Winds Against Progress

Wind Against Progress – Chapter 6: The Game

 

It was amazing how much you could do in ten minutes.

Luke checked his watch – a cheap plastic thing stamped with the gaudy BB logo, Millmoor standard issue for all slaves – then slid into the shadows on the side of the hangar and upped his speed to a jog. Although tools-down was brief, the movement of workers throughout Machine Park made it the perfect opportunity for all sorts of activities best conducted unnoticed.

He’d learned that, and a lot more, under Renie’s tutelage. After he’d delivered the glasses for her, the kid had come back a few days later with another request. Then another. And Luke found that no matter how bone-meltingly knackered he was after his shifts in the components shed, he could draw on some last reserves to accomplish what she asked.

‘I’m pretty sure I’ve worked off any favour you think I owe,’ he’d told her after taking some bits to fix a busted air-conditioning unit in a skanky block over in West, where the residents’ pleas for repairs had gone unheard and people were developing breathing problems. Breathing the air inside the building had been like sucking an exhaust pipe. Luke thought he’d coughed up a bit of lung just making the delivery.

‘Course you have.’ She grinned gappily. ‘Now you’re doing it ’cause you like it.’

And Luke had found that he was.

As far as he could see, Renie-Rhymes-With-Genie was indeed in the business of granting wishes. Or not wishes, so much as simple, everyday needs that Luke couldn’t believe weren’t being met by Millmoor’s authorities. Yes, she was operating outside official channels. But Renie sourced a lot of her info on what folk needed from a Millmoor doctor, which must make it halfway legit. And for all Ryan’s warnings, it surely wasn’t as though they’d slap you with slavelife for taking people medicine, books and food.

He’d reached the canteen. Six and a half minutes remaining. Three to find what he needed, then three and a half to get back to Williams at their workstation.

Luke had laughed when Renie had issued his latest task – liberating food from the Zone D stores. He could just about choke down the canteen’s offerings without hurling. Surely the only ones to benefit from him taking the stuff would be the Zone D workers who no longer had to eat it.

‘It’s got extra calories and protein,’ she’d explained. ‘To keep you heavy-labour guys going. You should see what people get fed in the other zones. Just as nasty, but only half as filling. An’ you know the junk in the dorm kitchens. People get scurvy in here, Luke. I’m not kidding.’

Luke had wondered about Renie herself. Even for a thirteen-year-old she was tiny – scrawny and hollow-cheeked. Her dark skin didn’t hide the even darker circles round her eyes. She looked malnourished in a way that shouldn’t be possible in Britain today. Had she come to Millmoor aged ten? Was this what three years of life here had done to her?

And as he had many times in the month since their separation, Luke gave silent thanks that none of his family was here in this nightmarish place. Especially not Daisy.

He ducked into the storeroom. The shelves rose above his head. Each was labelled, but not arranged in any obvious system. There were so many boxes; so many cartons. He jogged along one row looking up and down, scanning the labels.

Then slammed forward against the shelf edge as something smashed into the back of his skull.

Luke crumpled to the floor, half blind with pain. Had something fallen on him from a high shelf behind?

A steel toecap dug under his shoulder blade and turned him over.

The strip of fluorescent ceiling light threw off throbbing coronas. One of them formed a queasy, technicolor halo around the head of the figure that stood over him. Luke blinked to try and steady his vision. What he saw wasn’t an improvement.

‘Taking a little stroll, Hadley E-1031?’

The boot nudged beneath his chin. Luke’s gaze followed the leg up to a barrel chest, a bull neck, a square head crowned with writhing light.

Luke’s very own angel of pain: Kessler.

‘Feeling peckish, were we?’ Kessler continued, looking around the shelves in the food store. ‘Are we not feeding you to your satisfaction here in Millmoor, E-1031? Disappointed you’re not eating roast swan with your betters at Kyneston?’

The tip of his baton thrust deep into the soft space beneath Luke’s ribs.

