And now, a randomly generated scene …
Nouns: cotton, fear, steam, observation, animal, attempt, butter
Adjectives: nervous, oafish, unequalled, keen, left
Verbs: consider, start, reinforce
Once it was harvesting wheat and picking cotton, shovelling coal to make steam for power. Now all the food and textiles are synthetic and power comes from atomic funnels; we don’t work out in the sun anymore. Sure, some of us still work the mines and quarries and lay the roads, but most of us aren’t state property. We’re kept busy in factories and power plants behind switchboards and levers and conveyor belts. The foremen shout abuse and strike the slow while more distinguished men stroll about and do business as they watch us labour, the skilled, the nervous and oafish alike all lumped together in their minds.
We are as animals. They are as Gods. Thus, we are theirs.
Straightforward to them. But whenever I start trying to unravel their logic, I catch myself quick and focus on the tubs of butter sailing along my conveyor belt and again eagerly work my deft fingers, capping and stacking.
Can’t think that way. Can’t even consider thinking that way. Not with threats looped around our necks. One audible flight of fancy or attempt to wonder why is enough see an entire family disciplined. Talking back would see it destroyed. Some are destroyed for less, just to reinforce the fear.
I love plenty: Mum, Mary and Jimmy. Friends across the conveyor belt I’ve known for years. Breeding is strongly encouraged and failure to comply usually leads to discipline, so there’s not many without at least one they love: parent, sibling or child. It’s sad, I think – but never say, of course – that love’s the noose that keeps us here, silent at our workstation. As silent as we’d been in the fields and as silent as we’ll always be, however we’re made to labour.
Only the loveless don’t wear this noose. They’re alone, but free to think, to dream, to do – well, anything, anything they want, with no repercussions. At least, none they care about. I pity and envy them as my moods change. I try to talk to them – John Turner and Maisie are two – when the pity’s stronger in me, but they’re hard to keep a conversation going with.
It’s with these thoughts clouding my head that I glance up at the nudge to my ribs and murmur of my name to realise with a choking gasp – there can be no mistake – that Jimmy believes himself among the loveless.
No! How can he? Mum still tucks him into bed and kisses him every night. Whenever Mary splurges on pricey ingredients to bake, she persuades him lick the spoon just to see his reflexive smile at the taste. And I, I hold his hand when he cries and tell him soothing tales and lies. Pretend I believe them, just for him. Jimmy is sad. He’s been sad for years, but I realise with a jolt that he hasn’t cried in weeks.
Jimmy’s left his lever, young face blank and hard. He’s running, boots tied around his neck by the frayed laces so his feet make no sound. Jimmy has unequalled speed. This is his only pride, but such frivolities as races are as rare on our schedules as shooting stars in the sky; we can’t even wish for frivolity. This is the first time I’ve seen him at his fastest. Truly, Jimmy flies.
I open my mouth to scream, but Mary’s lover seizes me about the head, cutting off all sound.
Jimmy, no! I fight to cry. You’re not alone! How can you think that? We love you! We do!
‘He might make it,’ Mary’s lover hisses, lips against my ear I try in vain to wrestle free. My friends across the belt watch, some edgy and others fearful. Tubs of butter soar unchecked along our belt. ‘There’s no foremen, no owners. He’s prepared, timed it. Give him a chance.’
How can I let him go while he must believe such awful things?! But Mary’s lover is much sturdier than I. As pained as I feel he is from the light tremble in his solid arms, his head’s screwed on tight. There’s now nothing I can do for Jimmy.
I unwillingly slump against Mary’s lover. But not before a foreman sees my struggles. In a flash, he’s followed the direction of my distraught gaze and cried out an alarm. Now guards race – not as fast as Jimmy, please, not as fast – after his narrow back, spare firearms whacking against their sides, as he slips from the factory.
My heart thumps as though I’m sprinting with Jimmy. Mary’s lover’s arms are still tight about me; I would crumple without his support. I see the frowns of disrupted owners on the observation platform and know that if he’s caught, Jimmy won’t be brought back. The loveless are of little worth to them. Listless at their workstations or else sullen and insubordinate. They usually don’t even breed. Much more trouble than they’re worth. The bullets spent on them barely dint the workforce.
Run, Jimmy, I urge, sending all my love even as my heart breaks and sirens whir above our heads. Don’t let them catch you.
‘Is this family?’
A clipped voice suddenly asks. I don’t jump. I only register there’s anyone left in the world but Jimmy and those chasing him down when an unidentified slave replies. My friends are as defiant as they dare in their silence.
‘That’s his brother, Mark.’
‘And that’s his sister’s lover,’ another voice says, keen to speak up in case Mary’s lover is found out later and our entire conveyor belt crew disciplined.
We’re separated by guards that materialise all around us, grips on our arms as tight as any cuffs. I move where I’m dragged. It hasn’t hit home, yet; my mind only has space for Jimmy. As we’re marched into separate, tiny holding cells, I distantly recall my thoughts of barely a minute before. Only the loveless are free. They’re free, as they’ve no one to condemn.
But Jimmy isn’t loveless. He’s lost. Because we do love him.
We love him …