Alirio heaved the skid forward, throwing all his weight into the ore laden package along with three other slaves.
He didn’t know their names.
More than thirty slaves had died in Alirio’s barracks in the last month.
The Taskmasters had sent in a doctor with a cure, eventually. Curing the disease took mere minutes with the Taskmasters’ medicine, but the doctor had stayed for three days delivering a series of lectures about cleanliness, protocol, and a ‘heartfelt’ speech about how the world outside the slave barracks was full of horrors like that.
The fact that the first three infectees had been sneaking extra food into the barracks had surely been a “coincidence.”
It was important to follow the rules, the Taskmasters’ doctor had said, apropos of nothing.
They’d brought in new people to fill out the empty bunks yesterday. Most of the new arrivals came from the mainland, far away from the Ascenseur, and most of them had spent the evening gawking at the massive pillar of carbon and metal that went from the ground, all the way up beyond the sight of human eyes.
All the way to space.
One had been caught staring up at the thing during the march from their transport to the barracks, and stalled the line. Two the Taskmasters’ soldiers pulled him aside and beat him for that. They didn’t even bother to use the compliance implant, just threw him to the ground and kicked him till he was coughing blood.
With a final groan of effort, the four of them finished pushing the skid up the ramp and into the cargo hauler. A security drone hovered just inside the door, demanding the four slaves pause for scanning. They did, and Alirio felt a brief but sharp pain in his chest as the drone tested the compliance implant. It cleared them and they finished securing the skid inside, next to a hundred other skids full of tungsten ore.
Alirio didn’t know what they needed so much tungsten for. He doubted he’d ever know.
The sun getting low, and there wasn’t enough time to transport another skid to the hauler, so Alirio and his companions were directed to wait at the transport. Once all the other slaves were aboard, the drone came through the transport, scanning each and every one of them.
Another sharp pain.
Once all one hundred slaves were accounted for, the drone played a short chord of approval, disappearing into a small opening in the ceiling of the hold, and the transport lifted off the ground, headed out to sea.
In the hold of the transport, the slaves were free to move about, and Alirio left his seat, looking for Jean Claude. He found him whispering to a few of the new arrivals. When Jean saw Alirio, he rushed over to him smiling.
“Still alive?” Jean asked.
“Always,” Alirio replied, wrapping his arms around Jean Claude, kissing him lightly on the cheek.
Jean Claude kissed him back and pulled Alirio over to a set of empty seats.
“Have you spoken to the new arrivals yet?” Jean asked.
“Not really. Just work things,” Alirio shrugged, “You?”
Jean’s smile grew wider. “A lot. They have some very interesting things to say.”
“Like?” Alirio raised an eyebrow.
Jean Claude didn’t answer. Instead, he looked back towards the end of the hold, where the drone had disappeared through the ceiling. “Later…later,” he whispered, “Are you going to go listen to Beni tonight?”
“Maybe,” Alirio said, “I need to go to Barracks 13. If Kajeje managed to get any paint from the Taskmasters I was going to trade him for some.”
“Oh? What for?” Jean Claude asked.
“Can’t tell you,” Alirio smirked, “It’s a secret.”
“Seriously,” Jean Claude gave a skeptical smile, “What is it?”
“Not gonna happen.”
Jean Claude folded his arms, gave an exaggerated huff, and leaned back in his seat.
“Before you go, we should talk about the lottery,” he said.
That was code. It was best to assume the Taskmasters were always listening. Jean Claude and Alirio didn’t really care about the lottery. They were old enough, they just had no interest. So any time one of them asked to talk about it, what they really meant was that they needed to talk somewhere the Taskmaster’s wouldn’t hear them. There weren’t many places like that. Even the few that slaves used regularly were merely places they hoped the Taskmasters wouldn’t hear them. Even in the transport’s hold, with a hundred slaves talking over each other, very few would risk saying anything too daring, but Alirio and Jean Claude had a spot they’d go where they felt confident enough to talk about some of the things the Taskmasters had declared taboo.
“Of course,” Alirio said leaning back next to Jean Claude. He reached out and took Jean Claude’s hand in his, lifting it up to his lips, and kissing the fingers lightly. “Tell me the newcomers aren’t going to get you into trouble.”
“Later,” Jean Claude almost hissed at him.
