Arkhan walked nonchalantly into the alley. It was a cul-de-sac, with dilapidated buildings on either side. Aside from the scattered junk and debris, the only thing of note was a door into one of the buildings. Its wood was rotten and scorched, and it looked as if it might tear off the hinges when opened.
Arkhan stood in front of it, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. There was the constant odour of the city, a mixture of burnt fuel and rotting waste. A slaughterhouse nearby added the unmistakable stench of its profession, as did a cyberimplant factory. The mixed smell of blood and silicone made Arkhan feel nauseous. He yanked the door open and strode in.
The building had been vacated eons ago, and not even the homeless had wanted to claim it. Dust had settled on most surfaces, but the floor was so dirty and matted with ancient filth that you couldn't even see whether anyone had walked on it recently.
Eight steps took him to another room in the house, and another eight to the right took him to an inside wall. He didn't knock, or stamp, or cough. He closed his eyes again, stood very still and waited. If he listened closely, he thought he might hear the high-pitched hum of unseen monitoring engines. Or maybe it was just his nerves, twanging.
Soundlessly, a section of the wall swung inwards, revealing a small room about the size of a broom cabinet. For a moment Arkhan wondered if this had all been a practical joke; if he would walk inside and find taped to the inside of the hidden door a paper with "Gotcha!" scrawled on it. A part of him desperately wanted to run, to take off and never look back. But a deeper part of him, the one that overrode even the flight instinct, knew that if he ran he'd be murdered. And besides, he had no life left here. No money, no job nor hope of one, no home, no family. If he stayed and somehow managed to avoid their agents, he'd still be dead within winter.
He had been offered a job, and he needed to accept the offer.
He stepped inside. The door closed behind him without a sound. There was total darkness.
His innards felt like they were being lifted, and he reasoned that the chamber must be an elevator heading downwards. After an indeterminate amount of time, the ride stopped and the door opened again.
In front of Arkhan stood a man, neatly dressed. The man's hair was cut short, and his face was beardless. He had a neutral expression for the most part, with the slightest hint of a smile. The man extended his hand, which Arkhan shook.
"You do realize that if this goes wrong, we'll just have to kill you," the man said.
"Oh, I plan to make a run for it," Arkhan replied.
The two men stood for a moment, regarding each other with growing amusement. Despite knowing that this man would likely be his executioner if it came to that, Arkhan found himself liking him.
"Name's Melak," the man said. "Come on, I'll show you the place." He turned and walked off, Arkhan following.
They passed through a series of small corridors, dimly lit. There was no visible air conditioning, yet the air didn't have the feel of stilled death common to enclosed, rarely used spaces. They eventually reached a door, which opened automatically and flooded them with the aroma of exotic flora, the smell of earth, and the stench of sweat.
Beyond lay a vast greenhouse, big enough to hold a spaceship. Lamps were set into the walls and ceiling, their light bright enough to make it feel like high noon in summer. On the walls hung huge white placards with writing Arkhan couldn't read from the distance; all he could make out were the numbers "10" and "50".
As Arkhan began to follow Melak through the main path in the greenhouse, he saw people hard at work harvesting all sorts of plants. Most of them wore light clothing, often nothing but thin white cotton pants and either t-shirts or bras. The men had shaven heads and more often than not had handkerchiefs bound around their foreheads; the women were apparently allowed long hair, but kept it tightly braided.
"What do you think?" Melak asked.
"Impressive," was all Arkhan could think of to say. "How many people do you have here?"
"It varies. This greenhouse, around two hundred, two hundred ten. There's several other houses in this area, but their sizes vary according to what we grow. Some need to be small and have just a couple dozen people nursing the plants, others are even bigger than this."
They walked slowly through the main path in the greenhouse. Arkhan saw that most people did not have any kinds of fetters. A few who appeared extremely fit had ankle chains, but that was about it.
"Are these people prisoners?" Arkhan asked.
"Not at all," Melak replied. "They're free to run and get shot any time they like."
Arkhan laughed. "Good, good," he said. He was doing his best to keep down the nervousness that gripped him, and he suspected Melak's gallows' humour was an attempt to put him more at ease, let him laugh things out. A small gesture, but at the moment he felt quite grateful for it. "Still," he said, "can you trust them with this? I can't imagine they're happy about working the soil, not if they're kept here against their will. And you're certainly not going to release them any time soon, I expect."
