There was a common but secretive saying among the few humans left on the factory floor; "It's not over 'til the fat bitch screams."
The fat bitch was screaming while Julia made her way down the production line, PDA and stylus in hand, cringing at the stench of rotten vegetables and fear. At the shouted command, the machines wound down to idle and their monstrous operatives stood silently, staring straight ahead, on "break."
Julia turned back to Fat Bitch, replacing her scowl with an obvious fake smile. "You don't have to shout so loud, you know - they can tune out the noise of the machines and only hear your voice."
Fat Bitch returned the fake smile with another one even less convincing, yellow teeth showing. "That as may be," she said with an air of condescension, "I'd like to hear my own voice sometimes, thank you very much Julia."
Julia nodded and turned back to her PDA, directing it towards the swelling evident on loader nineteen's shoulders, the burns around its flanks, taking pictures. "Do you often have to beat the loaders? Have they given you problems?"
"Ah, Nineteen. Imogene. That one in particular, yeah, it gives us problems. The others, you know, you can give them a good slap and they'll know they've done wrong. Nineteen just doesn't learn. You can beat it and whip it and shock it, but it just doesn't sink in. It's like banging your bloody head against a brick wall."
Julia grimaced. Ever thought of trying something else? "I can imagine so, Miss Hammond. We can take it in for retraining, if you can spare the loss of productivity."
Hammond shrugged. "We've got spares."
Julia looked up, the loader's muzzle eighteen inches above her head. It looked down at her, watching as she took pictures. She showed it a weak smile. It blinked at her, painfully - one eye was clearly infected.
Hammond called over to her. "What're you gonna do, electro-shock therapy?"
Julia fought back an impulse, and responded neutrally. "When punishment or basic retraining doesn't work, we essentially tear down their personalities and rebuild them as from new. It's mostly psychological."
"You'd not be far wrong to give it a good kick around every now and then, too. It's the only thing these buggers understand - but then, they're like that, aren't they? Stupid."
Julia shook her head, seething, unable to stop herself. "Not that stupid. If they come across a problem, they'll try a variety of things to overcome it. If it's clear that one approach isn't working, they'll try something else."
Julia looked very carefully at Hammond. She wished she could be surprised that the barely-veiled insult went totally over her head.
Fat, Stupid Bitch shrugged. "Whatever."
"You're safe, now. Take new clothes from the box, and then sit down."
Peter looked in the wing mirror, and watched Julia guiding the loader into the back of the van. A Type B, this time - a four-armed, dog-faced, ginger-furred behemoth designed for versatility in manual labour. It clambered awkwardly into the back, fumbling on legs with reversed knees intended to bear loads that would otherwise need a forklift truck. The suspension dipped visibly under its weight, and Julia closed the door.
"So," said Peter as Julia climbed into the cab, "was it as bad as last time?"
Julia sighed. "Can you roll me one up?"
Peter grimaced. "That bad, huh?" He produced a pre-rolled cigarette and handed it to Julia.
Julia smiled. "I see you're not entirely surprised." She took the cigarette, lit it, breathed.
Peter watched Julia's shoulders slump as she exhaled, blowing the smoke out of the window. He waited for her to relax before asking. "Who's in the back?"
"Nineteen. Apparently he stopped responding to commands in the ways they've come to expect, so they took away his loincloth; when that didn't work, they beat the shit out of him."
Peter rolled his eyes. "Figures."
"Well, we'll try reprogramming him from the ground up, see if that works. I just hope those dickheads didn't make it too much worse."
Julia turned around and looked through the mesh to the back of the van. Nineteen was fitting a clean new loincloth onto himself; the cheap white fabric was a stark contrast to the matted, filthy ginger fur.
"Himself?" Yes, perhaps... this one seems to be more "male" than the others.
Julia winced at the state of Nineteen's arms; both pairs were showing angry purple bruises beneath the fur. There were no laws yet to protect loaders from cruelty; Julia sometimes wished there were, in spite of how much it would hurt business, and consequently, the already vulnerable economy. Granted, they didn't feel emotions, or "think" in ways that a person could understand, but their responses to pleasure and pain stimuli remained as they should be. A loader wasn't much good if it didn't know when it was being punished or rewarded.
Nineteen sat down in the awkward way that Type B loaders employed; their knees bent backwards, a creature designed to stand up to twenty-hour work days, not to enjoy the simple pleasures of a chair. Julia turned her attentions back to Peter.
"All right. Let's get this guy back on track."
Peter nodded and started the engine. "They don't have the code words, do they?"
"Huh! Yeah, right. If you tell people like that - and I use the term "people" very, very loosely - that there's a word to make the Loaders feel pain, do you think they'd ever say anything else?"
