The train shuttle ride seemed longer than it was. The four of us and of course, the guard, did not say a word in conversation during the forty minute journey. I stared at the grey wall that was the front of the carriage. My supervisor sat next to me, his earphones leaking his love of thrash metal in a tinny tempo, much to my dismay.
When the pug-nosed train finally decelerated to a stop, we were a long way from the city outskirts, and deep underground, away from the streets of ebbing human cattle, the prying eyes and the arid 50 degree heat.
“You have arrived at the recycling centre, you must depart,” said the train’s computer from the overhead speaker.
We shuffled out of our seats and onto the platform. The biometric scans beeped affirmative as we walked in single file up the tunnel toward the industrial complex. I had gotten used to it now; the feeling, the sense of death, the job we had to do.
The two sections of the shed were stark in their contrast. On the left, labelled ACTIVE, hordes of naked people solemnly paced in circuits within their tiny transparent cells; some shouting, some sobbing. To the right, labelled INACTIVE, there was the sorting building, with its monolithic machines, waiting in stillness and in silence for the day to begin.
We filed into the INACTIVE building, by all rights, a hanger, only pausing at the entrance to pull on our thick gloves and protective eyewear.
The recycling plant was heavily automated and small operating teams were the preference of management, which meant we could start up the plant quickly after arriving. There was a stink of oil and bleach in equal measures.
“Bennet,” croaked my supervisor, pointing at me, “You’re on water extraction today, load up the inactives and scan the filters, make sure they are clean. No interruptions to processing today, OK?”
“Sure thing, boss,” I said. I hardly knew this guy, supers changed out regularly but I knew, ‘yes’ was all I ever had to say to keep the job.
Water extraction was a drag. You had to load a lot of bodies for a little water. Every body was 70 percent water and the extraction device could suck out about 50 percent of it. The husks that churned out the other end were child-sized, resembling a texture like crushed walnuts, totally drained, but even they could be used for materials. I was pretty sure my lampshades at home were once ex-actives.
I glanced at the others in the room, there was Johnson on meat duty and Cray on the bone marrow. Bones were excellent for building material and calcium extraction. Some days we would skin the inactives first, dry the skins out and stack them in the locker for wholesalers. It wasn’t the kind of work you dreamed of when you were a kid but it paid better than most jobs for manual labour.
The super meandered over to the big red button on the wall and turned to address us all before work commenced.
“Lunch at noon for thirty minutes and only the one extra break today, take it in the morning for ten minutes. We have quotas to meet from above, they want 15 percent higher output or reduced pay for all of us. So, no more afternoon breaks. That’s all, let’s go to work.”
No one sighed or said anything. We knew the pressures were increasing. You could tell from the empty shops, the anxiety in everyone’s eyes. The crop harvests were failing, the resources were sparce. We were the last resort, no more.
The supervisor hit the button hard. Gas flooded the ACTIVE chambers with a long measured hiss and with that, the human noises stopped abruptly. The machinery began to crank up, the whine of engines, the repetitive clunky noises of industry.
They were all criminals, they had abused the rules of resources, hoarded or stolen, or killed illegally. That was their lot, we all accepted the rules.
The first bodies came trundling up the conveyors from the chambers. I pushed them off the belt into the stacking machine for the water extractor. Each body loaded onto a tray and pushed it down, so another tray swung out to accept the next body. It was simple, repetitive work – push the body, push another, stop at twenty and reset the machine. An idiot could do this and it was good money. I was lucky.