“Take a seat,” Mayor Donovan said.
Moe did as he was commanded, dropping numbly into the shiny leather chair. He did not speak, but waited to be addressed.
“It has come to our attention that your family unit has recently undergone some dramatic changes.”
“Yes, sir,” Moe said, eyes not rising to meet the harsh gaze of the Mayor. If they did, something in Moe might snap, because Mayor Donovan no doubt presided over the execution of Rachel. In his mind's eye, Moe could see himself bloodying Donovan with any number of his expensive decorations, beating the man until he was nothing but a bloody, tattered sack of skin and bone leaking onto the floor.
“Unfortunately, that means you are no longer qualified to live in the home unit you've been assigned.”
Moe looked up, his anger tempered by confusion. “What?”
“Your personal possessions have already been moved to an individual unit, in Sector Five. Building eight dash seventeen.”
Not believing what he just heard, Moe stared at Mayor Donovan for a long while. Finally, he said, “But Sector Five is filthy, and miles from here.”
“Yes,” The Mayor said, sitting back in his throne of a chair. “Then you understand that we can no longer have you working here.” Though it sounded like one Moe knew that was no question.
“I'm... I'm being reassigned?”
“To a factory in Sector Five. A rendering plant, down by the river. There, you will be responsible for offloading carcasses from the delivery truck, and transporting them inside the facility. Do you have any questions?”
Yeah. Moe had a hundred questions. The problem was, they were all floating through his head at the same time. He couldn't isolate and vocalize one if his life depended on it, which it sort of did. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Instead, he only shook his head. “No,” he managed in a timid, broken voice.
“You are dismissed.”
Moe floated through the building like a ghost. He hardly even noticed when the Officer at the door scanned him again, hardly noticed as the door was kicked open and he was tossed out for the last time.
He turned to his left, then stopped. That way was no longer the direction of home. Which was just as well, because he would only be haunted by memories if he went back there.
With a sigh, he turned around and began to walk.
“Can you hear me?” someone asked as Moe stared at the litter passing beneath his feet. “Hey!” the voice called.
Moe looked up. Billie was walking backwards in front of him, somehow dodging people, waving her right hand in his face. He stopped walking, but did not speak.
“What happened in there?”
“My home unit got reassigned.”
“No,” he said. “Job too. I don't work here any more.”
“Then... this is goodbye?”
“Until I'm ready to be plucked,” he said. Then, he pushed past Billie. He heard her calling to him, but he didn't stop.
On strings puppeteered by demons, Moe was carried through the nasty streets of Salt River, carried toward the very bowels of this hell which he called life.
Moe awoke after a restless, fitful sleep; immediately, panic seized his battered heart. In that foggy moment before the veil of sleep fully fell, he knew not where he was. The walls around him, somehow even more dilapidated than the ones he'd expected to see, were claustrophobically close. He almost screamed out in terror, but found his throat was much too dry.
When he sat up, the thin layer of dust that had settled on him while asleep was disturbed; it plumed up around him with as little zeal as Moe himself had. It was, though, enough to start him coughing, which developed into a pain in his side like how he imagined a tree might feel when one of its limbs was splintered.
Once he got to his feet, disturbing more grey/brown dust as he did so, Moe remembered through his lightheadedness what had happened, where he was.
Listlessly, he took two steps and lifted the seat of the toilet. When his urine began to flow, it did so in painful dribbles. It felt like his insides were trying to claw their way out.
As his idle gaze drifted down, he noticed that his urine was dark brown. He couldn't remember much of his schooling, but didn't that mean the presence of blood?
Moe laughed to himself, a bitter, humorless sound, then flushed the toilet that he assumed was chipped and cracked beneath its countless layers of organic and inorganic grime.
