Santino felt glad he’d sold his arm off and replaced it with an aug. This coffee he’d just picked up was stupidly hot, at least according to the temperature sensors in his fingers. He tried to move as quickly as he could without spilling it, since he knew what would happen if he did; he still had coffee stains on his coveralls, right on the Kazato-Shao Industrial logo. If he had time, he’d get it cleaned. Dregs like him never had that kind of time, though—leisure was only for the Execs, who’d earned it, or something like that.
He quickly pivoted as a hulking associate mostly made up of augs–hardly even distinguishable from a bot–lumbered through the hallway, using an integrated spray-mop on one arm and a rotating soak-pad to futilely clean up the grime and grit that had collected on the tile floors and life support filters. It seemed like every time a spot was cleaned, more grit and more grime somehow accumulated, creeping out of wherever it’d been hiding.
“Hey, Ziar,” Santino said, trying to keep the coffee stable. “How’s the mopping going?”
The hunchbacked associate just looked at him with an optical array, a series of camera bars where his face should have been, and said nothing. Maybe he couldn’t even talk.
“Good talk, good talk. See you tomorrow,” Santino replied, giving them a thumbs-up.
He scanned the numbers at the door of each supervisor’s office as he moved down the hall, and prayed to the almighty dollar that he found the right one. 633. Supervisor Velile.
Said supervisor was sitting on a chair made from metal, plastic, and polymer-fabric, four of his eight manipulator aug-limbs typing on separate keyboards, jutting out from where his rib cage would have been had his torso not been replaced.
“You’re late, Indent KS-0314C.” The man’s head was also mostly replaced, looking almost like a spider-like array of cameras and sensors, a proboscis flicking out while he spoke through a vocoder. It was warbly, the vowels and consonants not quite right. It sounded exactly like the automated messages he was spammed with nearly every day.
Santino just handed the man his damn coffee and started towards his next errand.
“This is one degree colder than it should be, KS-0314C,” Supervisor Velile rattled off, barely paying attention to Santino as he was leaving. “This will reflect poorly on your monthly productivity report.”
Great, more pay docked. Not like he would have been able to use it for anything except paying off the company for the privilege of being able to work there. He was three years worth of wages from clearing his company-debt and getting associate status. He knew he could probably cut off a month or two if he sold his leg, but he wanted to keep his for now, for when he finally clawed his way off out of company-debt into just normal-debt.
His pad buzzed, and he flicked it open. Manager Chioma needed datawork sorted. The virtual intelligence onboard the pad had already set his route by time-efficiency and was constantly giving him updates and “suggestions”; suggestions, which if ignored, would lead to another pay-dock of two weeks worth of wages.
He winced, his unaug’d leg throbbing from all the walking. These errands likely could be done by a bot, but there weren’t any other fitting jobs for Indents. And without jobs, Indents would just be Loaders, parasites on the Execs who so graciously granted them the privilege of living in their cities. He didn’t want to be a Loader, living in shit and on the streets, begging for handouts from anyone he came across. He’d work his way out of debt, like the Execs had.
Santino leaned back into the creaking chair of his single-room hab-block, listening to old corp jingles from before Kazato-Shao’s hostile takeover, when the Spike Interplanetary Security Company was the primary shareholder. He’d just been a young kid, barely into his service lifetime then, selling off a foot for access to the more lucrative lower shifts. When he was physically developed enough to be given the role of an errand boy for the Supervisors, he’d been pulled from his older shifts without even the necessary forms to link his pay-chit to the new job. That had been way too damn expensive, but it was better than not being paid at all.
He didn’t remember much of Spike’s tenure on the rock. Honestly, aside from the few bullet holes and bombed-out districts, it was like it had never happened. Ssekien IV was an unremarkable rock of a planet besides a few deposits of rare metals and plenty of raw matter for industrial printers. Kazato-Shao Industrial wanted it, so Kazato-Shao Industrial acquired it. That was how it was. Companies sprouted up like flies and died out just as quickly, eaten up by the bigger fish. Survival of the fittest.