The transport arrived over the barracks, signaled by a different musical chord. The windowless hulk landed with only a small jerk, the drone descended from the room above, and the doors opened. The slaves of Barracks 9, Alirio and Jean Claude among them, were marched out and lined up in four columns before their home. A long wooden shack, nearly identical to the nineteen others, save for a purple ‘9’ stenciled on the door. The simple structures of the slaves’ barracks stood in the midsts of a great circular concrete wall, topped with sensor nodes and drone docking ports. Beyond the wall were the tall buildings of the Taskmasters, where they lived and did whatever it was they did with all the tungsten the slaves mined. Further still, but by far the thing that dominated the view from the barracks, was the Ascenseur. Even from the clearing in front of Barracks 9, Alirio could see small containers zipping up and down from space.
One last time the drone floated among them, scanning them and testing their implants.
Yet another sharp pain, but hopefully the last of the day.
When the drone was finished, another musical chord of approval, and the drone wished them all a wonderful day in flawless French. Alirio wondered if the silken voice the drones used was one of the Taskmasters, or of a slave they’d recorded. The drone retreated into the transport, which lifted off, traveled just beyond the walls of the slave compound, and landed with a hiss and roar of lifter engines.
Evening in the barracks was quiet. Twenty barracks of a hundred slaves each, but none of them would raise their voice to the level of a shout in the shadow of the Ascenseur. Any such “disturbance” might see a dozen drones come rising up over the compound walls, blaring instructions and activating compliance implants if they weren’t obeyed.
Alirio went to the small foot locker that held all his worldly possessions. There were locks on the lockers, keyed to implants, but the slaves rarely used them. The drones and the Taskmasters could open anyone’s locker and the slaves trusted on another. They had to. Alirio had been locking his though, just to be sure Jean Claude wouldn’t see his gift until it was done. He examined once more the half finished landscape he’d been painting for Jean Claude. It was a small piece of canvas, which had cost him dearly to get, and the paint was proving as difficult to get. Kajeje had managed a deal with one of the Taskmasters’ soldiers, whom Kajeje said was more reasonable than most, to get a bit of extra paint when the slaves of Barracks 13 had been ordered to repaint the barracks. He’d traded it to Alirio to paint the landscape, and had promised to try and get a bit more today, in exchange for ten cigarettes.
Alirio wasn’t sure why the Taskmasters gave the slaves cigarettes at all, but he’d been saving his ration for a week now, and he had nine. He hoped Kajeje would trust that the tenth was coming.
But before that though, he had promised to meet Jean Claude in a safe spot. He looked around for Jean inside the barracks and didn’t see him. That was fine. It was best not to leave for a meeting outside the Taskmaster’s sight together. Too obvious.
He slipped out the barracks door, as casually as he could and started walking a circuitous path towards Barracks 20. There was a spot about halfway down the narrow alley between Barracks 18 and 20, where the Taskmaster’s cameras couldn’t see. At least that’s what the slaves believed. At the blindspot, a small gap had been dug at the base of the wall of Barracks 20, leading to a small crawl space large enough for just two people.
Alirio was just about to crawl through, when he heard the sharp, echoing tone of the alarm and the chillingly calm demands of a drone for someone to remain still and not resist.
For a split second, Alirio believed he was about to experience his own compliance implant activate. But he heard the screaming start, and it wasn’t his. It was coming from near the wall, further down the row of barracks than Alirio. He flattened himself against the ground, and risked crawling over to the end of the alley to look see what was happening.
There was a drone hovering just over Jean Claude, as he was writhing in pain on the ground.
A small transport lifted over the wall and descended just on the slave side, disgorging two Taskmaster soldiers and another drone.
They walked over to Jean Claude, who abruptly stopped writhing, but was still crying out in pain. They took him by the arms, and started dragging him back to their transport.
“Wait!” Alirio shouted. He was surprised to hear his voice, and even more surprised to find himself running at the soldiers. “Please, wait! I’m sure it’s wrong. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. He’s-”
The pain closed his throat. He hadn’t heard the drone warn him. They were supposed to give you a verbal warning before activating the implant.
Alirio fell back on the ground as his muscles convulsed violently. He was sure that any second now, they would rip themselves free of his bones.
When he found his voice, it was only to scream.
-to be continued-