"Good point. You know who I really feel sorry for? The poor bastards still working in the factory. Watching the loaders getting beaten up, and knowing that their employers would do the same to them if it were allowed, and that at any minute they could be out the door, replaced by an animal that can follow orders and doesn't ask for a cigarette break or a cup of tea."
Julia sighed as the van started to roll forward. "There will always be laws to protect people from this sort of nonsense. And besides, what do you think the remaining humans in that factory are employed to do?"
She took another drag of her roll up, and looked out of the window. "When you're up to your arse in debt, with four hungry kids to feed, and the only work going is unskilled manual labour... It must feel cathartic to beat up the things that took your old job."
Imogene stood in line with six other loaders, in a warm, safe, comfortable place. Imogene handled vegetables; he didn't know what these other loaders did, but he was aware that they, like he, were sad loaders, and they were here to get better. They were his friends. A kind lady went down the line, accompanied by a kind man, waving a little machine around the other loaders' heads. Imogene knew that the machine told the kind people how sad each loader was.
There was another Nineteen in the line with him, but he didn't know how many the other Nineteen belonged to. Imogene's full and proper name was Type-B Gen-12 Nineteen of Fifty Two, Morrisons' Warehouse, Rudheath. That identified him as sibling to lots of other loaders just like Imogene.
Well, just like Imogene only happier.
When the other Nineteen had the machine waved around her head, the kind man and the kind lady shook their heads and looked very sad, and talked into the machine. Imogene wanted to work, to make the kind people feel happy again, but there wasn't anything to do. And besides, he'd been asked to stand still - so he redoubled his efforts towards being as still as he possibly could be, his breathing shallow, his muscles rigid.
The door opened and another kind man walked in, who also looked very sad. He took the other Nineteen by the hand and led her away, back the way the man had come in. The door shut behind them.
Imogene reached out to his sister, to try to find out where she was going, maybe to cheer her up a little. She was walking in a straight line, possibly down a corridor. He felt her reach back to him, pleased that he was watching while she moved around.
The kind man and lady were still waving the machine around, finding out how sad the other loaders were, when the connection got cut off somehow, and Imogene lost his sister. He reached out again, to try to find her, but she just wasn't there.
He sent some good feelings towards the area where he last felt her, in case she came back.
"B-twelve Nineteen of fifty two, Morrissons warehouse, Rudheath." Emerson gestured with chubby fingers towards the display. "The MRI showed unusually high levels of activity around here, and the deep scan showed neural pathways forming in places you wouldn't expect from a Type-B in manual labour."
Julia frowned. "Is Chris not here today?"
Julia shrugged. "It doesn't matter." Well, for one thing, he wouldn't try to put himself in a position of power by giving me half the information and expecting me to come up with the other half with no questions asked. He'd just bounce his way through the situation like the daft bleach-blonde work-experience-boy he truly is, explaining things using metaphors and analogies that an idiot could understand.
That's what he is, he's half-genius, half Saturday boy - he's like some kind of... of idiot adaptor plug, dumb on one side, clever on the other...
"Did Nineteen do anything unusual on the way over here?" asked Emerson. "Did you notice anything odd about the way he looked at you, or how he stood? Anything at all?"
"Yes, yes, and yes. He's been driven half-mad by abuse, John. I'd have thought just about everything he did would seem screwy."
Emerson nodded, biting his lower lip. Best not patronise her - she might be offended if I spell it out for her...
"I ask again, John, what's so odd about him that I had to come to bloody Birmingham to see you?"
"We don't know yet, Julia." Or perhaps I had better keep it simple. "But he's a special case, that much is certain."
Julia sighed, arms folded. I fucking hate Birmingham. "So we're gonna put him down, or what?"
"No. We've not seen any violent impulses, or any resentment of authority. Even towards the boss who ordered him beaten up, or the men that did it."
"So we're preserving him for study?" Julia looked through the one-way mirror. Nineteen was kept busy with building blocks, sensors and electrodes strapped over his body and head. Small, green eyes peeked out over the top of a long, dog-like snout, lazily scanning here and there while his upper arms worked. The larger, clumsier lower pair sat unused by his sides. "Good to see that you're keeping him busy."
Emerson nodded. "Yeah. He needs it. Hey... can I show you something?"
Emerson stepped through the door, into Nineteen's room. Nineteen was building a long, low wall, carefully lining up the blocks to sit flush with each other.
"Nineteen?" Emerson's voice came through the speaker mounted beneath the window. Nineteen looked up. "Would you like to carry on working with these blocks, or -" he turned to a chest lying along the side of the room, opened it, and picked up a bundle of wires and electronics components - "would you prefer to put this together for me?"