From somewhere outside his new home unit, the PA system went off. With no windows, he could only barely hear it through the walls so caked with so many mysterious residues that they were almost a uniform color. “Yeah, yeah,” he said with a dismissive wave. Moe, still in his clothes from yesterday, grabbed the System printed map to his new assignment, as well as a homemade knife, off the table so small he couldn't even change a diaper on it... not that that was or would ever be an issue again. His kids were gone, his wife was gone, his job and home and life were gone. Honestly, he wasn't certain why he bothered to grab the jagged piece of metal by its taped up handle. If someone assaulted him on his way to his new assignment, he'd probably just let them kill him. Hell, they'd be doing him a favor.
One step brought him to the door to his new home unit, which awkwardly opened inward. Under the dim light of a couple flickering bulbs, Moe stepped into a hallway so narrow his shoulders scraped the walls if he canted one way or the other. Behind and ahead of him, other shadows like himself were crawling out of their personal hells, headed toward some drudgery they were expected to be grateful for.
Once he reached the end of the narrow corridor, a door opened onto a lawn of cracked asphalt. Stripped to merely their rusted skeletons, a half dozen vehicles were in the slow process of sinking into what had once been a parking lot. Piled up around them like snowdrifts, garbage rank and ancient sat moldering in the humid darkness of the night.
Moving as a languid stream, he and his fellow slaves took the main road through the city, falling off to either side when their assigned toiling grounds drew near. There were other streets, and surely some traveled them by day, at least, but most here and now seemed to prefer sticking to the main road, to the crowds and the false feeling of herd safety.
By the time the stream of slave laborers was thinning out, Moe's turn approached. On his right, he and two dozen others took a road that dipped down a hill toward the river. With only the occasional, weak street lamp to light their way, the weary pack quickened their pace, dragging tired Moe with them.
Even before they turned onto the road, the reek of the rendering plant forced its way through the choking, soot filled air. And as they got closer, that smell only grew worse. Everyone else seemed unaffected, having grown accustomed to the noxious odor, but this was Moe's first day on this assignment.
Elbowing his way through the crowd, Moe ran to the side of the road. His body attempted to vomit–though all there was in his system was a small amount of water, and perhaps a faded chemical residue from the pills he swallowed last night in order to escape his wretched reality.
When he looked up, the others were already rounding the curve up ahead, leaving Moe alone in the dark. Above him, the heavens were shrouded by layer after layer of poisonous black veils pumped out of smokestacks and chimneys. Below him, the ground was disorientingly black from ash and shadow. And on both sides of him, he couldn't see more than ten feet before the darkness eclipsed the horizon like an oil slick. The only way he knew he wasn't floating out in space was the ground beneath his feet, which he could hardly see, and the two lights set hundreds of feet apart–one far behind him, and one up ahead.
Moe navigated the tomblike emptiness, using the few lights and the occasional glimpses of black shapes only slightly less dark than their surroundings. Much to his chagrin, no shadows animated out of the stark nothingness to impede his journey, nor end his life.
When he rounded the last curve of the road presumably still beneath his feet, Moe's future opened up for him like a bleeding sore, in the form of the rendering plant. Though there were several flood lights aimed up at the hulking edifice of corroded smokestacks, catwalks, and tangled pipes, their light was diffused and devoured by the omnipresent smog.
Gagging from the sweetly astringent combination of chemicals and decay, Moe made his way toward his new assignment for the foreseeable remainder of his miserable life. Somewhere in the distance, he heard the third and final signal from the PA.
The closer he drew to the plant, the more clearly he saw its scabrous, filth caked walls. The very building itself, likely made of brick and steel, now appeared to be covered entirely in an infected looking, leprous skin. He also noticed several dark shadows on one of the walls, indicating where bricks had long ago replaced arched windows.
As soon as he opened the front door, a voice barked: “Who the hell are you?”
“N3M0,” he quickly responded. And good thing, too, because a second later he was pulled inside by one hand, as another shoved a pistol in his face. Last week, he would have been scared; today, he felt nothing.