"There's no such thing as trust," Melak said. "There's only hope and expectation, and your place in life is decided by which one of these applies to you." He turned to one of the prisoners, who was picking thin leaves off a tall plant and putting them in a large wicker basket. "You there!" Melak yelled to him. "Are you happy here?"
The prisoner looked up and put down his basket. "No, sir!" he said.
"Would you escape if you got the chance?"
The prisoner grinned, or at least showed his teeth. "Yes, sir!"
"And if you caught one of the guards unawares, no one else around and no cameras or motion detectors, what would you do?"
"I'd offer him a smoke, sir!"
Melak raised his eyebrows. "Really, now?"
"And then I'd beat his brains in, sir!"
"Good man. Good man. As you were."
The prisoner went back to picking leaves, shooing a horde of little flies off the leaves in his baskets. They lifted for a moment, then settled right back in the same place.
"Did I just see that?" Arkhan asked as they resumed their walk through the greenhouse. "Did he just tell you that he would kill a guard and escape?"
"How do you propose a drug-making plant using slave labour could be made to work? Torture and force?" Melak asked in return. "Any given moment there's ten times more prisoners here than guards. If there's a problem, the doors seal and nobody gets out, which means the guards are practically dead. If the cameras indicate the plants are in danger, we flood the area with somnambulants, although we try not to do it too much because it's bad for the health and it affects the guards as well. What we don't do is beat people up."
"No physical punishment?" Arkhan asked in astonishment.
"Only for open revolt, which carries a death sentence. Other than that, no."
"Why not use high-tech chips, then? Pain implants, for instance. Or those mind torture things the Caldari supposedly use. Those things'd make it impossible to plan a rebellion."
Melak shook his head. "Not worth it. High-tech is expensive and unreliable. We only really have one proper piece of electric wizardry here, and it's not used for crowd control." He thought for a moment. "Well, not primarily, anyway."
"What is it?"
"Face scanning," Melak said. "That aside, we've got a policy here to keep things as simple and failsafe as we can. You noticed how high the ceiling is?"
"That's not by accident. When we built this place, we made sure it wouldn't feel claustrophobic. You feel walled in, you start thinking about breaking out." Melak waved away some flies that kept trying to settle in his sweaty hair. "Damn things. Anyway, the prisoners get decent food, full freedom of expression like you just saw, and time for themselves. We've got a library, some exercise equipment, and I'm pretty sure the ball court is still operational, though we need to have it looked over a bit. We want people to last here, Arkhan."
Arkhan nodded and was about to comment on it when something occurred to him. "You know my name," he said.
"Of course. Did you think we wouldn't?"
Arkhan felt flummoxed. "No, of course not. You would. It's just, it's-..."
"It's fucking unnerving, is what it is," Melak said. "You show up, don't introduce yourself or tell us anything about you, and then it turns out we know everything anyway."
"Precisely," Arkhan said.
"It'll help to think of it this way: You've been screened already, and you've passed. The reason I'm even talking to you is because I know you won't fail us. Same reason why you're allowed to see all this, same reason why you can ask me just about any question and get an honest answer." He clamped a hand on Arkhan's shoulder. "We know you; it's only fair you get to know us. After all, we're offering you a lifetime job in our assembly unit. Barring the occasional R&R, this place will be your home for a long time." Melak swung at the flies again, but they only buzzed away for a second.
"I've got a question, then," Arkhan said.
"Why don't you use pesticides, if those flies annoy you all so much?"
To Arkhan's surprise, Melak laughed out loud. He turned to Arkhan and said, "That's actually one of the few things I can't tell you. Not yet, at least. Let's just say that they have their uses, like everything else here."
Despite the man's reticence, Arkhan felt relieved. He had been amazed by Melak's candidness, but the fact that something was kept from him felt comforting. It made all the other revelations seem honest.
They were nearing the exit of the greenhouse. Arkhan felt there was something he had to be sure on. "So there isn't any torture at all? No violence, no punishment?"
"Are you thinking about escaping?" Melak asked.
"No," Arkhan said. He was silent for a moment, then said, "Yes."
The two men walked on in silence. Eventually, Arkhan added, "I'm never leaving this place alive, am I?"
"Not permanently, I'm afraid," Melak said. "If you do well you'll get the occasional paid vacation, but you'll never work for anyone else, and if you talk, you die. But you knew that."
