Winds Against Progress

Wind Against Progress – Chapter 4: Welcome Hadley E-1031

Through the scratched and grimy van window, Luke saw Millmoor squatting under a cloud of its own making. He slid back the tiny pane for a better look, but it didn’t make much difference. The muck wasn’t on the glass. It was in the air itself. The light was pallid and unclean.

They were a twenty-minute drive from home, but even back in Manchester you could taste Millmoor when the wind blew in the wrong direction. Sometimes it was an acrid chemical stink from the industrial zone. Other days, the whiff was foul and rotting, from the meat processing plant. If you were really unlucky and the breeze was strong, it was a gut-churning cocktail of both. On those days, Mum would keep all the windows shut. There’d be no shutting out Millmoor now. The road dipped and rose, and there was the slavetown again, twice as large, filling the horizon. Chimneys lanced the sky, poking cruelly at a sagging belly of smog. A distant flare stack haemorrhaged flame.

The van was waved through an outer sentry ring then stopped at a second checkpoint, where they all got out. A blank-eyed young soldier with a gun strapped conspicuously across his chest asked Luke his name. ‘Luke Hadley,’ he replied, but the final syllable came out as a gasp as Kessler’s baton drove into his midriff.

‘You are Hadley E-1031,’ the man barked. ‘Now tell him your name.’

‘Hadley E-1031,’ Luke repeated, stunned by more than just the pain of the blow. From the checkpoint they filed across the car park of a vehicle depot. On the other side was a low, wide building faced with grubby white plastic – a medical centre.

‘I’m really not looking forward to this,’ said one of the blokes who’d arrived with Luke, an overweight guy, pale and stubbly. ‘It’s gotta be the worst thing.’

‘What is it?’ Luke asked.

‘Didn’t you read the booklet?’ the man said. ‘Blimey, don’t you know nothing about this place, kiddo?’

‘I’m not supposed to be here,’ Luke muttered, realising not quite in time that this wasn’t the best thing to say.

‘That’s right,’ said Kessler, who was there again, his baton prodding Luke forward. ‘Hadley E-1031 here thinks he’s too good for the likes of you. He thinks he should be down south, mixing with his Equals. He thinks there’s been a mistake .’

He mimicked Luke’s words, making them sound prissy and girlish, and the pasty guy laughed, all sympathy gone. The ‘worst thing’ was pretty sick-making, but Luke already had a hunch that Millmoor would throw a few things his way to rival it.

A nurse rolled up his sleeve, prodded the skin of his forearm, then picked up what looked like a staple gun. Except it didn’t shoot out just one needle, but stabbed a dozen of them deep into Luke’s flesh. When the device lifted away, she bandaged a square of gauze over his arm then scanned it with a small rectangular wand. Luke couldn’t see the readout panel, but he heard it beep and saw a green flash.

‘That’s you done. Here, have one of these.’ The woman pulled a small jar of sweets from a drawer in her nursing station. ‘I usually keep them for the little kids, but I reckon you deserve one. Only sixteen, and here without your family. I didn’t think that was allowed.’

Luke took one, thinking of his little sister as he did so. Daisy’s skinny arm would barely be big enough for the chip gun. He would have watched over her night and day in this place. He knew Abi would do the same in Kyneston.

From the med centre, Kessler herded them on foot through Millmoor’s streets. There were no vehicles other than trundling busses and gleaming jeeps blazoned with the slave town’s insignia and ‘Security’ written in vivid crimson. Uniformed men stood on street corners, palms fondling the handles of their batons and the butts of their stun guns. Everyone else wore shapeless tunics and boilersuits and walked with their heads down. It was difficult to discern either age or gender. Even when Luke succeeded in catching someone’s glance, they turned away quickly. He couldn’t believe this place. People from Manchester  were a feisty bunch – how was it possible they could be this cowed? However long he spent in Millmoor, Luke swore, he was never going to stop looking people in the eye.

His new home was a six-bed dormitory in a looming prefab block. A row of overalls hung on pegs like shrivelled skins, as if Millmoor had sucked the substance out of the bodies that wore them. In one of the beds a figure tossed and turned, a blanket pulled over his head to block out the light. He was presumably a night-shift worker, because Luke doubted they took kindly to sickies in Millmoor. The air smelled stale and sharp. Too much sweat, not enough soap, as Mum would say.

He dumped his duffel on the bed with a bare mattress, and tore open the envelope on the locker beside it. It was his assignment. The components shed in the Machine Park’s Zone D. Shifts: Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Start date: 3 September. Tomorrow. He stared at the paper in disbelief. This afternoon was all the freedom he had left until Sunday came round, another six days away. Where was the Machine Park? How did he get there? Where could he get something to eat? He thought longingly of the sandwiches Mum had made, carefully preparing everyone’s favourites. The girls would be scoffing theirs right now, halfway to Kyneston. He devoutly hoped that whatever was waiting for them at the end of their journey was better than what he’d found here.A caretaker sat in a dark cubbyhole by the dorm block entrance – an old guy who must have come in at fifty-five as a last ditcher, delaying his days to the final moment. He obligingly sketched a rudimentary map.