There was a poster on the monitor: a heavily-aug’d associate holding a sign that said “Hard work is happy work; Obedience is happiness.” The rest he couldn’t make out; it cut to another animation, this one advertising the augs themselves; how they’d make your life so much easier, how they could pay off your debts, make you more productive–summed up with the tagline, “You’d be surprised what you can buy with an arm and a leg!”
He’d sold off his left eye to some saw-doc a few years ago, then used that cash to rent the hab-block, get a contractor to fill in the forms for a salaried internship into KSI’s tertiary planetary production facility, and eventually work his way into a full-time Indent job. Of course, that meant debt. But debt was a fact of life: debt was owed to the Execs from the second one was born, because it was Execs who made the jobs, Execs who owned everything. That’s how it was. Only Execs could create. Dregs could just work.
At least he still had most of his face and all of his head.
A knock on his door sent him springing up. “Hey, who’s there?”
“Bailey,” a deep vocoder stated. Shit, stackboss.
He opened the door as quickly as he could, seeing a patchwork of different brands of augs and flesh staring at him, a singular cyclopean eye mounted on a block that was attached to a stub of a neck with pistons and armatures. “Oh. What’re you here for?”
“How many times do I gotta tell you, kiddo? Pay your fucking rent.” She crossed her arms. The vocoder she was outfitted with was still tuned to its previous user’s voice, and it would probably cost a lot of credit for reprogramming, even if it was just accessing the settings menu.
“Bailey, listen, I got debts to pay—”
“Who doesn’t, ‘cept the Execs? Don’t care if you need to pay with your other eyeball or your fucking spleen. I got people up in the pecking order to pay, and a shift at O’Beirne Technical don’t cover that.”
“I can pay a part of it right now. Let me grab my pay-chit–”
“Listen, Santino,” she stated, crossing her arms. “I don’t have a choice about this. Much as I’d like to forgive it, or extend the deadline, I can’t. You know what happens if you don’t pay up. Those security associates and their tin-cans will drag you out kicking and screaming, if they even take you alive, because they’re desperate for any sort of dopamine hit from the Exec’s ‘generous’ hands. That happened to the last dreg to be in there.” She pointed to the interior of the hab. “And that reflects poorly on me as a Stackboss. It’s not just your ass on the line, kiddo. None of us are the top dogs in this dog-eat-dog racket.”
Santino could only stare into the woman’s single eye. How much of herself had she sold off? Did she expect him to sell off just as much? He took a deep breath, the smog entering his lungs. “I’ll… I’ll figure something out.”
“Sure you will.”
The Managers were scrambling, which was unusual, and anything unusual was not good.
Orders were barked out to stand against the wall, lined up according to alphanumerical order, status, and position. It wasn’t exactly chaos, but by the Free Market, it sure was pretty damn close to it.
Velile was walking around, which was rather surprising, considering the man couldn’t even bother getting up to fetch a cup of coffee–almost like a commander of a force.
Or a predator.
Survival of the fittest, the saying went.
Velile, seemingly satisfied with the lineup, began talking with someone through a comm-link. The door to the main complex hissed open, and Santino didn’t even need to be told what they were all looking at.
He’d never seen an Exec before. As they walked closer, he saw the perfection that was common to that type of person, or so he’d been told: their face was too symmetrical, hair and clothing too exact, too precise, too manufactured. Not even Velile was that well-dressed, let alone that intact.
The Exec was accompanied by a cadre of humanoid frames that marched with a decidedly inhuman precision and tempo. Security bots—there was no way an Exec would entrust their well-being to mere dregs, after all.
Supervisor Velile moved to their side, bowing in corporate, mechanical servitude. The Exec said something, and the bots began prowling up the line of dregs from Indents to Managers.
This was the first time it had been performed by an Exec since Kazato-Shao acquired the world. Usually, it was just Velile, and whatever wasn’t usual was not good.
