31 Days of Halloween: Workman’s Wages

Today, I present to you my short story, “Workman’s Wages.” It appears in the anthology, Technohorror

 

Every morning was always the same, as sure as dawn follows the night. He awoke, screaming, the vision from his nightmare still palpable and real, like an image burned into the retina by a sudden flash of light. Always the same dream, filled with blood and pain and death. And her cold, lifeless eyes.

* * *

“This is our latest photograph of Cyrus Bishop.”

Sarah removed the cap from her pen, noting that the photo was at least a decade old. Arnette clicked a button. The next image was a corporate logo.

“As you probably know,” he continued, “Bishop Industries is the largest manufacturer of titanium alloys in the world. Bishop steel is stronger and more cost effective than anything else available on the market.” Arnette paused. “Mr. Ryan, am I boring you?”

Sarah glanced over at Jonathan Ryan. He was in another world, gazing out the window to the empty field beyond. He had done a lot of that lately.

“Mr. Ryan!”

Jonathan turned his head and looked at him, but his expression was as impassive as the sea. “I hear you,” he said finally. “You just haven’t said anything I find that interesting.”

Philip Rodriguez chuckled. Arnette and Sarah both spared him a glance. Rodriguez just smiled.

“Every day,” Arnette continued, glaring at Jonathan, “trainloads of titanium steel leave Bishop Industries for delivery around the world.” He clicked a button and a satellite image appeared. “The primary facility is located in Wyoming, and as you can see, it’s massive.”

Jonathan looked back out the window. Arnette frowned and glanced at Sarah, almost pleadingly. For some reason she’d never quite understood, Jonathan had always been her problem.

“Sir,” she said, hoping to spur Arnette to the point, “is there a problem with Bishop Industries? I was under the impression they were a rather well-respected company.”

“Oh, they are,” Arnette said. “Bishop Industries has given more charitable donations than any other company in America for the last five years.” As Arnette spoke, he brought up slide after slide of projects sponsored under the Bishop corporate logo. Hospitals, schools, parks. Bishop logoed doctors in Africa, Bishop relief aid in Haiti. “No, Ms. Bennett, one cannot say that Bishop has failed to establish quite a name for itself.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Rodriguez asked.

“Possibly nothing,” Arnette said, flipping back to the photograph of Bishop’s main production facility. “But at a time when almost all manufacturing has moved offshore, Bishop has managed not only to survive, but to thrive. We want to know how. Bishop steel cost half that of its nearest competitor and is twice as strong. The only reason the company hasn’t cornered the industry is its own production limitations.”

“Have there been union complaints?” Sarah asked.

“There is no union at Bishop Industries.”

“No union?” Jonathan said, finally interested. “How do they keep them out?”

“According to the USW, they have never received a request from any worker or group of workers at Bishop Industries seeking to organize, and no member of the USW has ever been accepted for employment at the Wyoming facility, nor have any of their members resigned from the USW for that purpose.”

“But sir, how is that even possible? How many non-unionized steel workers could there be?”

“Frankly Mr. Ryan, not enough. According to its IRS filings, however, Bishop has virtually no employee expenses.”

“What?” Sarah interrupted.

“That’s right, Ms. Bennett. Not only does Bishop not have union problems, but apparently his employees work for free.”

“What a minute,” Rodriguez said with a laugh, “that doesn’t even make sense.”

“Why would Bishop falsify his expenses?” Sarah asked.

“And that’s precisely why the IRS has never investigated. If Bishop wants to under-report his his deductions, no one is going to complain.”

“What about safety inspections? OSHA?”

“There’ve only been two.”

“Two?”

“The first inspector never came back. He sent in his resignation papers and apparently took a position with Bishop.”

“What about the second investigator?” Sarah continued.

“A Mr. Fox. He reported that Bishop had passed the inspection. In fact, he gave the company a perfect score, the first time such a thing had happened in the history of the agency. When pressed for further details on his report, he refused to give them. In less than a month, he had resigned his position with the agency and returned to Wyoming to work with Bishop Industries.”

