By Philip Roberts
Ted’s computer screen still contained the last bit of worthless data he had been in the process of inputting before a riddle book stole his attention. He hunched over the puzzle, pencil poised for the answer, his desk drawer pulled open, overflowing with finished crossword puzzles and mazes.
Right as the answer to the puzzle popped into his head after a wasted afternoon of thinking, his own name distracted him, and Ted looked up from his book to stare at the speaker in the far corner of the large room calling him into the manager’s office.
The man behind the desk sat rigid with boney fingers intertwined and smiled lightly with lips so thin Ted almost thought it looked like he had no lips at all. The bright fluorescent lighting turned the man’s thick glasses opaque, but Ted could feel the eyes behind them watching as he took up a seat in front of the desk.
“Your name is Ted Blanch, correct?” the man asked.
“Is there anyone in particular you would like to have notified if you were harmed?”
“For the emergency contact?”
The man’s smile shifted, and though the hesitation was brief, Ted took note of it. He was good at seeing things like that. “Yes, the emergency contact,” the man lied.
Ted’s intuition told him to lie, told him he stared at an abnormality within the office world he knew, but Ted was good at ignoring his intuition and inherent skills to labor away putting in data rather than making anything of himself. He’d almost turned it into an art. “No,” he answered.
“Understood,” the man said. Before the single word was finished Ted felt strong fingers grab hold of his hair and jerk his head back. A knife tore into his neck before he had time to consider where the brutish face peering down at him had come from. His last resemblance of thought took in the thin man calmly writing something down on a piece of paper in front of him as Ted’s face struck the desk.
George Goodwin leaned back and stared through the glass window at the open office before him. Even with the door closed he could hear the soft moans. They uttered them without thought, almost like breathing, the perpetual moans escaping their dead lips.
Dave Phillips, one of the trainers, had recorded a bunch of the moans, strung them together into mock carols and given the disk to everyone at Christmas. They’d had a good laugh about it until one of the higher ups got hold of it. Recording anything about their division was against the rules. Now Dave sat hunched over a desk in row four, a string of drool dribbling down his rotting chin, offering his own moan to the choir, too dead to appreciate the irony of it.
A light flickered on above George’s door to let him know he had a new arrival. He groaned, slumped back in his seat, one hand rubbing his eyes. He hated walking through that room. The stench got him the most, but he refused to plug up his nose. Most the handlers had nose plugs, but George thought it wouldn’t be proper to use them. Made him look a bit above it all if he could tolerate the stench.
He took a deep breath before opening his door. He stepped out into the thick odor, the never-ending noise, so many decaying heads turned towards him as he walked by. A few tried half-hearted lunges if he passed close enough. Chains held them at bay, rattled with their every movement.
He stepped out of the workroom into the training area. James waited for him, the lead trainer, body thick with muscles like a real trainer, which always struck George as hilarious given the emaciated remains James was in charge of.
In front of James sat the new guy, still wearing the blood stained clothes he had died in. The cut in the neck was as professional as all the others, just deep enough to bleed him out but not enough to hinder the neck’s ability to move. Only minor decay had set in, and George always hated staring at the fresh ones.
“I assume you’ve checked him over already?” George asked as he took the clipboard James handed to him.
“Everything seems to be working out nicely. He’s more alert than most. Responded well to the initial physical tests.”
“Well then, let’s get our new number 37 in his seat.”
George hated James. All of the others had a timid quality to them as they walked out into the workroom. Most could handle being around one of the workers for the training, but when five or six of them surrounded you, jolted towards you against the chains, even George had trouble holding his ground. In the two years since the project started only George and James remained of the original hires, and never once had George seen James jump back or fidget at all.
He had to fight his anxiety as they moved down the rows, over fifty of the corpses in all, each chained to their desks, distracted from their work by the promise of a meal, fingers groping in the air at the two men and the new worker.
They set 37 in front of a computer and chained him to the desk. James removed the handcuffs in order to secure 37 to the desk’s cuffs, but 37 didn’t lunge for him as all the others had. James jerked back anyways, clearly prepared for it, and George smiled at James’s look of confusion at 37’s lack of assault, sitting docile, allowing his hands to be cuffed to the desk. Suddenly James’s jerk back looked less like experience and more like nerves. George swore he even saw a slight curl in the corners of 37’s mouth, as if the worker had consciously played a joke on James by not lunging for him. But no, the dead brains didn’t work like that.
George used a switch to turn on the computer. Piles of papers already covered 37’s desk. As soon as the screen turned on the innate habits kicked in and 37’s hands moved instinctively to the keyboard.
It took roughly four years for the work habits to be engrained enough for them to keep doing their job, past experiments had taught them. If they brought a person over too soon they’d linger about, staring idly at the walls or ceiling. Even after four years it usually took a few days before they got to work. George was happy with 37’s more immediate transition.
A long hallway behind the office led to George’s bedroom. Though few moans could drift that far, he still turned on music the second his bedroom door closed. He showered three times a day to get rid of the smell.