"Yes," Arkhan said. "Yes, I did." He slowed his pace, kicked a bit at the dirt. "There is really no punishment here?"
Melak regarded him for a moment, then said, "Come on." Instead of heading for the exit, he walked in among the plants. Arkhan followed.
A minute later, they came to a small clearing. While other parts of the greenhouse had been filled with the susurrus of working people, there was no sound here but the buzzing of the flies. Yet there were humans here, too. Arkhan saw them pick the leaves off various plants and put them in their wicker baskets. And he saw them walk around in the familiar light clothing everyone else had worn. What he did not see was their faces.
Every one of them was wearing a white plaster mask. The masks were badly cast, as if gauze had simply been wrapped around the poor people's faces, soaked in whitewash and left to harden. The masks had ragged holes for the eyes, nose and mouth, but otherwise seemed very much a permanent part of their wearers' faces.
Eventually, Arkhan turned to Melak, and even though they were quite out of earshot, he asked in a whisper, "Who are they?"
Not looking at him, Melak responded, "They are ghosts."
"That's the punishment?" Arkhan asked. "That's what happens if you revolt? What have you done to these people?"
Melak ignored the last question. "No. Like I said, if you revolt, you're dead. Simple as that. These people were chosen for a different purpose."
"What purpose?" Arkhan asked, but received no answer. His employer turned and headed towards the greenhouse exit.
This room was far smaller and had a more clinical air. There were assembly lines and conveyor belts all over the place, along with all sorts of mechanical equipment. Arkhan noticed that most of the equipment was ancient in style and design; it was efficient, to be sure, but looked quite dissimilar to the modern high-tech implant factories in the neighbourhood.
Melak glanced his way, and noticed his expression. "You look disappointed," he says.
"For some reason I always expected drug making to be glamorous," Arkhan said. "Same way we idolize all sorts of crime, I suppose."
Melak nodded. "And the end of the day, all it turns out to be is people trying to make a living, same as everyone else."
Arkhan nodded back.
"Sturdiness," Melak went on, "dependability, low maintenance, simplicity. Those are the mottoes. Equipment that seldom breaks, and that we can repair by ourselves when it does. This is where you'll be working." He walked over to an inoperational assembly line. "Boosters with imperfections need to be weeded out. It's incredibly monotonous work, so we only set people on two-hour shifts, but everyone pitches in. Then there's ferrying stock around, regular maintenance, so on and so forth. Also, test inspections must be made at random from all our supply lines, and the mechanisms need to be tuned and altered according to the types of orders that come in. We need someone with mechanical aptitude and a sharp eye. Someone like you."
"Why can't you use the slaves for this?" Arkhan asked. "Seems like you've already got a prime workforce."
"Sometimes we do," Melak said. "We have a rough hierarchy here, kind of a caste system. Maybe you start out as a worker in the fields, but if you do well you'll be promoted to an overseer. If you show an aptitude for numbers, we'll move you to stock, and if you have ingenuity or any kind of natural talent, then yeah, you'll go over to assembly. But that's fairly rare, so we need to bring in outsiders as well.
"And those who don't do well ... the masks?" Arkhan asked.
"In a manner of speaking." Melak replied. "You remember the placards? Big white things hanging from the ceilings?"
"Sure. Couldn't read them, except for a couple of numbers."
"They're lists of names. If you make the list, you won't get picked," Melak said.
"For the masks."
"And to make the list ...?" Arkhan asked.
"Do good work. Think up improvements. Let us know of any trouble brewing. Brings you to the top fifty list."
Arkhan was amazed. "You've turned these people against one another for the sole reward of avoiding undeserved punishment?"
"Precisely. You snitch on a rebellion plot, you make the top ten list. Anyone touches you while you're on that list, they're judged as accomplices to the rebellion and will be killed. Of course," Melak added with a wry grin, "anyone will eventually drop off the list, so it's in their own best interest to keep thinking up new ideas." Melak pointed to the assembly lines. "You get any ideas of your own, please share. We've got other incentives for non-prisoners."
Arkhan walked slowly around the pieces of machinery. Each one was taller than he was, and they were all kept immaculately clean. There were several steel barrels stacked near one machine, and Arkhan pulled the lid off one. It was full of boosters.
"Feel tempted?" Melak asked.
"Not hardly," Arkhan said.