Julia felt suddenly uneasy. A loader wasn't supposed to have preferences for different types of jobs - sometimes they developed a fear of doing a particular job if it involved pain, or excessive heat or cold, but in a safe situation like this, Nineteen shouldn't care.
Nineteen blinked. Julia found herself resenting Emerson for trying to get Nineteen to make a decision that was clearly beyond his scope. He should know better.
Nineteen reached his lower right hand towards Emerson, while his upper arms continued moving the blocks around. Emerson placed the components in Nineteen's strong, oversized paw, and patted him on the head. "Good," he said, in soothing tones. "I'll be back shortly." He walked back into the room with Julia, closing the door gently behind him.
"I wouldn't say that was particularly unusual," said Julia, "him wanting to do both like that. In fact I'd say that was pretty good."
"Watch," said Emerson, turning back to the window. "See what he does when he thinks we're not looking."
Julia smiled. "A loader with secrets, now? He'll finish his wall first, you know that as well as I do."
Nineteen continued building for a few moments, then abruptly put down the blocks and picked up the electronic components.
Julia's eyes widened. "Huh."
"Yes, Julia. I would say so."
Julia turned to Emerson. "What does this mean?"
Emerson shrugged. "As I've mentioned, Julia - we just don't know yet. But there are other sick loaders that need our attention more urgently, and we could do with this room being cleared. We're going to reassign him as a short-term domestic servant to somebody onsite, see if there's other work he'd be better cut out for. Obviously he'd be monitored closely."
"A Type B in a Type E setting... it's interesting, but... wait, is that why you called me in?" Julia frowned. "To offer me a house-loader?"
Emerson shook his head. "No. I called you in to ask you if he had done anything unusual on the ride over, and you answered my question. Diane's going to put a form on the canteen noticeboard in Chester that you can sign if you want him. We're thinking we might set up a rota of different houses. Not too many, obviously - we want to keep things stable, as much for him as for our staff. Or we might just put him in a raffle," said Emerson, smiling.
Julia shook her head. "My husband harbours no resentment towards loaders, but I don't think he'd want one in the house."
"Pity. I thought I'd give you first refusal, since you picked him up. Y'know, it's a little too soon to say, but I think we might end up using him as a template."
Julia frowned. "You want to breed from a loader who clearly favours one type of work over another?"
"It's a sign of intelligence. If Nineteen is unusually clever, but still retains utter respect of authority, he and others like him could be useful as heavy domestic servants, perhaps the basis for the Type R's. I doubt he'll be going back to Morrisons' warehouse, whatever happens."
Julia smiled. "That, at least, is good news."
NOTICE OF OPPORTUNITY
Type-B Generation 12 Standard Loader number 19/52, Morrisons warehouse, Rudheath, recently began to exhibit abnormal behaviour warranting domestic relocation - preferably to a safe, controlled area, inhabited by experts such as ourselves.
To that end, we are soliciting a temporary owner for the above loader and a home in which he will be employed as a domestic servant, to be monitored closely.
A little information about 19/52:
Gender identified as approximately 70% male. Weight 24 stone, 6 ounces. Height 7'2". Ginger fur colour. Given name of "Imogene." Adaptive circadian rythmn, has passed awareness tests in monophasic, biphasic and polyphasic sleep. Evidence of abuse from warehouse staff at Morrisons. Shares common personality traits evident in Type-B loaders, and the following abnormalities:
Shows occasional passive unwillingness to co-operate in certain tasks (informal exchange, Ingrid Hammond, Morrisons warehouse)
Shows willingness to pursue one task over another task equal in terms of comfort but differing in complexity (laboratory observation)
Shows willingness to retain information from authority figures (laboratory observation)
Evidence of unusually high intelligence (laboratory observation)
Anyone willing to rehouse Imogene will be relieved from most of their work-related duties for almost the entire duration of the observation (minimum two weeks, maximum three months), but will be required to document his behaviour and make notes of any useful or unusual patterns. They will also be required to sign a contract releasing Ikawa Laboratories from any disruption of business, injury, destruction of property or death resulting from his presence, howsoever caused.
If you are interested, please leave your name and staff number below.
~John Emerson, Behavioural Adjustment Engineer
Julia scowled. "Peter, look at this!"
Peter glanced over her shoulder, Twix bar in hand. "What am I looking at?"
"It's that loader we took back from Morrisons. Y'know I told you about John wanting me to take him home? He's only gone and written this to make the loader seem... well, unhinged! And look - he hasn't even mentioned that you'd be paid special rate for sitting on your arse. The way things are right now, the newbies are gonna assume you'd have to take your holiday days!"
Peter scanned the page. He grinned. "He wants you to take him. Look, there's no volunteers."
"Well, yeah. Bastard."