Work in Zone D had been layering muscle onto Luke’s abdomen, but it was inadequate defence against Kessler’s jabs. The baton angled up, probing – the man’s grasp of anatomy was as good as Mum’s – and thrust again, and Luke’s body jackknifed as he curled onto his side and coughed up the lumpy remains of breakfast. Luke moaned, and wiped sticky strings from his mouth with the cuff of his boilersuit. Even that small movement made his head yammer with hurt.

He remembered Mum crouching over Dad on the driveway. What had she yelled out? Something about blunt force. He closed his eyes.

‘I hope you’ve not been stealing anything, E-1031,’ Kessler continued. ‘Because Millmoor doesn’t approve of stealing. Years on your days, that can be. I’ll check, shall I?’ Rough hands pawed at Luke’s limbs, patting down the overalls, tugging at pockets. Just when he thought it was over, the guard pincered Luke’s chin between finger and thumb, forcing his mouth open. ‘I like to do a thorough job,’ Kessler said, thrusting the index and middle fingers of his other hand into Luke’s mouth. Luke gagged, and as saliva welled in his mouth he tasted soap and sharp antiseptic. Were Kessler’s hands the only clean thing in Millmoor? Kessler pulled out his fingers and wiped them down the front of Luke’s boilersuit.

‘Looks like you’ve been a good boy, E-1031. But it was careless of you to trip and fall while moving around the Machine Park. That can be dangerous in a place like this.’

‘Trip?’ Luke croaked, anger welling up as nausea ebbed. ‘You hit me, you bastard.’ He coughed, hoping for a bit of bile to take away the taste of Kessler in his mouth.

‘You tripped,’ repeated Kessler. ‘Clearly you need a little lesson on being more careful in future.’ The baton reared up, light flaring along its length. It can kill, Luke remembered, in an instant. Blunt force trauma can kill, if the brain swells. But the blow struck lower. Luke heard something – several things – crack, and gasped. He inhaled knives. Saw needles. Blacked out.

When he came to, the antiseptic smell was still there. But on opening his eyes, Kessler was nowhere to be seen. Luke had been dumped in a chair in the corner of what looked like a medical waiting room. The core of his body was one jagged mass of pain, as if all his organs had been taken out and replaced by broken glass. He leaned forward unsteadily and threw up again on the floor.

There wasn’t much of it this time, and it was pinkish. Spotted with red. It was hard to breathe. ‘How did this happen?’ A voice nearby. Low. Angry. A shape squatted down at Luke’s side and a palm reached up to his forehead. Luke cringed away, but there was nowhere to go.

The touch was cool, the hand gentle, and Luke let his head sag forward against it with a sob of relief. ‘I’m Doctor Jackson, and I want you to try and stand,’ the voice said. ‘Don’t think about it hurting, and maybe it won’t. Come with me.’ And unbelievably, Luke found that he could. Leaning on the medic’s white-coated arm, moving as if someone had just added a nought onto his age, he shuffled down the corridor. The doctor led him into a small room and directed him to lean against a gurney. ‘I’m going to take a look at you. I’ll be as careful as I can. May I?’

He gestured towards the buttons on Luke’s overalls, and Luke nodded. He studied the man, to distract himself from the agony that was surely coming. The medic had a short-sided haircut and a neat beard. His face was tanned, and laughter lines at the corner of his eyes stood out pale against his skin. ‘Jackson J-3646’ was embroidered in blue on the breast pocket of his coat. He looked almost too young to be a doctor. He must have started his days straight after uni, Luke decided. Abi had told him that wasn’t unheard of among medical graduates with more ambition than scruples. You’d be thrown in at the deep end in the slavetowns and acquire loads of experience, with nobody minding too much about any mistakes. But this guy knew what he was doing. His hands lightly pulled up Luke’s T-shirt, carefully lifted his hair for a look at his skull. With each press of fingers Luke anticipated a detonation of agony, but all that came was a dull throbbing.

‘Let me guess,’ the doctor said, letting the cotton drop back over Luke’s middle. ‘Workplace accident. You tripped and fell. Right onto something shaped like, oh, a Security baton?’

