Moe had moved Rachel's body as carefully as possible, and was now wheeling it through the door which opened onto the floor of the rendering plant. As he moved, his heart thrashed within his emaciated chest. What he was about to do–on his first day at this assignment, no less–was utterly crazy, and likely to end with violence. Moe knew he should just let his wife be recycled, so money could be made off her for The System, but he couldn't let that happen. The System had already taken his son, his daughter, his wife, his assignment of seven years, his home unit, and he just couldn't stand to let them take anything more from him. There's a point when even a slave has little left to lose, nothing more they're willing to give, and Moe reached that point while in the trailer of that hearse, staring at Rachel's headless corpse.
The walk to the Butcher was made in slow motion, every sound and scent and feeling amplified. Perhaps for the first time in Moe's life, he was truly aware of his surroundings–the rusting steel, the dismal lighting, the stink of rot, the burn of chemicals, the bubbling and hissing of organic tissue as it was dissolved in vats of acid, the slosh of a turbine stirring up the vat opposite the one he was passing.
It was a straight shot from the door of the warehouse to the Butcher, along a concrete path repeatedly pitted by chemicals and covered over by a black mass of filth. As he pushed the cart forward, its four wheels screeched and wobbled, always threatening to pull itself off track. It was a struggle to keep the ancient piece of equipment moving in the right direction. At least, for what Moe had planned, that was a point in his favor–plausible deniability.
As he passed by the first chemical vat, he looked down at its disgusting surface to see what kind of place his wife was about to end up. Barely breaking his stride, Moe's stomach spasmed at the sight of the congealed blood, hair, and cartilage, in which it was possible to see bones breaking the grisly surface–part of a ribcage here, an arm there, what remained of a spinal cord.
Then, as he approached the second and last vat–his destination–Moe's heart began to beat even harder than he thought possible. He also began to feel hot, his haggard cheeks burning beneath the mask of filth he and everyone else in this miserable city always wore. Wouldn't it be just his luck that he would fall dead from a heart attack at this very moment?
But he didn't fall, didn't even stumble. Moe kept the course, waiting for the perfect moment to flip the cart. There was only one problem: the Butcher was staring right at him. In that moment of heightened awareness, Moe also noticed a glimmer in the shadows above, on one of the catwalks. Moe quickly recognized the black on black glimmer as belonging to an Officer.
“Damn,” he muttered. How was he supposed to pull this off? Without finding his end at the speeding tip of a hollow point bullet? It wouldn't be enough to just tip the cart, he also had to roll Rachel's body beneath the flimsy safety railing; and he couldn't do that with at least two pairs of eyes on him. Despite not wanting to live any more, he learned in that moment that he was still quite terrified of death.
Trying to buy some time, Moe stopped and bent down. He pretended to tie his shoe, going as slowly as possible, praying that when he got up the staring eyes would be off him.
And much to his surprise, the Butcher was in fact looking away when Moe stood. With a quick glance up, he realized he could never see through the dusty, smoky gloom to tell if the vague silhouette of the Officer was looking at or away from him. Moe would just have to take his chances. “Now or never,” he told himself.
With the grace of a falling child, Moe feigned slipping. As he let his feet slide out from under him, he kept hold of the rough handle to the cart. When he went down, he tried to turn himself sideways, hoping to tip the cart as he did so. Instead, he went down hard, pain jolting up through his tail bone, while the cart remained upright.
Damn, damn, damn, he thought; and at the same time, he decided to just go for it, just toss Rachel's body into the vat and hope no one saw. The Butcher, some fifty feet further down, was still looking away.
Getting off his throbbing behind and onto his knees, Moe scrambled forward. “Goodbye,” he said. Then, he grabbed each side of the cart, and tipped it over. When it came down on the concrete, it rattled like a dying animal. He didn't have the time to check if anyone noticed, though he was sure they must have. Quickly, he got both hands on Rachel's cold flesh, and pushed her to his left, sliding her across the grimy concrete.
Once gravity took hold, her body jerked out of his hands. In a blink, she slid out of sight, over the lip of the vat. The sound of her hitting the acid, splashing, and beginning to sizzle was enough to bring tears to Moe's eyes.
