The sea was a mirror of the sky except, in one, you would drown and in the other, you would breathe. Sir Kyle Emerson gripped the golden rail of his whale of a luxury yacht and pulled himself along the deck, his heavy, diseased legs dragging behind him like they had been caught in a net. His scarlet, silk dressing gown was tangling around his legs, which only made moving forward harder. His bulbous, gold partisan signet ring would clink on the rail with every thrusting grab of it. He listened to his own laboured breathing, and it made him agitated and irritated. He should probably abstain from such rich food for every meal, those slabs of meat and dollops of sauce, with such excesses of calories, tastes and fats. One day, he knew, his heart would be unable to sustain the heavy weight of his blood. It bothered him that day would come at all. It would be an injustice, after all the bespoke pharmaceuticals, organ repairs and exorbitantly large medical bills. All he did was spend money, the one thing he hated the most. They all wanted to syphon from his legendary coffers at the end of the day, but it was his money, and he resented them for every credit they pawed into their own pockets.
“Damned wind,” he grumbled. He ploughed the sparse remains of his hair with his fat fingers, trying to calm the wayward grey strands into order but to no avail.
He could see on the harbourside, which was lower than the tall curved hull of his yacht, the horde of folk staring back at him, quietly resentful under the gaze of black-uniformed armed guards. His service droid, the main one, ‘Fool’ he called it, was two steps behind him as he moved, the blank mannequin-like face with no recognisable emotions nor personality he could discern – just as he liked it. It was a machine, so it needed to appear like one. Why service droids had to look like people at all bothered him, when people were so abundant anyway. At least the droid didn’t test his threadbare patience, like some of the dullards working under him. It wore a black bowtie, like an emblem of servitude, on its metal neck. ‘Stupid’ he thought.
“What have I just bought then, Fool? Who is this lot, which warzone did they crawl from?”
“Sir, these are refugees from the Argyl war, from a village that was under siege, called Tome…”
The Argyl war was one of three main wars in the continent. It was also one of the most profitable for Emerson as it was the closest and the route to the sea was through his territories.
Fool continued: “They were caught in illegal transit in an empty box car on a military freight train in your inner zone, destined for the village port at the peninsula. Your men rounded them up, and I cleared their purchase from Motherland Inc. as you ordered I should when this happens, Sir.”
Motherland Inc. was the privately run government of the region. Democracy had been sidelined, exchanged for businesspeople running affairs to rescue failing economies. The politicians were hounded out and replaced by captains of commerce and trade. With the backing of the generals, anyone who complained about it disappeared into thin air, the magic trick of evil around the world.
“They were not offered for the open marketplace, we completed a private, closed deal as you like.” Fool’s demeanour was that of perfect unshakable servitude, in its stance, in voice and in gestures. “We have been keeping them in hanger three on the cliffside with the minimum spend, as requested. Food and energy rationed fully.”
“Hanger three, that’s too good for this rabble, doesn’t that one have a real toilet?… Gah… This lot, it’s the same old story, just a different bunch. Look at them, families, we need more men, families are worth less, more suited for the private civvy markets… I should get you to do this crap in future. Such a chore after a pleasant lunch…”
On the harbour, he spied several of the adults dressed surprisingly well, which made him narrow his eyes in deep contempt. These types would often wear their best clothes on their journeys, to present themselves well when they arrived, wherever they were headed, passing themselves off as genuine citizens on foreign shores. They could wash clothes on the way to keep them clean, under waterfalls, in the sea, or in café toilets if they were daring. He shook his head in condemnation. ‘Parasites’ he thought to himself, wiping some thick sauce off his dressing gown onto the back of his hand. He felt a pang of indigestion and his stomach grumbled with trapped wind. As if answering his digestive complaint, a long way in the distance, the sounds of artillery were faintly audible, little rumbles of disquiet. Somewhere over the horizon, cities were being levelled, buildings were being obliterated with gunfire, and bodies littered street pavements.
“Give me the loudspeaker,” he grunted to Fool, his large, veiny hand waving at the human-shaped machine impatiently.
The shuffling, hunched, uncomfortable crowd was awaiting his address. They were tired, hungry and alone. They had been marched without warning from the darkness and chill of their hanger to the end of the harbour where the sea greeted it. They were made to wait, standing exposed in the arresting salty breeze for Kyle to finish his on-deck steak and mash, and goblet-ful of pinot noir. When eating, Kyle would lose himself in pleasure, he’d slurp and burp and growl as if a crude animal. It was the only time he felt off-guard and enjoyed being blinkered, like a shark lost and entranced in its own instinctive, automatic biting of a wayward carcass.
He steadied himself on the rail.
“You are all here today because you made an assumption…” he paused, feeling a little wobbly with the roll of the boat. “You made an assumption you could take valuable resources from a place you do not belong…Which is stealing, simple as that. You are criminals.”
He paced up the deck a few steps, to let that sink in, a little curl of his lip enjoying the sight of their visible dread. He could read their feelings from the way they stood, their demeanour, their stance. It was like they were cowering and shrinking under the blast of his booming hate-filled voice. Wealth always started with reading people well, in rooting out vulnerabilities, it was business 101. Shake up the scene, see who falters, take what they expose to be valuable – his style all these years had not changed.