Startled, Luke glanced at the doctor’s face. Was this a trap? Careful, Luke. Maybe this Jackson was Kessler’s pal. Did the smiling medic patch up all of the Security man’s ‘little lessons’, keeping them hush? ‘Workplace accident,’ Luke agreed.

Jackson frowned. ‘Of course it was. And I’ll tell you what: it’s not nearly as bad as it must feel. I think you hit your head on the way down, which sent your neural pathways into a state of hypersensitivity. But it’s nothing I can’t fix with some heavy-duty analgesics. Wait a sec.’ Jackson turned away to rummage in a mirror-fronted cabinet. The doc was right: Luke already felt much better than he had on coming round in the waiting room. He’d thought Kessler had pulverised a few of his ribs, but when he risked a look at his midriff, all he could see was livid bruising. That made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Kessler couldn’t go round beating people half to death. Slaves might be chattels of the state, but that didn’t mean sadistic Security guards could just break them. Kessler must have known exactly what he was doing, landing every blow for maximum agony and minimum actual injury.

Jackson turned back with a fat tub of ointment. As he smeared it lightly across Luke’s abdomen, the last of the pain lifted away. Luke wanted to cry with relief, and spluttered his thanks.

‘No problem,’ said Jackson, straightening up and looking Luke in the eye. ‘Least I could do for the friend of a friend.’

And there went Luke’s heart again, leaping against his not-busted-after-all ribcage. What did the doc mean? Luke didn’t have any friends in Millmoor, just a mute work partner, a former school acquaintance, and a barely teenage taskmaster. The doc. The doc. The one who knew stuff. Who ran Renie’s show.

‘A friend? Would that be, uh, one of your younger patients? A girl?’ Jackson laughed, a low, reassuring sound.

‘Renie’s never been a patient of mine. She’s got more lives than a cat, that girl. You could throw her off a roof and she’d land feet first. Looking after you today is the least I could do, after all you’ve done for us, Luke Hadley.’ Luke flushed at the unexpected praise.

‘I’ve not done much. Nothing that anyone else wouldn’t do.’

‘That’s not quite true, I’m afraid,’ said Jackson. ‘There aren’t many that see this place for what it truly is. Even fewer who realise that the slavedays aren’t an inevitable part of normal life, but a brutal violation of freedom and dignity, perpetrated by the Equals.’

Luke stared at the doctor. Was that what Luke thought? He wasn’t sure. He’d dreaded his slavedays – still did dread the decade stretching ahead. He both resented and envied the Equals. He hated Millmoor, and the cruelties and indignities he saw here every day. But just like Abi and the rest of the family, Luke had never questioned the fact that he’d have to do days eventually.

‘I shouldn’t get heavy,’ said Jackson, sensing his confusion. ‘You’ve had a wretched time of it this afternoon. Go back to your dorm and rest. But there are a few others like Renie and me, and we get together occasionally as the Millmoor Games and Social Club. If you fancy joining us, we’d be glad to see you. Renie can tell you when.’ With that, Jackson opened the door and yelled down the corridor for his next patient.

To his astonishment Luke woke the following morning pain-free, with only yellowing bruises to show where Kessler had laid into him. Which was good, because he had a job to do. During tools-down, he went straight to the canteen storeroom. Kessler wouldn’t be expecting him back so soon – if at all. He filled his boilersuit pockets with as many packets as he could conceal.

That night, he went to the rendezvous spot arranged with Renie for the previous evening, planning to cache the food there. But she was waiting for him. ‘Knew you’d come tonight,’ she said, snapping some definitely-not-Millmoor-approved gum in her mouth.

‘Doc said that if you showed, I was to tell you that the next club meeting’s this Sunday. See me by Gate 9 of the South vehicle repair yard, 11 a.m.’ She stuffed the pilfered food inside her hoodie, and melted back into the gloom.

‘Wait!’ Luke hissed. ‘This club. What did Jackson mean – games and social? What do you do, really?’ The girl’s face reappeared, bobbing disembodied in the drizzle of light from a lamp post. ‘Chess. Scrabble.’ She shrugged. ‘We had Cluedo, but it got taken off us for being subversive. Bumping off poshos in a mansion, and it could have been one of the servants what dunnit.’ At Luke’s disappointed expression, she threw back her head and cackled. ‘Only joking. You’ll find out soon enough. And remember: no one will make you play. We may have chosen you, but you have to choose the game.’ Then she was gone.