“Supervisor Vl-03889T, recommendations.” The Exec’s speech was sharp, clipped. It was more annoyed than inquisitive in tone, as if the Exec had been pulled out of something important for this. Or maybe they just were repulsed at having to even acknowledge the existence of the Dregs lined up in front of them. Even Velile’s designation was stated with disgust; Santino had heard some Execs gave the Supervisors under them pet-names, but the best Velile would apparently get was a “VI” prefix.
“Indent KS-71309L has failed to meet Indent Productivity Standards for a full quarter. Their performance has slipped by nine-point-three percent,” Velile flatly stated in response, as if he’d been asked what sort of coffee he wanted.
The Exec looked towards Santino, and then past him; a hunchbacked Indent, kept somewhat upright by a metallic exospine, their arms and head replaced with augs, shuffled uncomfortably.
“Bring them to Asset Processing for repossession,” the Exec ordered the bots, which marched towards the Indent. The Indent tried to make a run for it, but there was a crack, and they collapsed to the floor, a crimson puddle pooling around their chest and staining their coveralls. A hole was right in the center of the Kazato-Shao logo, barely noticeable. One of the bots’s arm-carbines smoked as it moved back to a stick-straight stance.
“And the others,” the Exec stated as one of the bots picked up the corpse and lifted it over its shoulder, leaving behind an unacknowledged trail of blood.
Santino tried to press down the curiosity of how the dreg still had blood pumping through their system. No one else seemed to be looking at the trail, so he broke his gaze off. Someone likely noticed, but, well, as long as it wasn’t the Exec, it was fine.
Velile continued without hesitation. “Indent KS-0314C has routinely underperformed by zero-point-zero-twelve percent compared to last quarter.” His own Indent number, Santino remembered, and he could see the bots raising their weapons at him in his mind’s eye already.
“An acceptable margin. Dock quarterly salary by twelve percent.”
“Yes, Exec.” As the Exec left, Velile walked closer, and instigated eye contact, the compound optics making it near-impossible to tell exactly where, or who, he was watching. “Consider yourself lucky, Indent.”
He didn’t feel lucky.
Ziar shambled out of line, and without command, began mopping up the bloodstains.
The alarm clock on the company-owned pad began ringing, and Santino rolled over to silence it so he could actually get up. He quickly encountered a problem; his aug’d arm wasn’t working. He was sure he’d just paid the licensing fee–he shouldn’t have to pay again so soon. He tapped the pad with his good arm, knocking it off the nightstand, where it still. Kept. Beeping. Santino managed to rest it on his lap and slide its lock open, noticing that the screen was cracked. Shit, he’d have to pay for that.
There was the usual junk in his inbox: promotions from companies he’d never heard of, alerts for new products he’d already tried to buy but never had enough money to get, and work schedules. But there was one from Ssieken Cybernetics that was new. Or, well, just a few hours old.
“Dear Consumer,” it stated. “We regret to inform you that we are being purchased by Franklin Dynamics, and all current augmentation licenses have been indefinitely suspended. If this has detrimentally affected you, please contact Consumer Service under the following net address.”
He leaned back, looking out the window at the darkness splattered with lights and stars. Ssieken IV wasn’t habitable by humans without the construction and maintenance of bio-domes, and those weren’t cheap to operate. Nothing in life was free, the saying went. Each dome was split into districts, districts into stacks, and stacks into blocks. Each was practically identical, organized the same way, built in the same simple style. Dollar Almighty, the only way a dreg could find their way to work was by guidance programs. It was practically a miracle he found his way back to his hab at the end of every shift.
Scattered across the stacks were the little nests of the Loaders, poking out of any corner those dregs-of-dregs could find. He could see a few security bots even pulling some corpses out of the hiding spots the same way they had disposed of KS-71-whatever their designation was.
He didn’t even know that dead Indent’s name. He knew it shouldn’t matter.
The sounds of gunshots bounced across the square blocks as another Loader hidey-hole was raided out of his sight. Judging by the irregular cadence, it was probably a dreg security associate, one of the few persons on the planet blessed with the opportunity to kick others around with the Rather Obvious Boot of the Free Market.