The Officer pressed a button on the side of his helmet. After a second, he said, “Follow Officer Martinez.” Only after Moe turned away did the Officer lower his gun.
“First day?” Officer Martinez asked as he led Moe through a long hallway.
“It's not so bad here, once you get past the smell. All right, last door on the left, they're expecting you. See you at quitting time.”
Confused by the Officer's complete lack of hostility, Moe said, “Yeah, later.” Then, he proceeded through the door, stepping into a room somewhat better kept than the rest of the facility.
In the middle of the dark room sat an oval table, around which were twenty chairs, eighteen empty. “Welcome,” one of the two identical, portly men said. “Take a seat,” the other beady-eyed waste of a bulletproof suit added.
The next half hour was a typical meet and greet, complete with introductions, a roll out of expectations, fingerprinting, and the addition of Moe's ID chip information into the rendering plant's computer system. When all that was completed, one of his new Elite masters stood and motioned for Moe to follow.
Out the door, down the hall, and through a maze of grimy cinder block corridors that snaked through the facility like a drunken spider's web; they traveled in silence, beneath the high ceilings whose tangle of pipes hid or obscured most of the lights. Eventually, Moe was led into a warehouse. As the walls opened up, he let out a small sigh of relief.
That feeling of relief wouldn't last long.
Making their way around mammoth chemical storage vats, stacks of crates, racking thirty feet high, pyramids of steel drums, and various other carts and wheelbarrows and tools, the Elite stopped in front of a bay filled with roll-up doors. He turned to Moe and said, “Wait here. When you hear a knock, press that button over there. When the door opens, you will follow the instructions of R1K8, whom you have been assigned to assist in his duties while he's at this facility. Is that clear?”
“Good. I'll leave you to it then.” The Elite turned, and disappeared into the haphazard gloom.
It only took about a minute for a knock to come. Quickly, Moe scrambled over to open the door. And he would have stepped aside as quickly, but as the door began to open, a miasma of rotting death flowed in from the back of the truck connected to the bay; it was so strong, Moe doubled over, barely able to stand, and tried not to dry heave.
When he looked up, he was so thrown off that he actually gasped. “You,” he said.
“Hey,” said the driver of the truck, the same truck Moe had for the last three years been loading up with bodies outside of System Hall. Rick was his name. “What are you doing here?”
“I... was reassigned.”
“That sucks. I was just reassigned to the graveyard shift today. Punishment. Apparently, I ran over some idiot's foot a week back. Elites heard about it somehow, didn't like that I could have damaged their vehicle. Well, anyway, let's begin. I'm supposed to show you the ropes... though I bet you've had your fill of those.” Even as the perverse joke was leaving his lips, he lightly elbowed Moe in the stomach. “What you do is this. Follow me.”
Moe walked behind Rick, dodging the other slaves as they performed their assigned tasks, and was led up a ramp and into the trailer of the truck he knew all too well. On each side of him, walls of bodies rose floor to ceiling, all headless. Rick must have noticed Moe looking at them strangely, because he said: “They remove the heads, because there's something valuable in them. Some gland or another, I think. Plus the ID chips. Anyway, you pull a body down like this.” He grunted as he did so, even though he merely let the stiff body fall to the floor of the trailer with a loud thud! “Then you drag it out the door, like so.” On the concrete floor of the warehouse, Rick pulled the clothes off the body, and threw them in a pile. “Waste not, want not; there's money in most of those fabrics–not for us, of course.” Rick proceeded to grab a cart, then awkwardly began to lift the body up onto it. Halfway through, he said, “Oh yeah, I have an assistant now. This is going to make things much easier. Come over here, grab the legs. I don't know how long I've needed some help around here. The workload just gets worse every year. Of course, you know that; you used to handle the same exact workload, before I got your sloppy seconds.”
