future. He wasn't certain why he said what he had, it was just that for some reason he felt like he could trust Billie. Maybe it was her general attitude, which radiated naivety; or perhaps her gratuitous smile, so exotic in this soot stained city; but whatever it was, Moe knew she wasn't like the rest of the people here. She wasn't miserable. Not entirely, at least.
It sickened him to admit it, but part of Moe hated that about her. Part of him wanted to see her spirit broken, as his was. Misery loves company; and envy is a stalking beast, ready to pounce on those who draw its lustful scorn.
So, when a “procession”–as Moe called them–began while they were cleaning, Moe nudged Billie and told her to pay attention. “It's important to me that you see the whole picture of what we're doing here.”
Still slowly picking up trash, both Moe and Billie watched as a man lived his final moments of life in tachycardic terror. As he passed near the gardeners, flanked on each side by three black armored Officers, followed by an Officer with a step ladder, and led by Mayor Donovan himself, Moe realized that the man was just a boy–probably no older than thirteen, little older than his lost son.
Mayor Donovan stopped beneath a tree with twisted limbs, whose blackened bark was growing around several of the rust-scaled chains which all the ropes were hung from. Here, the boy began to struggle, but one of the Officers clubbed him into submission with a truncheon. The Officer carrying the six-step ladder set it up beneath the one free limb out of six. Another Officer stepped up onto the ladder, and began to tie onto the chain the rope looped around his shoulder. Before he stepped off the ladder, he let the rope fall, its noose end uncoiling like a snake preparing to strike.
Four Officers forced the boy up onto the ladder. He struggled vainly, a stream of blood trickling down the back of his head from where he was recently hit. It didn't take long to get the noose around his neck, since his hands were already bound behind his back. When the Officer let the boy free, he rocked back and forth on his bare, filth caked toes.
Mayor Donovan then stood before him, as the boy pleaded, and said: “You have been found guilty of crimes against The System, and have been sentenced to be made an example of.”
“I didn't do anything,” the boy said. His voice cracked from stress, and wheezed from constriction.
“You were witnessed mocking Officer Jackson.”
“I was sneezing,” the boy pleaded, “honest.”
The Mayor turned to the Officer at his right. “Is that true?”
“It might be,” the Officer said.
Mayor Donovan turned back to the boy, and seemed to deliberate for a moment. “Well,” he finally said, “your file has already been erased. Your identification chip already assigned to a child who is scheduled to be born next week.”
“That isn't fair,” the boy gasped. “I'm innocent.”
“Innocent or not, as far as The System is concerned, you're already a ghost.” The Mayor turned to his armor clad police force and spoke two words: “Do it.”
A moment later, the step ladder was yanked out from under the boy. Because the fall was barely inches, let alone feet, the boy was left to dangle and strangle, to kick and flail and die at an agonizing crawl.
As Moe watched the boy's purple face go slack, he began to cry. He turned away from the scene, ashamed, embarrassed, and full of anguish.
“What's wrong?” Billie asked. “You have to be used to this by now.”
“It's not that,” he sniffled. “It's just, that boy reminded me of my son, who was taken last night. Swallowed whole by The System. Sent away to Phoenix. I know he'll have a better life, but I'll never see him again, never see him grow up.”
Billie walked over to Moe and put an arm around him. “Shh, shh. It's okay. I don't know the whole story here, but I know how this world works. Both my parents disappeared shortly after I turned nineteen. And I also once had a son, too.”
“You did?” Moe asked, wiping his eyes with a dirty sleeve.
“Yeah, I did.”
“He died, from exposure to toxic waste. I always told him not to play in the puddles. When I asked him what happened, he said he slipped and fell. It didn't take long for his hair to begin falling out. And shortly after that, he started to vomit blood. It only got worse from there.”
“I... I'm sorry,” Moe said.
“It's all right.”
“How can you say that? Aren't you the least bit angry that your son died, because the city he lived in is a cesspool?”
“At first, yeah. But that only made me feel worse. What happened was a tragedy; but I accept tragedy as part of life. I have to. We all do. There's no other choice. It didn't make sense for me to dwell on it, and embitter my son's memory. I'd rather remember all the love we shared, not kill myself thinking about all the natural and man made miseries I have absolutely no control over. All I can do is live my life, and try not to make things worse for anyone else.”
At that moment, a truck horn bellowed from across the garden. “Yeah,” Moe said. “I guess life goes on. Follow me.”
While Moe considered what Billie had said–an alien concept to be certain, in this world of greed and strife and sadism–he showed her how to load the bodies into the truck which stank of death. The whole process was much easier with two people. Fairly quickly, they finalized their day's work.
In silence, Moe led Billie inside, through a fairly easy scan, through corridors of polished wood, unbroken glass, and clean brass door handles, through another of the scanning processes every worker in Salt River endured–a manhandling slightly less rough than the one he had received yesterday, before being told Mayor Donovan wanted to see him–and then back out into the world that tasted like industrial ash and solvents.
As they parted, Billie said, “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Moe said, “tomorrow.” To himself, he mumbled, “What choice do we have?”