He tugged on the inoperative aug arm, as if that would somehow get it working again. If Santino was ‘reprocessed’, it was likely Bailey would just get another tenant, probably one that would be more reliable with their rent installments. She’d forget his entire existence; it wasn’t like there was anything to remember him by.
He wanted to feel scared, but it was all as numb as where his arm used to be.
Every single biochemical response in his body was screaming out to have dread, to have some existential terror at the possibility of death, of being forgotten, and yet…
He didn’t really care. He couldn’t care, no matter how much he tried.
He tried calling the number provided but got nothing. Not even an automated answer.
There was no way he could try to trade in his aug before checking into work. He’d get practically nothing for it; possibly a bit of change for the value of its parts, but it was already pretty well-used, verging into the tail end of its lifespan.
He could get it jailbroken, but that was expensive, and more importantly, a serious fine if he was caught using an unlicensed aug. Intellectual Property infringement was no laughing matter. He ran his remaining organic hand over his non-existent hair, as if that would somehow make him think better.
Santino thought he’d been smart, selling off his whole arm from the shoulder down for a large sum up-front. But the larger the aug, the more expensive it was. Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big issue if his hand or lower arm wasn’t working, but the whole arm? Well, that was crippling.
He got up and looked at the fractured mirror in the cubicle that could be considered a bathroom. He’d have to figure out how to get dressed with only one arm. He looked at the corporate tattoos–serial numbers, a QR-code on his cheek that would show his status at KSI, and the KSI logo right on his forehead. His old Spike Security serial number for when he had been decanted was still there, not even covered up, simply ignored, just like the bloodstains during the productivity evaluation. It was there, but it didn’t exist, somehow.
He’d heard some companies provided augs as part of their contracts, but also heard that the same ones got eaten up by the bigger companies.
Survival of the fittest, he repeated to himself.
The coffee felt like it was the surface of a dollar-damned star in his hand. But he couldn’t put it down or put it in his other, nonfunctional, hand. He just had to keep going. His entire body screamed at him with the reflex to drop the thing, but he couldn’t afford to.
Ziar was mopping again, and wasn’t making much progress, as always, not for a lack of trying.
His concentration slipped for a moment, and he lost control over his body. The instincts of his flesh ripped control from him, and the coffee fell to the floor, the thin plastic cover popping off like an escaping shuttle. The liquid spilled outwards like a tide, right towards Ziar and his mop.
The associate looked up at Santino, and Santino stared back in abject horror.
Ziar just looked back down at the coffee, and waddled forwards to start cleaning it up. Santino went to grab the coffee cup and what remained of it, but his hand jerked back. He finally managed to overpower the primitive programming of his mind and grabbed the plastifoam cup, and saw it had a pitiful puddle remaining.
He got a notification on his pad: Supervisor Velile reported his lack of productivity and he would be docked a full half of this month’s salary.
Santino just stared at the cracked pad blankly, unsure what to do.
He was sure he could feel the bullet hole in his chest, the blood leaking out of him, his corpse being lifted off by those same machines to be sorted for parts.
He looked at Ziar, who was still cleaning the floor, the same routine repeatedly, mechanically, unconsciously, as if the last few seconds hadn’t even happened.
He pulled up Supervisor Velile’s contacts on his pad, and typed a message with his only good arm.
Get your own damn coffee.
He stared at the message before deleting it, his good hand shaking.
His options were… limited.
What he really wanted was at least some understanding, some element of interaction that wasn’t being scolded or derided or made to feel like a cog in this whole machine.
“So, uh, Ziar,” he said, looking at the aug’d-up Indent, desperately trying to find some common ground, some shred of personhood in all of this. “Does anyone even like working here?”
Ziar stopped for a split second, as if there was a flicker of a desire to do anything other than mop, before that ember died out and he returned to his routine.
Santino turned his gaze back to the near-empty cup, the plastifoam feeling like sandpaper against his palm.
All he could mumble out was “Good talk, I guess.”
Max Mitzel is a 23-year-old autistic author who primarily writes speculative or science fiction, and is currently enrolled at Central Connecticut State University.