by Thom Arrell
He opened his eyes but could not see anything. There was cloth everywhere; he was buried in sheets. He had no memory of getting there, not even of who or what he was and he felt like he was waking up for the first time. So he started screaming. That would get someone’s attention.
“Shhh,” a voice tried to console him. “Be quiet or they are going to find you.”
The sheets were pulled off of him and a face came into view. It seemed very alien, but he knew that it resembled his own. It was the first time he ever saw a face. In fact, it was the first time he saw anything but a mountain of sheets. He screamed again.
A woman held him and gradually, very gradually, the panic subsided. He held on to her like she was the only familiar thing in life.
“Easy,” the woman whispered constantly, and, “It’ll all be okay.” He didn’t understand the words, not at first, but the voice was friendly and comforting and he would believe anything it said. As neural pathways reorganized, understanding came and at long last he looked up at who held him. She stroked his hair, gave a kiss on his forehead and said, “Do you know who I am?”
He understood what she meant, but he did not know how to speak yet.
“I am your mother, Tesimo. I will take care of you.”
* * *
She lifted him out of the pile of sheets as if he were a baby, even though he was probably taller than she. They were in a small space where piles of towels and other linen were stacked on metal shelves. A handful of vacuum cleaners stood against the wall.
The place looked like a large maintenance closet. Of course, Tesimo did not see it that way; he had never seen a maintenance closet before.
With help from the woman, his mother, Tesimo managed to stand up. He was naked, and he felt cold. His mother saw him shiver and told him to hold on to a cupboard while she went away to search for clothes that he could wear.
She left the room and stayed away for a few minutes. When she didn’t return right away, he felt like screaming again. But there was too much to see now to keep his mind occupied. He looked at the flickering light in the corner of the room and he watched the rats shoot back and forth between little holes in the wall. He noticed the smell of formaldehyde and saw a basket of bloody towels. Carefully, he touched the wet wounds on his arms and legs, wondering if the blood was his. With everything he saw or experienced, he felt his understanding grow. The world was slowly starting to make sense.
When his mother returned, Tesimo no longer felt confused, although he realized that so much still did not make sense. In her arms, his mother carried simple green clothes that matched those she wore herself. Together, they put on the underwear, trousers, shirt and socks, and Tesimo immediately felt more comfortable.
“There,” his mother exclaimed. “They fit you well enough to help you stay warm. Now sit down. I need to teach you to speak, and the fastest way to do that is to let you listen to my voice.”
She gave him a cup of hot tea and started telling him who he was.
* * *
“They must have put you in the vats around 2:00 a.m.,” she began. He had no clue what she was talking about, and it must have been visible on his face, but she just kept on talking.
“Workers need some time to develop before they are born, so the breeding process needs to start early. They genetically engineered you to grow quickly, maybe even too quickly. That is why you have these.” She pointed at scar tissue beneath his armpits and around his joints. “They’re called ‘stretch marks’ and they are caused by your body growing more rapidly than your skin.”
Tesimo opened his mouth. “Why?” he wanted to say, but all that came out was an animal sound. He felt a bit embarrassed, but his mother immediately said, “Don’t feel bad, Tesimo. Your ability to talk will develop as you listen to my voice. Your kind is designed to adapt to speech very quickly. Just be patient.”
He nodded because somehow he understood what she meant. She continued her story:
“Those that created you do not care how many stretch marks you have. The workers that are born with severe deformities are discarded right away but, as long as they’re fit to work for a day, the owners of the factory are content. After a day, you will be recycled anyway.”
Tesimo tried to take a sip from the mug that his mother had given him, but the tea was still very hot and it burned his mouth. He would have spit it out, but he did not want to seem ungrateful so he swallowed the pain. A tear escaped his eye, but his mother misinterpreted it.
“I am sorry, Tesimo,” she exclaimed and she took the mug from his hands, set it down and wrapped her arms around him. “I should not have been so insensitive. Don’t worry; they are not going to discard you. I am not going to let them. Let me start again.” She held Tesimo at arm’s distance and looked at him with love in her eyes.
“Today I had the morning shift,” she started anew. “The morning crew is responsible for guiding the new workers that come out of the vats to the stations where they get their clothes and training. Then we get to clean all the amniotic fluid that is inevitably spilled when they are born.” She paused, picked up the mug and took a sip herself.
“They tell us that the newly born do not feel anything, that they don’t think more than is necessary to do a day’s worth of labour. But I don’t believe that. When workers are almost full-grown but not yet ready to be born, some of them open their eyes. Even though the fluid fractures the light, their stares often give me the feeling that they understand. Not everything, maybe, but something.”
“Anyway, that morning I checked all the vats and there was only one worker awake enough to look back at me. His skin seemed almost translucent, his hair was white. His curious eyes peered through the fluid and the glass. Eyes with the red of an albino. That was you, Tesimo.”
“I could not understand how you had slipped through the medical checks, how you could still be alive, but I knew that they would check you again and that they would pick you out and discard you instantly because of your albino skin. I could not let that happen, so I terminated your incubation, knowing that you were old enough to survive. You came out even more helpless than the rest, and I knew I had to keep you warm. So I hid you in this maintenance room, in a cart beneath a stack of sheets, while I did my normal rounds.”
“I remember,” Tesimo said, and this time his neural pathways had adapted enough for it to come out somewhat normally. “I remember you.”
His mother smiled, and it warmed Tesimo that he had pleased her.
“They often say,” she said, “that you take the first thing you see when you are born to be your mother.”
* * *
“What is a ‘maintenance room’?”