Arkhan picked up a handful of boosters and let them sift through his grasp, back onto the pile. "You're making combat boosters, not the regular stuff. These things are bought only by pod pilots, and even they are wary of them." He fished out another handful, let it trickle into the barrel. "There's nobody I know on the streets who does these."
Melak walked over to him and leaned on one of the barrels. "How do you know that isn't due to their availability?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, these are just improved versions of drugs that people have already been doing for a while. Maybe the reason they haven't been adopted by the druggie community is that they simply haven't gotten into proper circulation yet. Capsuleers have kept them to themselves."
Sighing, Arkhan pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. "Look, combat boosters give pod pilots special abilities to control their ships and that's it. Anyone else who's stupid enough to take one won't get high, they'll go nuts. These things aren't meant for normal people."
Melak stepped close to him. When he spoke, it was in a low tone of voice. "Except that not everyone is normal."
"What do you mean?"
"Eighty percent of regular joes who take the pod pilot boosters get incredibly messed up and can't use them as drugs. But there's ten percent who can, who merely get high."
Arkhan blinked. "News to me."
"That's how it is."
"What about the remaining ten percent?" Arkhan asked. He was beginning to feel increasingly nervous.
"Come on," Melak said and walked away, into the drug installation. Arkhan followed.
They walked past pipes and assembly lines, past vast metal compression tanks that steamed quietly and had several valves on the side, past large monitors with dozens of inset gauges that ticked rapidly back and forth. They walked over metal grilles, and in the darkness below Arkhan spotted a white powdery residue covering various pieces of sludgy debris, like half-dried chunks of old paint.
Along the way, Melak said, "Remember how I said that we rewarded low-tech solutions? Guy who thought up this one, as low-tech as it gets and relying only on local materials, easily available, he made his way to the top ten list for a long time."
"What solution?" Arkhan asked. "And what about those last ten percent?"
"Usually from massive haemorrhaging, though it varies from drug to drug."
Arkhan tried to swallow, but his throat felt like it had constricted. "Charming."
"The boosters work on the parts of your brain and body specifically used to control ships," Melak said. "If you aren't using them to control ships, the body rids itself of the effect in other ways." He walked Arkhan over to a large room with metal walls on all sides. There was a soft hum from inside the room, irregular but constant, that reminded Arkhan of buzz saws.
They stood in front of a door to the room. It was a steel door with bolts circumnavigating it. It looked as if it could stop a tank.
"You will understand," Melak said, "that someone who's part of that ten percent who get addicted, they cannot work here. It is crucial - absolutely vital, in fact - to your future here that you have a violent, adverse reaction to taking boosters."
With an ugly suspicion dawning, Arkhan said, "How do you know that I wouldn't fake it? Toss myself around, scream and yell, bang my head..."
"That's not a concern," Melak said.
Knowing what was coming, Arkhan still tried to stall for time. "You sure? Because I'm sure a person could be very persuasive."
"Not a concern. It's time, Arkhan. This is what you're here for. I know you won't fail me now." He walked to two small pipes running alongside a wall and followed them until he came to a sink. There, he picked up an empty glass and filled it with water from the faucet. When he returned to Arkhan he proffered the glass, and some small white object Arkhan hadn't seen him hold before. It was a pill.
"No," Arkhan said. "No, no, no."
"Terms of the trade," Melak said.
"What if I die?"
"Better you do it here in the factory. Less trouble to clean things up."
"That's not what I meant, Melak," Arkhan said.
"Let me put it this way," Melak said, still holding the glass and pill out to him. "If you don't swallow this Drop, the chances of you dying are one hundred percent."
Arkhan stared hard at him, then at the Drop. It looked perfectly innocuous, as pills do. He knew what Melak was saying was true. He knew it. And the faint illusion of choice was a lot more than he might have expected from someone in Melak's position. But still...
Booster trips were the worst. They varied from type to type, and Arkhan had never experienced any, but he knew people who had. Sad wrecks who'd been reduced to anything they could find. These were people who'd go into a general store and come out with nail polish dissolvent and spraycan glue. They'd find sick friends and convince them to procure some outlandish stuff from their doctors. One guy had been abusing epilepsy pills to the point where, if he tried decreasing his dosage, he would actually get an epileptic fit. And each of them who'd somehow happened upon a booster - it was always a single pill, no more - and tried it, each and every one of them swore they'd never do it again. Said there was nothing good about them. This from people who thought paint thinner was a luxury.