“Now…” he continued, “You have been captured by my men, legally, and by the laws of inter-territory, you now belong to me. You all belong to me. Do not beg, I recognise no special treatment or exemptions for gender or age, those things are not important to me one bit. I see what you are worth, literally. Whilst you have been on your train, and in my hangar, you have avoided paying air, energy, food and water tax, you have not contributed to my resources, you have simply taken them… So, now…You are not in debt, you are the debt repaid, and you are my resources to use as I see fit. Your belongings are mine, your pitiful bank accounts are mine, and you are mine! This, for you, is the end of the line. Who am I, you may be wondering? I have a nickname, one that was given to me by those who fear me. They call me Leviathan, if you have heard of me, then you know what to expect… Guards, shake them down!”
Whilst some of the guards stood back to encircle with their semiautomatics raised, others moved into the nervous crowd like hounds, manhandling each person, like seasoned farmhands beating a herd into submission. They stripped each individual of clothes, rucksacks, shoes and glasses. All those personal trinkets that marked them as humans, that gave them individuality and dignity, were torn from them like thin paper skin. Identity slips were carefully gathered into one bag, as they were valuable documents, that could be recycled, and used for counterfeit trade. There were sobs from a few while others stood resilient against leaking emotions, holding their power, showing it by not reacting with fear as demanded. The children were not spared. The guards grabbed the exposed arms of each individual and scanned them each for chips hidden under their skin, RFIDs connected to bank accounts. With serrated knives, they cut and plucked them out swiftly, without anaesthetics or pausing to acknowledge agony. Of course, one or two protested and struggled, it was the parents and children, as always. One child even dared to run.
There were only four gunshots this time, which was disappointing. Despite the losses to revenue, it always added a little theatre to the confrontation, Kyle thought, in an otherwise contrite and controlled procedure. The roar of the shots was instantly followed by the typical screams of hysteria, ‘predictable responses’ thought Emerson.
He felt a need to continue projecting his voice. It was his show. He was the master of this performance, the taker, the owner.
“Do not concern yourself with others, think only of yourself in this moment. Think of how you got here, how you became my debt to take back, you are here because of the decisions you made…”
“Nobody asked for a war!” screamed a solitary female voice in the skeletal gathering of souls. Emerson scratched his chin but let the remark go, it would not matter in the minutes left anyway. Her outburst made him think and process the words, as her statement was not strictly true and amused him with its razor irony.
The crowd was a huddle of naked bodies, some squatting on the harbour, wrapping themselves with their own arms, others staring with fear or fire in their eyes at the bloated figure taunting them from the boat. Blood trickled off the harbour into wind-fanned streams. The sun poked through the clouds to make their malnourished bodies shine in brilliant light. It felt like an eye had seen them for a second, for who they were; the victims, the hopeless, the abused.
“What next, you are thinking… Let me explain my intentions clearly so there are no misunderstandings again. I deal in spare parts.”
As he talked, a group of guards broke off to fetch what looked like crates of ice, the type you use for keeping fish alive at the market long enough for sale.
“I have a lucrative contract with the army, the one you have been ducking away from in your crevices and shelters and pitiful places… Battle requires fighters and fighters get wounded. Today, we can replace organs on the battlefield in a couple of days, it’s really something to see in the field hospitals… But to do that, well, they need donors…”
He put the speaker down slowly and watched them absorb the news. It was like a verbal shockwave, a direct hit that exploded into them. They staggered around in small circles, bewildered in their trap. Some revealed signs of panic where before they had been stoic, little unnatural noises of terror, and one of them even passed out to flop into a ball of limbs on the stone floor. It was like a mortal unravelling, like a taut band that was hope, had been snipped.
The teal plastic ice trays were laid out in a row in front of them, with calculated, cruel efficiency. The guards swooped in again, this time much more brutal than before, grabbing the stronger ones first to bind them, to ensure they would not have the time and the inclination to react when it began. The weaker ones were easier to control, their hands held out over the ice forcefully. The blades came down in swift chopping motions that needed no second blow, cleaving arms off clean at the elbow to drop into the silver shards of ice. Next, the heads were removed, which could be harvested for eyes, neural mass and jaw bones, sometime later that day in the factory. The internal organs remained in their torsos’, but packed in ice, also requiring specialist removal by the seasoned factory crew, who were busy preparing on shore, pulling on rubber gloves and face masks for a messy day’s work. It took less than thirty minutes to process the group, label the trays and cart them off the harbour into the back of waiting trucks. This was a tried and tested procedure, which is what good business was all about.
A squall of ragged seagulls descended in a whirlwind of flapping and squawking for scraps of meat, landing on the bloody harbour wall and inspecting every inch of the manmade floor. Their battle cry screeches made Emerson think of his childhood beach holidays momentarily as he observed them descend. They fought over the tatty red remains and titbits with a ferocity that displayed nature for all she was.
“Fool, tally please…”
“I estimate one point three million.”
He smiled, pleased for once to hear the droid calculate and talk.
“…Good. That’s good. Put three hundred thousand of that in my health account, the rest into the business. I’m going to buy some new legs myself. Tired of these old things, they have expired their use-by date. That war was the best return on investment I ever made, Fool. Nothing like a war for boosting supply and demand… Wherever there is need, there is greed.” he laughed, remembering a boardroom conversation at Motherland Inc HQ. “War is the best business model a man like me could dream of. Blood is a currency and it’s a robust one.”
To his surprise, he was hungry again, no doubt triggered by the gulls feeding so frantically on the harbour. His eyes fixed on their bloody beaks as they fought and flew. Not one bird cared for the others as they flapped around in violent chaos. All they cared for was meat.
“Little shits,” he mumbled, and Fool offered a metallic elbow for support as he limped toward his opulent living quarters, to watch the day’s battle footage broadcasting on the news.