Then, the smell hit him. So strong and foul was the stench that he lost consciousness; Moe's awareness turned off like the lights in all the home units at twenty-two hundred hours.
Moe opened his eyes to a room of cracked concrete and corrugated steel. He tried to move, but couldn't.
A voice commanding obedience said, “Calm yourself. Now.”
Moe bit his lower lip, which tasted bitter with salt and ash; a crack down the center split, releasing into his mouth a crimson taste of iron. While he surveyed the room, he took several deep breaths, tried unsuccessfully to steady his shaking limbs. The strange thing was, he didn't feel any fear–consciously, at least–despite the fact that though he had no idea where he was, he knew it was nowhere good.
With a strong hand, Moe was grabbed by his oily hair. The hand jerked his head back, radiating a web of pain from his neck out through his core. Unintentionally, he let out a hiss, which was met by a fist to the stomach.
“Shut the hell up,” the voice demanded. The hand it was attached to twisted Moe's head to the side. “And look at me when I speak to you, you worthless deficient.”
When the stars dancing before his eyes cleared, leaving a dim, black ache to frame his vision, Moe was looking into the eyes of one of the identical, portly Elites who had initiated him at the rendering plant.
“I'm sorry, sir,” Moe managed, somehow. He spoke the words, though he felt nothing: no regret, no contrition, no anger, not even mental anguish; in truth, he long ago became desensitized to this sort of treatment. At this moment, Moe was as cold and hard as a slab of stone.
From across the room, hidden in shadows Moe was not permitted to look toward–due to the hand still twisted in his hair–another voice came, no doubt belonging to the other twin. “You wasted valuable material,” he said. “You have any idea what that body was worth? The one you let fall into vat number four.”
Let fall? Moe thought. Then they didn't know he threw his wife in. That was good, he supposed.
“No, sir, I'm sorry. It was an accident.”
The one twisting Moe's hair said, “You animals are typically worth more to us dead than alive.”
“Well then,” the other said, “why don't we get our money back by rendering this one down?”
“I'd like to, but we can't.” The Elite bent down and stared into Moe's face. It was all Moe could do to keep himself from trying to turn away from that unsightly face riddled by pustules and sores, from the breath which smelled of rotting meat and tooth decay, from the eyes which looked as empty and uncaring as those of a dead fish. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “orders from higher up saved your pathetic ass. Apparently, due to your 'years of dedicated service' down at System Hall, your personnel file was credited one Incidence Token. Usually a demerit calls for neutralization. But I guess you earned yourself a free pass.”
The ugly Elite spit in Moe's face, hitting him just to the right of his nose, splattering tiny bits of spittle across his face. The warm, foul smelling gob then began to slide down toward his mouth. Moe closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and clenched his lips together. Almost instantly, the hand in his hair tightened, pulling loose some brittle clumps.
“I said look at me, dammit!”
Moe opened his eyes, forcing himself to stare into those of the man presently dehumanizing him.
“That's better,” the Elite sneered. “You got lucky. This time. But the next mistake your ass makes will land you on the Butcher's table. Alive. You understand me?”
Trying to make his voice sound as timid as possible, all the while feeling rage bubble up within, Moe said, “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” the Elite said. He let his left hand drop out of Moe's hair; and at the same time, he struck Moe with the back of his right hand. Even in the dim light, Moe could see a small spray of blood leave his mouth. With his tongue, Moe wiggled his left molar–already having been weakened by cracks and pitted by cavities–back and forth; it felt like with a small tug, he could easily slide it out. “Undo his restraints,” the dominant Elite told his brother.
Without a word, the other Elite stepped behind Moe and unlocked his wrists from the sides of the chair. He came around, bent down, and began to unlock the manacles around Moe's ankles.
“Now,” the alpha said, his back turned to Moe, “unless you want to end up like that stupid bitch you dropped in the vat, I suggest you get out of my sight.”
“Bitch?” Moe said. “That bitch was my wife.”
With his knee, Moe slammed the beta Elite in the jaw. He heard a painful click as the man's teeth slammed together, heard the stunted grunt as he fell to the floor, clutching his mouth.
