Eek, normally I have a serial episode up by today, but er…I don’t. No real excuse, it was simply leading up to my eldest spawn’s birthday (he is 15 today) and I sorta ran out of spare time to zip orf a chunk of serial action. That sounds rude. I LIKE it. Right, so, to what I offer instead.
This is a flash I originally wrote to sub to a cyborg antho, you may have seen the kickstarter for it, I was totally going to sub to it, but I didn’t like this little short. Still not sure if I do, but imma throw it up on here for y’all (all *snigger*, my views lately would be embarrassing even to EEYORE, I kid not :P).
It’s not sub-par or anything, before you wonder if I’m palming off crap. You ever have that thing where you write something and think *meh*? Not the whole ‘Oh my god I’m shit, why am I alive and abusing words?!’ thing, just a sorta sad little deflating balloon noise that, translated, is the vague feeling you could probably do better, if you were someone or something else, or it were a different day, hour, century, whatever.
That’s how I felt after writing this flash. Re-reading it, I don’t feel so *meh* about it, but there’s definitely something in there I’ve missed, or something. Dunno what. Ah, well, I hope ye don’t feel the same. Or if you do, gimme a head’s up on what you think is missing. Be interesting to see if anyone feels the same and why.
Enough of me wittering on. Here’s the flash:
‘What in hell is that?’
The two reps stand at the viewing window, chewing gum and sweating. That’s the Blonde one talking, Bem doesn’t need to turn and look to know it. Blonde’s voice is clean as the look of him. Boy could be vat-grown himself, all frat-perfect face, hair and smile; suit creased to edges you could spread butter with.
‘Cheap,’ Bem replies, turning to give them the benefit of a gap-toothed grin.
Blonde turns to look his fellow rep, the grey one, who’s obviously a subordinate despite his years, bitter about it too. Well, hell, who wouldn’t be? ‘Well, I’m sold,’ says Blonde, as if it’s all a big old joke.
Grey seems less certain. There’s a man who’s done some serious business in his day, Bem can tell. He’s got that considering look the young bucks haven’t yet earned.
‘It’s ugly as hell,’ says Grey, jaws churning gum like he can mash sense out of that if not Blond, and flicking his eyes over the vat below with undisguised disgust.
Bem considers it afresh, to see what Grey is seeing: fit his view into those dull brown orbs weighted down with years of deals more cruddy than this. New eyes are needed when you work the floor as long as Bem. Tend the vats as many hours. Gotta see what they see, so you know how to stop them thinking looks and make them focus on value for money.
The vat on the shop floor is large, shallow, and filled with a heavy, clear liquid Bem knows from long experience smells cloying as rotten meat but feels like silk on the skin. Leaves a residue soft as chalk when it dries, and that don’t smell half bad, though his wife isn’t fond. Below the surface of the heavy liquid lies the product in question, eyes closed, relaxed into sleep. The STEV-DR3.
It’s CyBor ltd’s latest creation. Cheap and cheerful muscle. Yup, it sure is an ugly piece of bio-tech, all awkward-looking steel limbs and exposed muscles laced with dull glints of metal netting. Uglier than anything he’s tended to the growth of in the past matter of fact. He’d think twice about dropping hard cred on it too, if it were him looking to buy, for whatever reason. That’s the trouble with the new CyBor hotshot lab-boys, no aesthetic sensibility. Makes selling hard, even to men who haven’t much choice in what they buy.
‘Strong though,’ he says, nodding, more to himself than the reps. ‘Work hard for little food and no comforts. Can’t beat that. Even ugly can’t beat that.’
Bem hardly cares for what the two reps think on a personal level. Personal doesn’t factor into business, it can’t. For a fact you aren’t spending your own cred, and this is going to be a sale whether Grey wants it or not. Cheap is what these suits need, it’s written all over them. He knows what they’re buying for, where they come from this unaccustomed to heat, with Blond so fresh under the collar and Grey worn down and savvy, with pretensions of taste. Gotta be Hel 3, the cold planet, the halfway point in the hell that froze over. No other place it could be.
‘Are they smart-Tech?’ Grey asks, fishing for reasons to veto, even though Bem’s pretty sure doesn’t quite extend as far as that. Spanner in the gears, sure, but nothing big enough to break the machine.