“You’ve got to be kidding?” Rodriguez said. “And they didn’t send anybody else?”

“No,” Arnette said. “Bishop is heavily involved in the Democratic Party. He was one of the previous president’s most enthusiastic supporters. He has used that influence to avoid suspicion, or at least, the negative consequences thereof.”

“Until now,” Sarah said.

“Until now. We want to know exactly what is going on at Bishop Industries. We want to know how Bishop operates.”

“Why us?” Jonathan asked.

“Simple. Bishop has a lot of friends. And Bishop Industries supplies the military with a significant share of its raw material needs at low cost. We aren’t looking to shut Bishop down. Your job is to investigate and report. No arrests, no disruptions, secrecy is of the utmost. Whatever is going on at Bishop Industries, any decisions about its future are not for us to make.”

* * *

“So what do you think we’ll find?” Rodriguez asked as the black Suburban jerked its way down a road that looked like it hadn’t been paved in a couple decades. Sarah didn’t know where in the United States was farthest from the nearest city, but she was beginning to think Bishop Industries had found it.

“I don’t know.”

“What about Jonathan?” he said, glancing at the sleeping man in the back.

Sarah shook her head. “This is the best thing for him. Work will help him keep his mind off of it. Better than sitting around, thinking of her.”

Jonathan stirred. “Are we there yet?” he yawned.

“Bout time you woke up,” Rodriguez said with a grin. Sarah ignored them both.

“There it is,” she said. Rodriguez pulled the car to the side. The massive facility sat in a bowl just down the hill from where they stopped. Sarah got out of the car with a pair of binoculars.

“What do you see?”

Truth was, she didn’t much of anything. Nothing moved on the facility grounds. If it weren’t for the flashing lights and fumes emanating from one of the cooling towers, it would have been possible to mistake the plant for a ghost town. There was a railroad line that ran along the far perimeter of the complex. She assumed that was how they moved finished products.

“There are no cars,” she said.

“No cars?” Rodriguez repeated.

“None,” she said. “I don’t even see a place for the workers to park. I don’t know. There’s a rail-line. Maybe the workers take a train.”

“A train? From where? There’s not a town for a hundred miles.” Jonathan said. Before he could say anything else, Sarah interrupted him.

“Wait a minute I see something. It’s… What…”

As she watched, one of the facility doors opened. Workers emerged, heading towards another building ten, maybe twenty feet away. They were all wearing the same clothes. A uniform, she suspected. But that wasn’t what threw her. They were walking, no, marching, all in a line. The best she could describe it to the other two was military formation. But there was no foreman, no sergeant, no one leading them. They just marched, in time, across the empty space, as if they were on a parade ground. Sarah shivered.

“That gives me the creeps,” Rodriguez said.

Jonathan shifted in his seat. “What now?”

“Well,” Sarah said, “I guess we drive up to the front gate and introduce ourselves.” The other two looked unconvinced. “What else can we do? This is just a fact-finding mission, remember? I don’t think breaking and entering is in our bag of tricks this time.”

Ten minutes later they had reached the gate. There was no one in the guard station.

“State your purpose,” an obviously automated voice intoned from a small black box.

“We are here to perform a routine inspection,” Sarah lied. For a long minute only silence answered. Sarah glanced over at Rodriguez who gave her a “I told you this wouldn’t work” grin. But then the voice returned.

“Proceed,” it commanded.

They drove to an empty parking lot, bringing the car to a stop in-front of what they assumed was the main entrance. No one came to greet them. A single steel door appeared to give access.

“So do we just knock?”

Sarah grinned at Rodriguez. “Looks like it.”

But knocking was not required. As they approached the door, it slid open, revealing a shimmering brightness beyond. Sarah pointed to a dark black half-sphere above the opening.

“I think we’re being watched.”