He’d signed onto a five-year contract, and until his time was done he’d live in the building and dedicate himself fully to the work. This was still in the experimental phase, he’d been told from the beginning, and it was his job to assess whether or not they could go forward with a larger scale operation.
Fifteen people worked on the project. Seven people under George; they walked the workroom, fixed up bodies, and checked the computers. Six worked under James in the training department getting the new ones ready. When heavy work was needed to fix up the damaged ones they got sent to James.
George had to weigh whether the costs and risks were worth the savings. So far they had been, and he couldn’t say whether he actually liked it or not.
Lights clicked on at seven in the morning. George didn’t get a say on that. The higher ups set his schedule. By eight he stepped out of the hall into his office and the window showing him all his test subjects hard at work. They didn’t sleep.
A light flashed on his computer. He frowned at the number 37. The light had apparently been flashing all night. Normally George was supposed to do a three a.m. check, but he’d grown accustomed to forgetting, and now 37 had to point this out. Apparently 37 hadn’t been working all night. No entries were shown. In fact, they’d stopped as soon as George had left.
He glanced over his computer towards the window, and could see 37 hunched over his computer as if hard at work, fully visible to George.
“He didn’t watch me leave, did he?” George whispered. He shook the thought away and dialed up Melissa. “Check on 37 would you? Think he needs a bit of a shock, or maybe his computer is down.”
She sighed, said, “OK,” with a hint of hesitation. No one wanted to be the one who had to go out and check the workers.
George sat back and watched her emerge from the other end of the room where the sleeping quarters were. She had the cattle prod in hand and her tool kit by her side. James and his team had learned early that a shock to the brain knocked the workers out for a bit, and when they came to, their brains seemed to almost reset, return them to work. Some of the workers never needed it, rotting forms always hard at work, completing the simple tasks given to them, but others had a habit of drifting away, staring dumbly at nothing until shocked back.
He watched Melissa approach 37 with the cattle rod, some part of him aware of what would happen next long before 37 lurched towards her, hands somehow free of the bonds that normally kept them close to the desk. He grabbed hold of the outstretched cattle rod and pulled her in before she could react. George slammed his hand on the alarm right as 37 tore into Melissa’s face.
James burst into the workroom with two of his people. Poor Melissa was already long gone before they yanked her free and sent enough jolts into 37 to make smoke drift from his skull.
The rest of the workers were in a frenzy, almost all of them spurred to action by the smell of blood, their moans feverish. The worker at station 10, one of the already older ones, pulled so hard upward the restraints tore her hands off, followed by her legs. George watched her fall to the floor, try to pull herself forward with her head, the majority of the skin dried and flaked off.
James walked calmly up to her, infuriated George with his calm while George himself dripped with sweat even though a full wall protected him. James fried her until her hair caught fire, all the flesh melting away, nothing left but a charred skull. Without hands she wasn’t of much use to them anymore anyways.
When George hurried through the workroom towards the clinic the workers groped for him, some even managed to touch his arm with their clammy fingers, but the bonds held them in place.
Melissa thrashed and moaned on a table. James and his men stood around her. None of the others would be allowed in.
“Please don’t do it,” Melissa screamed, eyeing the faces above her. James looked over at George. He nodded his head back. “Don’t,” Melissa cried, but the needle stuck quickly into her neck. Worker 10 needed to be replaced. Melissa went limp and dead from the injection, but they could see 37’s bite had already done its job.
For the better part of two weeks George watched 37 carefully. He didn’t falter in his work again, the back of his head permanently blackened from the shock. For the entire time George felt something was off about the worker, different from the others, and it wasn’t until the day 37’s computer went down George realized the man never moaned. He worked in silence.
They had no issues with the shock when George sent his men out to fix the computer, nor did they the next day when the computer went down again, or the day after that when they once again returned to 37’s spot.
Jeffery, the lead technician, stood in George’s office as they both looked out the window at the workers, and said, “He’s the one doing it, and it isn’t the same issue. He’s figured out multiple ways to take that thing offline. It isn’t hardware, either. He’s somehow figured out how to mess with the code.”
“That isn’t possible,” George said, felt less certain than he sounded.
“Look, for whatever reason, he’s retained a lot more than any of the others we’ve seen. If you ask me we need to just put him down now rather than risk further costs.”
Before the words were even finished George’s screen lit up again, flashed 37. “I thought you just fixed it,” George said.
Jeffery glared at the screen. “I did.”
George followed him out into the workroom. Jeffery approached 37 in a huff, jabbed the prod in quickly for the shock before leaning in towards the computer. George saw the prod go too low, jolt the neck rather than the head, but the head still dropped, still appeared to render 37 unconscious. Though some part of George doubted it, he couldn’t shake away the image right as 37’s head rose up of the eyes shifting towards George himself, as if to let him know he was about to see something that had been planned out.
What made it all worse was the fact that 37 bit only into Jeffery’s ear, tearing but a small chunk. Had he gone for the neck he might’ve made it, but Jeffery might’ve gotten away, too, so 37 had gone not for the true meal, as all the others always had, but only a nibble.