Moe launched himself out of the chair. One large stride found him striking the still turning Elite, driving a shoulder painfully into the lower part of his rib cage. Surprised by the attack, the Elite fell. And though the Elite's armor protected him from having the wind knocked out of him, his skull struck the floor with a tooth-rattling thud. He lay stunned for a moment, long enough for Moe to jump on top of him. Moe proceeded to slam the man's head into the floor three more times.
Moe then jumped up, turned around, and drove his foot into the face and chest of the Elite he had kneed in the mouth. When he was certain the beta Elite was unconscious, Moe dragged the man over to the chair, placing his wrist in one of the manacles, then locked it tight.
The predator unleashed from that primitive part of his mind, Moe stalked over to the other Elite, the one who had spat on him, and spoken so ill of one of the only three people Moe loved in this miserable, fascist, barbaric, pitiful excuse for a world. He straddled the dazed Elite. “This is for my son,” he said, then struck the man's mouth with a closed fist. “And this is for my daughter.” He landed another blow, this one on his left eye. “And my wife.” This time he struck the man's nose, felt and heard cartilage pop beneath his already bruising knuckles. “And this is for every other damn thing you sons of bitches put us slaves through.”
Moe landed blow after blow on the man, smashing his fists into the unconscious fool as if his life depended on it–though Moe was far beyond that point. Moe's life was forfeit, and he knew it. So, what did a couple more punches matter? If the Elite had one black eye or a skull severely fractured in a dozen places, it was going to result in the same ending for Moe.
But Moe wasn't truly in control of himself, anyway. He couldn't have stopped if he wanted to–and admittedly, he did not want to. This assault was the result of thirty plus years of impotent rage; thirty years of blindly following orders by people intellectually and morally bankrupt, who could barely be called people; thirty years of pent up aggression, that, in order to survive in this world, Moe had to bury so very deep within his bitter shell.
By the time Moe stood up, his fists were throbbing with each and every heartbeat. The crumpled form at his feet was unmoving, a swollen mass leaking blood. With nothing but contempt, he looked down at the Elite, and spat upon him.
Only now, standing in the dank room–with one man unconscious, one very possibly dead–did he realize the true severity of his condition. The previous minutes were a blur of adrenaline and rage. But now, the panic was beginning to set it. How the hell was he supposed to escape this?
After thinking it over for a moment, Moe was fairly certain he had a plan; whether good or bad, he couldn't tell; and since he could think of only one, it didn't matter in the end.
Carefully, he eased open the door, and poked his head out. Left and right, a cold, dark hallway stretched out, lit sparsely by ancient, dusty lights long in need of replacement. On the bright side, if it could be called that, no workers or Officers were in the hall.
Quickly, he slipped out of the room, closed the door, and blindly turned left. He had no idea where he was, and would have to discover his way out.
Gliding through the dark halls, beneath a twisted mess of pipes and wires, stuck in a tunnel of flaking concrete–that in places revealed the rusted rebar skeleton beneath–Moe moved with a purpose, carried by the foolish notion that he just might escape.
But even so, what then? He couldn't come back here tomorrow, act as if nothing had happened. He couldn't go anywhere else, for that matter. If he got out of the rendering plant alive, he was out of The System. The only idea he could think of was trying to escape to Phoenix, where, with a lot of luck, he could start a new life.
Of course, he'd still have his identification chip to deal with. He supposed he could rip it out himself–though he suspected that would be quite painful, and undoubtedly spread infection all across the back of his neck. Maybe a black market doctor in Phoenix? He'd heard rumor of all sorts of black market vendors; though he'd never actually seen one, never sought one out. Even still, he had nothing to pay a doctor with.
Traversing the damp, slimy corridors, Moe shook his head. Better to not worry about the future now. He probably wouldn't live long enough to see it, anyway. For the time, he needed to focus on getting out. He could burn the next bridge when he came to it.
Several minutes passed, though it felt like an hour. The only sounds were those of his footsteps echoing, and the drip of liquid from the jumble of pipes above. This made it imperative to focus on every step, focus on keeping his footing on the slick floor, because his worn out rags for shoes held no traction.
Then, another sound became suddenly apparent.
Moe froze, listened. There was no mistaking it. Another set of footsteps was echoing toward him, from down the hall and through a door. It was faint, but in this eerie quiet Moe could hear when a rat scurried overhead, or when he kicked a tiny pebble of chipped concrete. Right then, those footsteps sounded like bombs falling.