Armed with that, and a few vague memories from films they’d been shown in Citizenship classes, Luke headed out. He could feel each his lungs contract in protest as he stepped into the smog-choked street.

Millmoor was the country’s oldest slavetown, as old as industry itself. No sooner had some genius developed manufacturing machinery had the Equals had put people into backbreaking slavery for them. Up until then, the slavedays had resembled feudalism, everyone doing days under their local lord as farm labourers, craftspeople or house-slaves. Illustrations in school textbooks contrived to make it appear almost cosy – grateful peasants in candlelit cottages, clustered outside the Skill-glowing wall of a great estate. But for three hundred years, the reality had been Millmoor and the slavetowns that sprang up in its likeness, shadowing each of Britain’s cities. Luke checked the map.

The old geezer had drawn something resembling a darts board, circular and quartered. The heart of Millmoor was its administration hub; ringing that were the residential blocks. Beyond them, the industrial zones: the Machine Park, the Comms Zone (hangar after hangar of call centres, which they’d walked past on the way in), the meatpacking district, and the old quarter – those earliest mills and loom sheds. The caretaker had crosshatched that, explaining that it was abandoned .

Luke’s dorm block was in West, while the Park (Luke doubted it had a duck pond and ‘Keep off the grass’ signs) was over East, so he set off in what he hoped was the right direction. But the streets became a warren, branching again, and he was soon hopelessly lost. He’d turned into a dead-end maze of courtyards round the back of several run-down accommodation blocks. A rusty plaque on the wall said East 1-11-11, which was precisely less than no help at all. Then he spotted two guys stood talking at the far end of the courtyard, by an arched array of heating ducts and ventilation shafts. Maintenance men. They’d tell him the way out. But something stopped him calling to them.They weren’t chatting to each other. They were speaking to a third person, hidden behind the wall of their backs, who must be caught between them, the ducts, and the mouldering building. Luke crept closer. ‘. . . know you’ve got some,’ the larger of the two men was saying.

‘I’ve seen you bringing it round. The old cow quits her moaning for a while after you stop by, which is great, but a few vials of morphine for our personal use would be even better. So hand it over.’ Had he stumbled on some kind of black market deal? Luke was about to creep away when the other guy shifted, and he glimpsed the person they were talking to. It was a girl – and from the birdlike look of her, she was barely older than Daisy. His feet glued themselves to the ground. He wouldn’t be going anywhere until he’d got the kid away from these creeps twice her size.

‘I’ve not got nothing I’m giving you,’ the girl said fiercely. ‘Other than this.’ And as Luke’s brain was still working through a plan, she darted at one of the men and he cried out. ‘Bitch has got a knife,’ he yelled, as the other guy swung a massive fist at the girl – and connected with empty air. Luke saw her. She’d dropped to the ground and was squirming on her stomach into the tiny space beneath a duct, intending to slip out the other side. The man she’d injured crouched down and thrust fingers into the gap, hunting for a piece of her to grab. The other had worked out that the only way he’d reach her was by doubling back and round, so he turned and charged – right towards Luke. Obeying instinct, Luke crouched then snatched blindly as the bloke ran past. The handful of rough fabric was pulled instantly from his grasp as the guy went down, and Luke toppled backwards. Small fingers dug into his armpits, hauling him up.

‘C’mon.’ The girl took off, frizzy hair flying, as the guy she’d cut looked up and snarled, blood dripping from his hand. Luke didn’t stop to think. He’d never been more grateful for all those weekend footie training sessions he’d spent shivering in his shorts in the rain, because the kid was fast. She fled down alleys and ginnels, slipping between buildings, leaping over broken bricks or gutted rubbish sacks that bled sloppy detritus across the pavement.

‘Upsie,’ yelled the girl, as they hurtled down what looked like a dead end. She threw herself at the wall at the far end, her fingers finding handholds too small for Luke to see. He resorted to a running jump, nearly smacked his face against the brick, felt his toes scrabble and reached desperately for the top, hauling himself over. The girl was waiting on the other side, hands on her hips, narrow chest barely rising and falling.

‘I woulda got out of there just fine, but thanks for trying. It’s not everyone would risk making an enemy of those two, so you’re either very brave or very stupid. Which is it?’ Her muddy brown eyes assessed him. ‘Ach, it’s neither. You’re just very new.’ She let out a throaty cackle, sounding older than her years. ‘Welcome to Millmoor. What’s your name?’