It occurred to Arkhan that right now, in this place, living was a luxury, too.
"Fine, fine, all right. Here we go," he said, took the pill and gulped it down with the glass of water.
"Well done," Melak said.
"Go to hell," Arkhan said. "Now what?"
Melak reached out and picked up something that was hanging from a hook on the wall. He handed it to Arkhan with a grin, the first time he'd shown any kind of expression since they met. "Glad you asked. This is the final test. Like I said, it's as low-tech as they get, it relies entirely on local materials, and it can't be faked. If you pass, you'll be employed here. If you fail, you will be killed."
Arkhan looked at the thing. It was a fly swatter. One side of its head was decorated with a caricature of a fedo, its cartoon face smiling wide.
Arkhan looked back up, and something inside of him gave way. "You're insane," he said, his voice somewhere between the tremble of fear and the cackling giggle of the mad. "You are! You do realize that. You're clinically insane."
Stepping around him, Melak reached for the door handle. He said nothing, just smiled, and slowly opened the door.
"In any proper society," Arkhan said, the stress overwhelming him now, "they would have recognized you for what you are, and hung your gibbering, scrawny, louse-infested body in a cage over the castle gates to entertain the peasants."
Melak laughed. "I'm glad you're finally breaking out of your shell," he said, and ushered Arkhan into the room. Apart from a small red circle in the middle of the floor, and a couple of grilles in the bottom part of one wall, there was nothing there.
"What do I do with this?" Arkhan asked and raised the swatter.
"Break somebody else's shell," Melak replied, and closed the door.
It was pitch black for a moment. Then, red lights came on. There was the sound of bolts sliding into place. The buzzing noise was louder in here
"What do I do?!" Arkhan yelled. There was no answer.
Now there was a slight swishing noise. Arkhan looked around, then down. His hand, the one holding the fly swatter, was trembling. He didn't even feel it. He placed his other hand over it, to still it, but as soon as he let go, the hand began trembling again. He began to feel angry at that hand. It was supposed to stay still unless told otherwise. He grabbed it again, harder this time, then let go.
Swish swish. It wouldn't stop.
The red circle in the middle of the floor was hard to make out, in the red lights. He gingerly stepped into it.
He was becoming very annoyed now. And the insistent buzz was giving him a headache.
He stepped out of the circle, and back in. He stamped. He hopped. Now both his hands were trembling, and he was really becoming quite goddamn furious.
He was just about to go pound on the door and give Melak a piece of his mind when there was a hiss, and a large panel on the wall slid to the side. Behind it was a pane of glass, and behind that were ... thousands of flies, tens of thousands of the ones he'd seen all over the greenhouse, swarming over one another, zooming around in agitation in that enclosed space. Their wings beat against the glass panel like a distant storm.
Arkhan gulped, his throat dry like never before. The flies disgusted him; their writhing mass felt like black, tarry poison. He started swinging the fly swatter back and forth, grinding his teeth in hatred. His vision began to blur at the edges, and the focus of his gaze shifted faster and faster to each individual fly; he felt like he could count them all before killing them, every last one. His throat released a low, throaty sound that was somewhere between a hum and a growl, and he saw nothing but death.
The glass panel slid aside, and the storm enveloped him.
Melak stood in front of the door. He reached out and slowly opened it.
Inside, on his knees, was the twitching form of Arkhan.
The walls were black and covered with meaty little bumps and blotches. Silvery wings floated around on little currents of air like tiny clouds.
Arkhan was covered with bug blood and tiny flecks of bug entrails. His breath came in short, ragged gasps, and sweat dripped from his brow onto the mound of fly corpses that covered the floor.
"The Drop work?" Melak asked, standing in the doorway.
Arkhan raised his head, staring out into nothing. A shiver ran through his body. He grimaced, keeled over and vomited prodigiously, the raspy sounds echoing off the walls.
After Arkhan had stopped retching, Melak waved a hand to some unseen person. Soapy water began to flow down the wall panels, rinsing them clean. When it reached the floor, it washed away the mound of fly husks, and the chunky bits from Arkhan's stomach, down into the small grilles.
When the floor had been flushed of most of its contents, Melak walked into the room. His shoes squelched in the sticky mess.
He gently removed the fly swatter still dangling from Arkhan's hands. They were trailing little tendrils of blood.
"Welcome to work," he said.