His mother chuckled and, for a moment, Tesimo was afraid that he had asked a stupid question. His mother read the feeling from his face and said: “Don’t worry about it, Tesimo; this will not be the last thing you do not understand. A maintenance room is a storage room for cleaning equipment. But it is also where we meet for coffee or even a cigarette. Although that is not allowed, of course. There are hundreds of maintenance rooms in the factory, and they are a kind of safe haven for us, where we can relax without being watched by cameras.”
“The cleaning ladies. Some of us are men, but mostly those that do the cleaning are women. We either work in the morning shift or the evening shift. Then we get to clean all the sheets from the beds that all the workers spend the evening in before they are recycled.”
“Tesimo, I am sorry, but there is really no better way for me to say this. Workers like you are bred to work for a day, and then you fall asleep and pass away. Your biomass is recycled to be able to breed the workers of the next day.”
“Because the owners of the factory reduce costs that way. Recycling is an expensive process, but they make up for it by saving on salary and working conditions. You have no human rights because, officially, you’re not human.”
Tesimo now understood why she had felt she had upset him. But there was no need. “I am still here,” he said.
His mother smiled and said: “That’s the spirit, Tesimo. That’s the spirit.”
* * *
Tesimo met some of the other cleaning ladies. All of them responded enthusiastically to his presence, admired his beautiful white hair and promised to keep him safe from ‘the owners’ who, many of them warned, would recycle him without a second thought.
His mother had to go away to do some work, but one of the other cleaning ladies promised to show him as much of the factory as possible. Her name was Acta. Like Mother, she had worked in the morning shift, where she had helped terminate Tesimo’s incubation.
Now that the technicians were gone, it was safe for him to come into the incubation room, and Acta showed him the place of his birth: a hall full of now empty glass cylinders that were connected to computers in groups of three.
“These are filled with fluid when they are occupied,” Acta explained. “Workers that are being bred are connected to the central unit by an umbilical cord. It takes three or four hours for them to grow and, when they are ready to be born, the fluid is drained and the cylinders are lifted. When I first started working here, I wished that giving birth would have been this easy, but now that I have seen the anguish on the faces of the workers that have just been born and have heard their screams, I’ve changed my mind. The screams are not comparable to the crying of naturally grown babies. I hear them when I wake up from a nightmare.”
“Acta, we did not ask to be born,” Tesimo noted. It was a remarkable observation that made Acta laugh out loud at first. But the laugh lasted only seconds; she quickly understood that he was serious.
“No, you did not. But what the owners do is legal. Studies have shown that your intellectual capacity is not large enough to experience discomfort or pain.”
Even Tesimo understood that she was quoting something, for she would never use those fancy words herself.
“Us cleaning ladies know better, and I think that the owners do, too, but they have no viable alternative for your cheap labor. They are watching, you know.” She pointed at the cameras that were hanging from the ceiling high above them. Tesimo looked at them and immediately felt watched.
“Don’t worry,” Acta added quickly. “Those are on only when the breeding vats are occupied.”
“So they saw my mother rescue me?”
“No,” Acta said with a smile. “They saw your mother abort a defunct worker, as is her task, and take it away to be recycled. They have no cameras in the maintenance rooms; they cannot follow us there.”
“What is it like to be... recycled?”
“I am not really sure,” Acta had to admit. “I have never been on the evening shift, and I have never seen it with my own eyes. But I have heard stories of how the bodies of dead workers are laid in large pools filled with fluid, in which they slowly dissolve.”
“Is that also how normal people die?”
“Tesimo,” Acta said firmly, “workers are not killed. I don’t think the owners are beyond such cruelty, but the law dictates that workers are dead when they are recycled so they won’t feel pain.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Tesimo said.
Acta was silent for a moment, and all traces of a smile vanished from her face. “No,” she had to admit, “that is not how normal people die. But no matter how this conversation proves them wrong, the government has decreed that you are not people. That you have no rights. That you are just property.”
“That is wrong,” Tesimo said dryly.
“Yes, it is,” Acta agreed. “And we do what we can within the system. But we all need jobs. Come,” she took his arm, “Let’s leave this depressing hall. There is much more of the factory to see.”
She took him back to the maintenance room, where she found him a hat that she instructed him to wear at all times. “Someone might notice your white hair,” she explained. Then she gave him a vacuum cleaner. “Now you look like one of us.”
They went out and cleaned the hallways. Acta seemed to work in a random direction, but slowly they worked their way to the balcony of a large hall in which Tesimo heard a man with a high-pitched voice talking. His voice came out of boxes that hung on the ceiling, but the sound was synchronized with the movement of his mouth. He was standing before a crowd of workers in black overalls that were all sitting on simple chairs, listening to the man speak.
“What are they doing here?” Tesimo whispered.
“First they are learning to speak by listening to the man’s voice, then they will receive instructions on the task that they have been designed for. I think this group will be assigned to sorting garbage. They will be set to work after this and work until they start falling asleep.”
“What does ‘asleep’ mean?”
That seemed to be a difficult question, on which Acta had to think a long time.
“It’s different for us normal people than for you workers. ‘Asleep’ means that your body is resting, recuperating from a day of stress and strain. If we go to sleep, we wake up rested the next day. But workers go to sleep at the end of the day, never to wake up again. Their bodies are used up, and they will die.”
“Because they are genetically designed that way, so the owners can save on all the rights that normal employees would claim. They are not even obliged to give workers a break, although the owners of this factory allow for fifteen minutes of free time at the end of the day. We call it ‘pension’.”
“Where will I work?” Tesimo whispered.
Acta chuckled again. “Nowhere, Tesimo. Your albino skin would never be able to stand the factory lights for long, so you will not be set to work anywhere. One of us will be with you all day.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Thom Arrell