“It really is the same everywhere,” Moe said, following Rick through the dank warehouse, the wheels of the cart screeching. A threshold, doored by a score of filthy strips of once clear plastic, led them onto the floor of the plant. The space was massive, filled with tanks, catwalks, and equipment. Sunk into the central part of the floor were four open topped vats, each looking to be at different stages of whatever grotesque process was being done to the bodies therein.
Rick said, “Bring the stiff over here, to the Butcher. He's going to flay it; the skin makes a real delicate leather. Wears out quickly, which is how the Elites want it. That way, those fancy rich bastards over in Phoenix have to buy new shoes or jackets or whatever every few weeks. It's all about money; and we're at the bottom of that food chain, friend. Help me offload this.”
Together, they heaved the headless body onto a table stained by fluids better not thought about. With a nod, the mustached man in a similarly stained smock went to work with his set of razor sharp knives. Moe couldn't watch.
“Then, while the butcher does his work,” Rick said, “we go back and prepare him another victim.”
It didn't take long for the pair to fall into a rhythm, just as Moe and Billie had. Soon, the truck was half empty. It was at this point that Moe saw something which turned his blood to ice water; while at the same time, anger rose in him like a flood tide after a late winter downpour. When he first noticed it, Moe was in the truck alone, getting ready to pull down another body. But as his hand touched the leathery skin, he froze, overcome by emotion. He didn't even notice Rick approach from behind.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Rick asked.
Moe didn't answer. All he could do was stare at the decapitated body of Rachel. He knew it was her because she was still wearing the blouse she'd made by hand the previous year. He would have recognized that garment anywhere.
“We don't got all day,” Rick said. “Drop the stiff and–”
Moe punched Rick in the mouth, dropping him instead. Confused and in pain, Rick fell to the floor, a crumpled, cowering mess. “That's my wife you're talking about. Show some damned respect.”
Holding a hand to his already swelling lip, Rick said, “I... I'm sorry. I didn't know. But you didn't have to hit me.”
“Dammit,” Moe said, “you're right. I'm sorry. It's just... I loved her so much.”
Rick eased up onto his knees, then his feet. He backed a couple steps away from Moe. “Listen. I'm sorry, really. But we all got problems. And mine is that you're keeping us from doing our job. She was your wife, I get it, but unless you want to join her, I suggest–”
“I suggest you shut the hell up,” Moe said through clenched teeth. “I'm not letting that monster skin her to make a fucking jacket. I'm not.”
Unsure how to respond, Rick said, “And just what do you intend to do, then? Carry her on your back, as you dodge the sniper bullets and flying drones?”
“I don't know. But I can't let her be defiled... again. I just can't.” Despite his better efforts, Moe began to cry. He didn't blubber and gasp for air, but a steady stream of tears were cutting rivers into his filthy face.
Rick looked nervously out the door of the trailer. Finally, he said, “Okay. I have an idea. You might not like it, though.”
Sniffling, Moe asked, “What is it?”
Rick looked to the door again. Then, in a whisper, he said, “As you're wheeling her to the Butcher, maybe the cart tips. And maybe she falls into one of the chemical vats. It will be tricky, but it should be possible. The last vat we pass on the left is for stripping bones clean, so I suggest that one.”
“So we're going to dump her in acid, and let her melt away?”
“Unless you want her skin to be made into shoes, her meat into food, and her bones into mineral supplements for farming, yeah, that's what you're going to do.”
Moe sighed. He looked toward the door, tried to think of any other solution. After a tense moment, he said, “Yeah, okay, I guess it's our only choice.”
“Your only choice,” Rick said. “My hands will not be on that cart when it tips. That's valuable raw material you're going to be wasting. My ass isn't getting punished for it.”
“Fine,” Moe said. “And thanks.”
“Yeah, well, if you make it till tomorrow, you owe me big. Now get her on the cart, and head toward the Butcher. I'll be back here, sorting the clothes and putting them in the proper crates. Remember, last vat on the left.”
Rick turned and walked out of the trailer, leaving Moe once more alone... if one didn't count the metric ton of death that surrounded him.