Luke lay awake in the dorm that night, thinking about his family, and about Doc Jackson’s club. His whole life he had been surrounded by the noise of his sisters and parents, a sound so familiar that it went as unnoticed as breathing – until it wasn’t there any more. So he sometimes just talked to them anyway. Which wasn’t weird at all. He’d hear nothing from them until December at the earliest, once he’d been here three months and the customary restriction period on outside communication for all new slaves had passed. And it wasn’t as though he could tell them about the club in a letter, anyway. So a one-sided conversation inside his head would have to do. What would they make of how he’d spent his first weeks in Millmoor, and his plan to go with Renie on Sunday? Because he was pretty sure the club’s activities were nothing to do with board games. ‘Forget about it, son,’ Dad would counsel from under the hood of the Austin-Healey, hand held out for a spanner. ‘Keep your head down. Just get on with your work.’ ‘Don’t go getting into trouble,’ he could hear Mum say. And Abi would surely remind him that he knew nothing about these people he was getting mixed up with. Daisy might think it rather cool. She’d never been one for doing what she was told. (Though Luke hoped she was being more obedient at Kyneston.) Would Millmoor have turned Daisy into a Renie, streetwise and defiant? Luke saw that it came down to a single question: was getting involved with the club worth risking another thrashing from Kessler – or worse? Possibly even endangering his transfer to Kyneston? Mum and Dad would say no, without a moment’s hesitation. But they hadn’t been here and seen what life was like in this place. It wasn’t up to Mum and Dad any more, he realised. It was as Renie had promised: the choice was his. That realisation didn’t help him sleep.

On Sunday morning, Luke reached the vehicle depot half an hour early. He prowled around the wire fence, curious. There was a row of Security 4x4s raised on hydraulic jacks, to be worked on from below. He knew what Dad would have said about that: it was incredibly unsafe without axle stands, too. Were the authorities who ran Millmoor that ignorant, or did they simply not care about the people who slaved here? Or was it something worse? Were Millmoor’s many accidents – like what happened to Simon’s Uncle Jimmy, or the man who used to do Luke’s job – more than just negligent one-offs? Perhaps they were part of how slavetowns operated. Risky work and harsh living conditions would keep people focused on themselves and their own challenges, unable to see the bigger picture. Is that what Doc Jackson had been trying to say? Was Luke beginning to see Millmoor for what it truly was?

Renie materialised at Luke’s elbow. Her nod of approval at seeing him scoping out the depot turned into a grin when he explained how he’d fixed up a car with Dad. ‘It’s not like I’ll get much chance to use what I know in here,’ Luke said ruefully. ‘I’m seventeen next month. I should have been learning to drive. I already can drive, sort of. But I won’t be getting behind a wheel or under a bonnet any time soon.’

‘Never say never, Luke Hadley,’ Renie retorted, jaw working furiously at some gum. ‘C’mon. Let’s get you introduced to the club.’ Luke switched on his mental satnav to try and remember the route, but after fifteen minutes he was lost as they took shortcuts and nipped through buildings and courtyards, making it impossible to keep track of roads followed and corners turned. Did Renie not trust him with the location of the meeting? ‘Scenic route?’ he asked, a little sharply.

‘Least amount of surveillance route,’ she replied, still hurrying ahead. Soon after, she ducked beneath the half-lowered shutter of a warehouse goods entrance and headed for a door set into the wall of the cavernous space inside. Luke didn’t even have time to run a hand through his hair and plaster on his best how-do-you-do face. He needn’t have worried. The Millmoor Games and Social Club appeared to be half a dozen people in some back room. They were seated in outsize black-mesh office chairs around a wheeled desk littered with cans of soft drink and an empty fruit bowl. It was like the judging panel of the world’s crummiest TV talent show. There were two grey-haired women who must be last-ditchers; they looked old even by ditcher standards, well into their sixties. A skinny guy was swivelling his chair with nervous energy. A shaven-headed black bloke sat next to a petite woman with a ponytail and a wan complexion. Were they Renie’s parents? But she gave them no special acknowledgement. Then Doc Jackson. Beside him: two empty seats. ‘Hello, Luke,’ said the doctor. ‘Welcome to the Millmoor Games and Social Club.’