Rodriguez looked unhappy. Jonathan looked like he didn’t even care. Sarah stepped into the light. As she did, she realized it was an illusion, one created by the bright bulbs in the ceiling reflecting off the solid steel walls within. The only thing that marred their simple and clean beauty was yet another camera.  Jonathan and Rodriguez entered. The door slid shut behind them. Before they had time to react, another door opened, revealing an elevator.

“This place is wild.”

Sarah frowned, unhooking the clasp on her gun.

“Let’s go,” she said simply.

The three stepped inside, and the door closed behind them. Now they were standing in a steel box. They could feel it begin to move, though there was no display to tell them whether they were going up or down. A few seconds passed, and the doors opened. A large room lay before them, with floor-to-ceiling windows forming the other three walls. They stepped out, and what Sarah saw made her draw her gun.

The great windows looked out over a wide open industrial work space that stretched out as far as Sarah could see. And everywhere below, there were people. Or at least, what had been people. Sarah watched them work, watched them march from one corner of the facility to another. They worked without pause, with brutal efficiency. From the nearest to the farthest, though, she knew they had lost something. Something basic. Their faces were blank, their jaws slack. But it was the eyes that made her shiver. The empty, soulless eyes. The spark was gone, the light. There was simply nothing.

“Beautiful isn’t it?”

The trance was broken for all three, and they turned as one, leveling their guns as they did.

“Oh my friends,” he said, raising one hand, “there’s no need for violence.”

Then he smiled. Rodriguez and Jonathan lowered their weapons. But despite the balding man’s advancing age, Sarah did not.

“Please Ms. Bennett, I promise that I mean you no harm.”

“How do you know my name?” Sarah asked.

He chuckled. “You give me too little credit, Ms. Bennett. We picked you up when you were a hundred miles away. We ran your photos through our database. I know more about you than you know about yourself. Now please, lower your weapon.”

For a second she paused, but finally Sarah complied.

“Excellent,” the man who was obviously Bishop replied. “Now, please, what brings you to our home?”

“Mr. Bishop,” Sarah said, her voice as calm and even as she could manage, “can you please explain what’s going on here?”

Bishop smiled. “You mean my employees? Wonderful aren’t they?” The old man walked up to one of the windows and looked out. “Perfectly efficient. They work all day and never complain. They live on the premises,” he said, turning back to the three of them. “The commute is minimal, a perk of the job.” Bishop’s grin widened, and Sarah shivered.

“What have you done to them?” Jonathan asked. When Sarah looked at him, she could see he was shaking.

“Done? Ah, that might be difficult to explain.” Bishop took several steps back. “Perhaps I should show you instead.” Then there was a flash of light, and everything went dark.

And then Sarah wasn’t in Wyoming anymore. There was a river, a blanket, a picnic basket. Her in his arms. His smile, his kiss. Her feeling of being one, with him, for the first time. The happiest moment of her life. The scene changed. She was home. Early, from a case. He had not expected her. And then it wasn’t her in his arms. It was someone else. And at that moment, her heart broke.

Her eyes opened and she saw Rodriguez lying on the floor. He had gone back, too. He was under center, the other team’s middle linebacker leaning over his offensive line, sneering at him. Then the snap. He dropped back, scanning the field. His line broke. He slid to the right, avoiding the sack. He saw Brent come open. He heaved it, as far as he could, farther than he thought possible. And then the ball was falling in Brent’s hands. He didn’t even see him score before he was buried in his teammates. The scene dissolved. He stood at his front door. He slipped a key inside. When he opened it, his mother was crying. It took him a moment to realize that his father was dead. Then he cried, too. When he awoke, it was to see the pain in Jonathan’s face.

He was standing at the end of a flower strewn aisle. Two hundred pairs of eyes were on him. But not for long. The music started. His mouth fell open, and they all turned to see why. She was a dream. The image of innocence, the picture of beauty. At that moment, he had never been happier. At that moment, he wished there would never be another moment, wished this would never end. Then he watched as her face melted, watched as she changed, as the world changed with her. The light fled. The darkness entered. She was sitting in the corner. The needle was still in her vein, her arm almost blue from the rubber tourniquet tied tight around her bicep. He heard a boom, boom, boom, and then saw himself enter the room as the door shattered. The man he had been rushed to where she lay. But there was no saving her. Not then, not now.