‘Hadley E-1031. And I arrived today. How did you know that?’

‘Got the Skill, ain’t I?’ the girl said, pointing two fingers at her forehead and waggling them mysteriously. ‘Nah, nah, I’m joking. Your bandage. You just been chipped. And none of those numbers – what’s your name, really?’

‘Luke.’ He held out a hand in his best nice-to-meet-you fashion. Mum would be so proud. ‘Renie,’ the girl said, with an amused look at his outstretched hand. Luke withdrew it. Millmoor probably wasn’t big on manners.

‘Rhymes with “genie”. Grants wishes and that. Well, you look after yourself, Luke Hadley. Have a quick ten years.’

‘Wait. Wait!’ he called out, as she turned. ‘I was trying to get somewhere: Machine Park Zone D, the components shed. It’s my workplace. Do you know where it is?’

‘Zone D? You poor bastard.’ Renie’s pinched features softened momentarily.

‘Ahh, its over that way. Kinda hard to miss.’ She pointed away over the accommodation block roofs to an immense scaffold-framed building. It seemed to house nothing but fire that clawed at every window to get out. All around, like stakes penning a monster, tall chimneys vented dense black smoke. It was, Luke realised with horror, the source of the roar and clangour that was audible even here, several streets away. ‘Good luck. You’ll need it in there.’ Renie-Rhymes-With-Genie tipped her chin in a small salute, and trotted off. The gloom that pooled at street level in Millmoor swallowed her up.

It turned out that a bus ran from the West dorms over to the Machine Park, so the following morning, dressed in the boilersuit and boots he’d found by his bed, Luke was at the gate to Zone D in good time. Abi had once shown him an illustration of the Kyneston gate – just a sketch, as there were no photographs. It was a twirly wrought-iron monstrosity. His family would be on the other side of it now. Luke had lain awake for hours thinking about them, hoping his parents weren’t eating themselves up with guilt and worry. Hoping Abi was working on a plan to get him back. Hoping that whatever use the Jardines had for Daisy was something decent and not degrading. (They couldn’t make little kids sweep chimneys nowadays, could they?)

Zone D’s gate was different: a steel arch inset with a scanning strip that registered the chips of each slave passing through. He took a deep breath and stepped forward. As his ID tag flashed along the gate’s display, a strong-built man with a weak-jawed face introduced himself as Williams L-4770, Luke’s co-worker. ‘What’s your real name?’ Luke asked. Williams bared his protruding teeth in what looked like fear and said nothing. He led Luke deep into the industrial zone. They passed through one cavernous brick building after another, crossed massive loading bays and skirted the fiery heart of the foundry.The noise grew worse the deeper they went, as if everything that was loudest in the world had been gathered together under one roof. From the building ahead came a din that was as much sensation as sound, the earth-shaking stamping of a violent giant. ‘Components shed,’ Williams L-4770 mouthed.

And wasn’t it the final humiliation, Luke thought, that cleaning Kyneston’s toilets suddenly seemed like the cushiest life imaginable?

Their workstation was a complex array of hoists suspended from a gantry that transferred newly cast components from the heavy press (the source of the thumping) into and then out of the preliminary finishing machine. Williams’s briefing was thorough and entirely mimed. His enactment of the fate of his previous partner – spine crushed when a slipped chain block swung a turbine into him like a giant wrecking ball – struck Luke as excessively realistic. Their boilersuits and chafing work boots offered no protection at all. It wasn’t only the noise that made them communicate silently. The work was so arduous that every breath Luke took was used up powering his muscles. When the call came from Kyneston, he’d walk out of Millmoor with the physique of a superhero from those banned Union American movies. Assuming he didn’t fall foul of the machinery, in which case he wouldn’t be walking at all.

There were two breaks: a hasty lunch in a canteen that served up the unappetising with a side order of the inedible, and a ten-minute tools-down in the afternoon. At shift’s end on that first day, every limb trembling with exhaustion, Luke crept out of the components shed and towards the bus stop. Back at the dorm, desperate equally for food and sleep, he limped up the stairs to the skanky communal kitchen. He’d need to eat to give him strength to get through the next day.

‘Luke?’ He turned from the cupboard he was searching for a tin of something that he might know how to cook – or even open – and saw a face he dimly recognized. ‘O’Connor B-780,’ the guy said, just as Luke’s failure to remember his name was getting embarrassing.

‘I mean, Ryan. I was a few years above you at Henshall Academy. Started my days straight after.’

‘Sorry,’ Luke mumbled. ‘Of course I remember you. I only arrived yesterday. Still adjusting.’

‘No worries,’ said Ryan. ‘No wonder you’re all over the place. Here, I’ll fix us both something.’