He looked around frantically, trying to figure out what to do. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. He only had seconds before that door swung open, and the person on the other side discovered Moe in a place he shouldn't be.
Heart hammering as the door started to creak open, Moe spotted a bucket and a trowel several steps ahead. He dove forward, and snatched up the items. As the door slammed against the brittle concrete, Moe lifted the trowel to the wall. He pretended he was patching it.
There was a pause. Though Moe didn't dare turn his head, he knew the Officer lifted his gun– probably a shotgun, given his patrol in these tight corridors.
Then, the footsteps started again, slowly. In the span between steps, it seemed as if Moe's heart beat five times. He was sure he was going to have a heart attack. He could feel his skin going clammy, his legs going weak.
It felt like an eternity, but the person finally made their way behind Moe. He held his breath as they passed, but the person elbowed Moe in the spine without breaking stride. He said, “You missed a spot. Stupid deficient.”
Moe inhaled sharply, trying not to arouse the presumed Officer's anger, then bent down and pretended to get more material from the bucket onto his trowel. As he did, he glanced at what indeed turned out to be an Officer. The man's gun was slung over his shoulder.
He continued to act as if he were patching the wall, until the Officer went through the other door at the far end of the hall. Having just come that way, Moe knew there was a curve in the tunnel.
Moe was already running by the time the trowel clattered to the floor. He quickly got to the door the Officer had entered through, then opened it. If an Officer just passed, it wasn't likely he would see another for some time. Moe had to take advantage of the situation.
Sprinting down the hall, wheezing, Moe shot through the darkness. Not long after his encounter with the Officer, doors began to appear on either side of him. He stopped and tried a couple, but they were either locked, empty, filled with machinery, or used for storage. His best bet would be to stay in the main hall, which had to eventually lead to an exit.
It occurred to him that the Officer he passed would probably be finding the Elites Moe left bloodied in that room-turned-holding-cell. He needed to get out of the rendering plant as quickly as possible, before a lockdown was initiated, and he was trapped in here with a dozen System sanctioned murderers quite literally gunning for his head.
Driving forward like a rat with a cat at his tail, Moe made it out of the hall–before he began to cough, even; though he was wheezing heavily by this point. The last door he came to opened to the warehouse. Because he knew its layout, Moe got outside with relative ease, even managed to avoid the two patrolling Officers.
Only seconds after he darted out into the bleak industrial zone, an alarm sounded from the rendering plant. The wailing siren shattered the pneumatic white noise ambiance of the industrial park.
Moving as quickly as his malnourished legs would allow, Moe raced away from the rendering plant, down to the nearby river. At it's edge lined with dead trees and bits of broken, abandoned industrial equipment and garbage, he threw a glance over his shoulder. Behind him, spears of light flashed and disappeared, setting the smog aglow with a sickly yellow light. It looked like the sulfurous fires of hell were blazing brightly in that moment, the silhouette of the rendering plant a stygian black reptile with smokestacks in place of protective spines.
Moe shuddered, then lunged between two gnarled trees. His feet slapping in cold muck, he moved closer to the river, through several more rows of scraggly trees.
Once the river became visible, Moe grunted in disgust. This was the closest he'd ever seen the waterway, having lived his entire life in the two sectors on the south side of it's polluted banks. Brown currents, streaked with black slicks, moved sluggishly to Moe's left–west, he believed–carrying clumps of grey froth and bits of debris. A weak beam of sunlight fought through the clouds and smoke, striking the surface of the city's colon, cascading a rainbow of colors across its gelatinous surface.
Moe had to look away, because the sight of such putrescence was making him sick to his stomach. But then a wind brought the river's effluvia to his nose, Moe retched. If there was one thing Moe was certain of, it was that he was tired of living a life where he felt physically ill more often than not.
Maybe in Phoenix things would be different.
And maybe one day The System would decide to give lowly slaves like Moe the freedom to choose where they live, where they work, give them a wage to spend as they please, instead of a pittance of food credited to the painful chip in the back of each of their necks.
From where Moe stood, both those possibilities seemed equally likely to happen.