The scene dissolved again. He didn’t want it to, no matter how awful what had just passed might be. He knew what was coming. The sound of running water. A bathtub. Red streaks carved down her arms. Blood. So much blood. And her empty, dead eyes.

Sarah could barely pull herself to her knees.

“I’m sorry for that,” Bishop said. “But there was no way to tell you, no way for you to understand. Unless you saw. You will notice that you still have your sidearm. I did not mean to harm you, only to let you know the truth.”

Sarah couldn’t breathe. She glanced over to Rodriguez. He was still on his knees, and Jonathan was curled into a ball on the floor. She looked back at Bishop, and her eyes asked the questions that her voice could not.

“My workers require no wages,” he said. “They have agreed to a different arrangement, a different form of payment. I have given you a gift, you see. The best and the worst moments of your lives. Memories, happy and sad. Some from long ago. Others,” he continued, looking at Jonathan, “more recent. Ask a man to describe Heaven. He may say many things. No pain, no sorrow. No tears. Perhaps he would say that Heaven is living the finest day of his life, every day. And what if I could give that to you? What if I could give you your happiest moment here, on earth? To live again and again?”

Rodriguez had pulled himself to his feet and was looking out onto the factory floor. “And that’s what they see?” he asked. “The happiest day of their lives?” Bishop nodded once. “How do you make them work then? If they are seeing the happiest moments of their lives, why would they want to do anything but enjoy them?”

Bishop smiled. “Well Mr. Rodriguez, I apologize if I refuse you that information. Call it a secret of the trade. It is true, perhaps, that they would work harder were it not so. But we have a contract, after all.”

“You can’t do this,” Sarah said. “It’s evil.”

“Evil?” Bishop asked, shaking his head. “No, not evil. All here have chosen this place. I have the documentation, if you would like to see it. I give a gift that money cannot buy. Their bodies work so that their minds can be free.”

“I don’t believe it,” Sarah said. “No one would do that willingly.”

“Is that so, Ms. Bennett? Is that so? What do you think, Mr. Ryan?”

Sarah turned. Jonathan was standing. He was looking at Bishop. Then she saw it in his eyes.

“No. No, Jonathan,” she said, taking a step towards him. Time was short, so she spoke quickly. “You can’t do it. You can’t. I know you’re hurting right now, but it will pass.”

Jonathan glared at her. “It’ll never pass, Sarah.” Then he looked back to Bishop. “I want this.”

Bishop removed a paper from his pocket. “All you need do is sign. And of course,” he continued, glancing at Sarah, “you are always free to leave, though I doubt you ever will.”

Jonathan took a step towards Bishop. Sarah grabbed him. “Please, Jonathan. Please, just think this through.”

Jonathan looked at her. And for the first time in a long time, he smiled. “It’ll be OK.” But as he slipped out of her arms, she was afraid it would never be OK again.

“I trust you will explain to your bosses in Washington that nothing untoward is happening at this facility?” Bishop asked as Jonathan signed the papers.

Sarah didn’t answer. Finally, Rodriguez said, “We’ll tell them something. They’d never believe the truth.”

“What now?” Jonathan asked.

“Simple. You stand here, and I will do the rest.”

Jonathan stepped over to the side. He nodded once to Rodriguez, and then he smiled at Sarah again. She watched as a wave of light seemed to pour over him, from his feet up to the crown of his head. With every inch, he seemed to drift farther away, until finally she watched as something inside of him died, as the light that covered his body stole the glimmer from his eyes. A single tear rolled down his cheek.

“An effect of the process, only,” Bishop said.

As the suburban drove down the broken pavement, as it left Bishop and his empire behind, Jonathan took his place in the assembly line. He marched in time with the others. He worked without complaint or concern. And always his mind was filled with images of blood and pain and death. And her cold, lifeless eyes.

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