‘Got brain tissues in the bread-box, if that’s what you’re worried about. Enough to give ’em savvy, make ’em understand orders and follow ’em.’
‘Can they talk?’
Bem laughs. ‘Sure. They ain’t no Shakespeare, if you know what I mean, but they can turn a phrase. Make ’emselves understood.’
‘Will it manage the temp?’ Grey wants to know, his eyes roaming that liquid as though it’ll up and talk to him, give him something concrete to use to nix the deal. ‘Musculature is unusually exposed.’
‘Not really as exposed as it looks,’ Bem replies calmly. This is all spiel, he could run it in his sleep. ‘That’s not regular muscle. S’Vat grown and reinforced. Don’t need no skin to protect it, it’s riddled all through with every kind of protection found in skin and more. It’ll take temps twice as cold as you need and ten times the heat here. Good as a robot this. That’s what we manufactured it for. Robots are getting popular, gotta move with the times, innit?’
‘I don’t know…maybe we should go for robots…’ Grey raises a brow at Blond, as though he really needs to consider.
Blond flashes an uneasy smile at Bem, and Bem just about swallows his chuckle. Here we go. Frat boy’s about to lay some humiliation on the subordinate. Maybe Grey’ll swing for him, offer Bem some much needed amusement nearing the end of this long-arse eighteen hour shift.
‘Look,’ Blond says to Grey, trying to talk low, keep it contained between him, Grey and Bem, make sure the grunts on the floor and the galleys above don’t listen in. ‘We don’t have cred for robots. Simple as. We lost money last quarter…’
‘You mean you did,’ Grey snaps.
Blond holds up his hands. ‘Yeah, yeah, OK, it was on my watch, but we’re in the arse end of nowhere now they’ve opened that new station waypoint. A heap less traffic is coming our way, and that means lower profit no matter what I do. I’m not making excuses, it’s plain fact.’
‘You fired half the crew.’
Taking a quick step toward Grey, Blond grits out through his teeth, ‘We couldn’t support them.’
‘But there’s still the mining belt traffic, the junkets, the deep sector survey teams. We’re running at least eight good drops a week.’
Turning away and clearly trying to contain his temper, Blond nods. ‘Yeah, but we need to pay whoever it is handles their cargo, right? Less traffic means less profit, means less money for wages. You want yours to go down? Want to be a martyr for the crews?’
Grey averts his gaze, such a lot of shame there. Cowardice too. Bem spits on the floor.
‘No. No I don’t,’ Grey mutters, barely loud enough to be heard.
‘Neither do I. So what we need right now, to keep the custom we have, is cheap replacement labour we don’t have to pay; not bloody robots, with their unions and their bloody bill of rights. Right?’
Grey pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘Fine. Fine. Whatever.’
Blond smiles, conciliatory now that he’s won. ‘I’ll go handle the paperwork with the foreman, you go round and pick us a dozen. That should be enough.’ He raises a brow at Bem. ‘They don’t need much rest, right? Not much protein either.’
Bem sniffs. ‘Four hours’ll do, and a protein pack a day, two less than your average labourer.’
‘Perfect.’ Blond strides off, pleased as punch with himself. Grey watches him go. Bem can smell the hatred, it’s got that burning scent, like solder drips on skin.
Won’t do you much good, he wants to say, but knows better.
‘Well then, floor man, take me to the vats, we’ve a long journey back,’ Grey snaps.
Bem ignores him, staring instead at the sleeping giants formed of muscle and steel ranked in rows, and feeling something like pity for them. Blond’s going to fire the rest of his crew if Bem’s any judge, and make this dozen STEV do the work of fifty men, maybe more.
It’s always the way, and they’ve enough brain to suffer, these things. You can’t do without less, even for simple labour. He sees the STEV below twitching in its sleep and wonders if it’s some primal precognition of the hell to come. Nightmares formed of ice and chill and endless labour.
Poor ugly bastards, he thinks, setting off down the stairs to the floor with Grey in tow, the grated rungs rattling beneath their feet. Poor, ugly, half-witted bastards. You’ll be dead in a year. What a bloody waste.
© Ren Warom 2013