Peter laughed. "Efficient bastard, too. Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to sign my name, right here," said Julia, taking a pen from a pocket and writing on the notice. "Nobody's going to be the first, and I know he's not dangerous, so I'd better drum up some interest." She recapped the pen. "There. People trust me around here. My name should be enough."
When she turned around, Peter cocked an eyebrow at her. "Someone's got a very high opinion of themselves."
Julia shrugged. "Yeah, and?"
Peter grinned. "And what about your husband?"
"I'm not actually going to take him, Pete. I just... Hell, I just don't want there to be no names on that list, okay?"
"Sounds good to me, by your twisted logic at least. So. Imogene, huh?"
"It's not that unusual. Most laymen don't see the difference between a male and female loader. I found a loader once that'd been named after his owners' ex-wife."
Peter cringed. "Beaten up?"
In a sleeping household, Julia lay wide awake. The baby was asleep, the house clean, her husband sated. He lay to her right, a semiconscious weight smelling of sex.
She looked towards him. She opened her mouth, and closed it again, opting instead to lay a hand on his shoulder. He wriggled and sighed, sweat from his skin slick on Julia's palm.
She had a good life, for these fragile times. Both husband and wife were employed, and they could afford to have nearly all of the things they needed, and even some of the things they wanted. Julia earned more than her husband - almost twice as much, in fact, while he worked a job threatened by the ever-cheapening and improving creatures she cared for - but he resented them little, if at all.
He didn't answer, but twitched beneath her touch, a little inquisitive eddy in his sea of sleep.
Julia sighed, and turned her eyes back to the ceiling.
Her life was all right - she kept herself busy. There was always plenty to do, and she went to bed each night feeling as though she had done real work, falling into deep, usually dreamless sleep.
It'd be nice to have a little help around here, is all. A big, friendly puppy that can do the dishes, sweep the floors, and provide some primitive kind of company when Graham's working nights.
And I'd be able to stay home for a couple of weeks. Take care of Stephanie. Let her see my face and smell me, lest she replace me with her babysitter, forget what her own mother looks like.
Julia sighed. It's a bit late to be considering this now. My name's already down. She rolled over onto her side, her bottom gently touching her husband's, no further contact between them. I should be worrying about what Graham will think when I bring Imogene home.
She sighed. If he objects, will I bring Imogene here anyway? How will he react then? Will he be bothered about it enough to resist more strongly? Bothered enough to "put his foot down" in that embarrassing way, and make me return fire, then have a bloody good sulk about it?
Julia turned over to face her husband, who shifted and sighed in semiconscious protest at the constant movement. She reached out and stroked his hair.
I'm missing Graham more and more, these days.
I miss him even when he's standing right in front of me.
She reached over to the bedside table for her vibrator and earplugs, as Graham began to snore.
"So. I take it you've told Graham?"
Julia cringed. "No."
Peter leaned in across the table. "It's been a week, now. And there are still no names down. Are you going to take yours off the list?"
Julia looked up, Crunchie bar half-eaten on the table before her. "They'll put him to sleep."
Peter nodded, and there was a brief silence. He slid his hand across the table, palm up. Julia looked at it for a moment, then placed her hand inside his. She closed her eyes.
Peter looked at her with sympathy. He knew well enough not to ask her why she cared about Imogene, why she cared about every other loader, troubled or not. "You need to tell him that. Let him know there's no other way for Nineteen to live. I'm sure he'll understand."
Julia looked up. Peter's eyes were vaguely Asian - beyond that, his ethnicity was hard to nail down, a face from many countries. In the past few years, he would have had to put up with almost as much misplaced anger as the loaders, from white British morons whose eyes were round enough and hair light enough for them to consider themselves "pure." He understood - or, Julia corrected herself - she thought he understood, he should understand, everything that Imogene was going through. Considering that Imogene could only handle base, primitive emotions, Peter probably understood Imogene better than Imogene himself.
She spoke very quietly, eyes on her hand inside Peter's. "Over the past week I've let myself get a little too attached to a loader with a death sentence, Peter."
Peter squeezed her hand gently. "Occupational hazard."
Julia smiled, squeezed back, then withdrew before the exchange could become dangerous. "Happens to the best of us, now and again."
They sat in silence for a few moments. "So," asked Peter, "what are you going to do?"
Julia looked up, fingers curling around her Crunchie bar, eyes wet.
That's nowhere near all of it, but it's all I'm posting for now - finished piece will probably be around novella-length. I have this bad habit of writing novellas - they're utterly unmarketable. Unless you know how to post them on a website with a PayPal donate button, and spend ten bucks on Project Wonderful advertising.
So, how much would you pay for all of it, and should I concentrate more on this once Season Two is stable?