Luke would have eaten his own socks at this point, so he fell on the beans on toast that Ryan put in front of him. He was happy to let Ryan talk – though it turned out there wasn’t much to say about two years of days. His former schoolmate was considering converting to the military route: three years of labour followed by seven years of conscripted service as a ‘mauler’, then a minimum of ten years enlisted. As a mauler you were still a slave and didn’t get pay or benefits, but you did get a head start in your career in the forces.

‘Only downside,’ said Ryan, around a forkful of beans, ‘is that the maulers get all the most dangerous assignments. No compensation payable if you get injured or killed, you see.’

As downsides went, Luke thought that wasn’t insignificant. He didn’t mention Kyneston, remembering Kessler’s taunting and the reaction of the men he’d arrived with. But he had to offer small talk about something, so he told Ryan about the girl he’d met, the one delivering medicine. Ryan frowned. ‘Morphine? That doesn’t sound right. There’s no way a kid that age would have access to it. She must have stolen it, been trading it. You should report her.’

‘Report her?’

‘Safest thing,’ said Ryan. ‘Security here is fierce. Infringements are slapped on you for the smallest thing, and bigger violations add years onto your days. For serious offences, there’s slavelife. Apparently lifer camps make this place look like a palatial estate. But it goes both ways. If you flag up something dodgy, it buys you favour with Security.’ Luke thought that through. He was pretty sure the girl hadn’t been selling the drug. It had sounded more like she was delivering it to someone who really needed it. And while Ryan’s account of how Millmoor worked made a fair amount of sense, it also sounded a lot like snitching at school.

‘So where did you see her?’ Ryan asked.

In his memory, Luke clearly saw the rusted sign screwed to the wall, the word ‘East’ and the row of five 1s. ‘No idea, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘It was my first day. Barely know where I am right now, though I do know that my bed is a couple of floors up. Thanks for the feast, but I’m going to turn in. See you around.’ He pushed back his chair and left. And despite the million and one thoughts churning in his head, Luke was asleep the minute his head hit the thin, lumpy pillow. On Wednesday, he got up and did it all over again.

And Thursday. And Friday. On Saturday, he ate his congealed horror of a lunch in record time and was using the remainder of his break to poke around a corner of Zone D he hadn’t seen before (dirty and noisy, like every other corner he’d investigated so far) when a voice spoke from the shadows.

‘How’s it goin’, Luke Hadley?’ As far as Luke knew, only four people in Millmoor knew his name, and only one of them was a girl.

‘How did you get in here?’ he asked Renie, who was wedged into the corner behind a tool shed. ‘More importantly, why did you get in?’

‘Shopping trip,’ said Renie. ‘And social call. Came to see how you was getting on. Well, you still got all your limbs, so you’re doing alright.’ She tipped her head back and gave that inappropriately husky laugh. It sounded like she smoked fifty a day. Or like she’d lived her whole life in Millmoor, breathing the tar that passed for air here.

‘Shopping? What, for a new turbine?’

‘Nothin’ so fancy.’ Renie grinned, and pulled her tunic up a few inches to reveal what must be metres of cabling wrapped round her middle. It was red-and-white striped – the fine, super high-strength variety. (It was amazing how fast you learned about cables in a week of trusting your life to them.) So she did steal stuff. Was Ryan right about her?

‘But that’s not the main thing. I’m here to ask your help. Reckon you owe me for getting you out of that tricky spot in East-1.’ Luke spluttered, but Renie carried right on. ‘One of your workmates’ kids got her glasses smashed last week. Girl’s blind as a mole, but she don’t need to see properly for her packing job over in Ag-Fac, and things like specs ain’t high on the priority list in Millmoor. Anyway – ta-da! Will you be my delivery boy?’ She produced a flat plastic case from her back pocket and held it out. Luke opened it. A pair of glasses. He took out the little cloth they were wrapped in and felt around for any secret compartments that might contain drugs. But it was just a hard plastic shell. ‘Suspicious, ain’t ya?’ Renie said. ‘That’s good. Now will you take ’em?’.

‘What’s this all about?’ Luke asked. ‘Because you’re the world’s most unlikely fairy godmother, and I don’t believe for a minute you’re supposed to have that cabling. I may have only just arrived, but I’m not entirely stupid.’

‘I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re someone who’d do a good turn for another and be glad to. Millmoor changes people, Luke Hadley. But what most folk never realise is that you get to choose how.’

Luke hesitated, curling his fingers round the small case. It had assumed a strange and disproportionate weight. He slid it into the trouser pocket of his boiler suit. Renie bared her gappy teeth in a grin and Luke couldn’t help smiling back. She reeled off delivery instructions before twirling on one toe and fading back into the shadows.

‘Tell ’im compliments of the Doc,’ her voice rasped. Then she was gone.

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