The others introduced themselves: Hilda and Tilda, Asif, Oswald – ‘Call me Oz’ – and Jessica. The two women with matching names were sisters, but Oz and Jessica didn’t claim Renie. ‘And this is Luke Hadley,’ said Jackson, slapping a reassuring hand on his shoulder as he sat down. Despite the frankly odd assortment of people, Luke felt a buzz of excitement. ‘So you’ve already seen how we socialise, Luke,’ the Doc said, smiling.

‘Things like the food and the air-con parts, that’s the small stuff we do every day. It’s not only essentials. A book or some music, or a love letter from outside that hasn’t been read first by a censor – anything from out there that makes life in here more bearable, we’re on it. ‘But though that’s all important, none of it changes anything. And changing things is what the club is all about, Luke. It’s the game we play. Let us show you.’ Luke nodded, tense but intrigued. ‘If you decide you don’t want to play, we’ll understand,’ Jackson continued.

‘But if that’s the case, we ask that you don’t mention the club or its activities to anyone. Jessica, why don’t you go first and show Luke how we roll.’ It turned out the fruit bowl wasn’t empty, because Jessica reached into it and drew out a small, folded square of paper.

She frowned at it. ‘Honestly, Jack, your handwriting is terrible.’

Jackson held up both hands. ‘What can I say? I’m a doctor.’

‘It’s a good one, though,’ Jessica continued, reading from the paper. ‘“Identify and destroy Security evidence on charges against Evans N-2228.” I’ll take Hilda and Oz: her for the identifying, him for the destroying.’ She looked up at Oz. They might not be Renie’s parents, Luke decided, but they had a thing going on, which was kind of sweet.

‘Tell us more, Doc,’ rumbled Oz. Jackson laced his fingers together, suddenly businesslike. ‘Barry Evans lost a hand in an accident at the poultry processing plant. He’d been telling his supervisor for ages that the equipment was faulty, but nothing was done. The day he gets out of hospital, he goes in during the night-time shutdown and smashes the place half to bits. No one saw him, but they caught him on camera and they’re going to slap him with slavelife. Find the footage, delete it. Make sure it’s off any backup servers. And if they’ve anything else incriminating, make sure that disappears too.’

The two women looked at each other and Hilda smacked her hand on the tabletop. Was it enthusiasm for their task? Disgust at what had happened to Evans? Luke couldn’t tell. In fact, he could hardly believe what he’d just heard, but the draw had already moved on and Tilda was reaching into the bowl. She hooted as she unfolded the paper she had selected.

‘“Live interview with ABC A.M.” – is that the Aussie radio people, Doc? – “at 11.15 p.m. Tuesday, about conditions inside British slavetowns.” Asif, you do the talking, and I’ll get us a secure line out through NoBird.’ ‘Excellent,’ said Jackson. ‘You’ll do a great job. Which means there’s one game left this week.’ The room fell quiet. Asif quit swivelling his chair, silencing its squeak; Renie even stopped chewing her gum. The seven people in the room all looked at Luke. No pressure.

‘You need to know,’ said Jackson, turning squarely to him, ‘that what we do has consequences. The penalty for the things we’ve just discussed could be many more years of days. But we do them because we believe that the consequences for everyone else, if we don’t, will be much greater. ‘I’d like you to join us, Luke. I think you could do great things for the club. But only you can choose whether or not to play. There aren’t any winners in our game – not till it all ends. And the opponent never changes.’ Luke eyed the fruit bowl, which sat in front of Tilda. A single square of paper, folded to the size of a thumbnail, lay at the bottom. He looked back at Jackson, wiped his sweating palms down both legs of his overalls, then steadied them on the edge of the desk. He’d always enjoyed games. This one was worth playing. He reached out to the bowl.


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