Jeffery cursed as he pulled back, hand clasped against his bleeding ear, face bright red and livid. George grabbed hold of him and shoved him towards the clinic, screaming into his phone for James to get there. Four of James’s men held Jeffery to the table and cut off his ear along with half of his face in a vain attempt to prevent the infection. He’d passed out from the sedatives by the time they finished and wrapped the bloody head in gauze. James turned towards George and shook his head.
George left the room, fists clenched tightly by his sides, moving slowly down the row towards 37 hunched at his computer. George stopped behind him and saw the data being entered. 37 was much faster than any of the others, fingers stumbling only a little over the keys as he worked, ignoring George behind him. Normally George would say the man had already forgotten, as the workers were prone to do, usually only able to remember ten minutes or so at a time before the brain couldn’t take it. Yet George knew that wasn’t the case with 37.
As he walked away he could swear he felt 37’s eyes on him, but when he looked back, the man was still hard at work.
He put a call in to the higher ups.
“We’ve been looking over his work,” one of them told him. “37 has produced ten times as much completed work as the others and you want to remove him?”
“He’s killed two of my people.”
“Someone didn’t properly lock the cuffs and someone didn’t properly sedate him. It sounds like your people died of incompetence.”
“I just…I have a feeling that he’s doing more than we think.”
“Don’t be foolish. Keep him.”
At four in the morning James woke him up. “One got free,” he said.
George stood in his boxers by the window, his gut hanging out, feeling old next to the leaner James. “Wasn’t 37, was it?”
“38. His cuffs were undone and he tried to get into the sleeping quarters.”
“We put him down without incident.”
“We put 38 back at the desk and an hour later he was free again. Yes, we put him down permanently.”
George frowned at the empty desk, and at 37 hard at work as always, no more computer troubles in the weeks since Jeffery joined the workforce. 38 hadn’t been a particularly effective worker. More often staring at the walls than doing his job.
“How are 37’s bonds?”
“Fine to my knowledge. He didn’t react when we put 38 back at his station.”
“I’ll let them know we need a replacement. Now I’d like to get back to sleep.”
George waited for James to leave before taking a longer stare at 37 diligently working. He grabbed a robe from his room before walking out into the workroom and up to 37. He ignored George, still typing, the flesh loose on his bones as the natural decay began to set in. They pumped the workers with something that kept the worst of it at bay, kept them going for an estimated ten years on some of them, but it preserved the muscles more than the outer skin.
George leaned in a bit closer, head cocked to the side, not sure what he was seeing until he realized the cuffs weren’t in place, one popped free, and as the information dawned on him his eyes rose to see 37’s head had turned towards him, reddened eyes locked with his.
A shriek of fear cut through the workroom as George stumbled away. He hadn’t thought to bring his phone and ran panicked to the control room.
From behind the glass he watched James hurry towards 37, jolt the head, drop him face first, and then study the hands closely. When he looked up he frowned at the window before coming over.
“They’re locked,” James said inside the doorway.
“One wasn’t,” George sputtered, pointed towards 37. “I’m telling you, that one is far smarter.”
James glanced back, frowned. “Fine, I’ll keep an eye on him.”
When James left George watched for over an hour, still only in his robe and boxers, waiting to see 37 undo the cuff.
He’d only slept two hours before the first disturbance, and the lack of sleep bore down on him. He collapsed into his seat and stared at the monitors tracking all the workers. He stared at 37’s screen, at the information being rapidly entered.
He passed out to those numbers scrolling quickly across his screen.
He awoke to the overpowering stench of death. George jolted forward to stare at the bloated faces pressed against the window in front of him, smearing congealed blood and flakes of skin. He could hear in the background the crack of gunfire, heard shouts, and recognized James’s voice among them.
The workers wouldn’t get through the glass or the door. Both had been built for such a scenario in mind, but that knowledge didn’t stop George’s heart from nearly stopping, almost able to feel the fingers tearing into him. He saw the wide eyes and open mouths as they tried so desperately to taste him, the man they’d probably hungered after the most.
Then their heads exploded, large holes drilled into the bulletproof glass, the sound loud enough to make George scream in surprise and feel like a coward for having done so.
As the splatters of brain dripped down the glass and James’s men moved towards George’s room, he pulled his robe closed and rose to meet them. Before the door could open he caught sight of the movement on his computer screen.
When James burst into the room George was still standing there, his robe hanging open, chin lined with stubble, hair a mess.
“Twenty two of them are gone. The rest are still locked down but going wild. Several of them have completely destroyed their hands trying to get free. Did you hear me?”
George stepped up to the door and pushed past James. He stared at 37, still seated, calmly working as if nothing was going on around him.
“Let me see your gun,” George said. James paused, staring at George before finally handing him the weapon.
George walked through the slaughter, past the shredded corpses and the flesh still squirming with false life until he stood before 37. The man never paused in his work as George brought up the gun and placed the barrel against the side of his head. The explosion sent a spray of gristle across the computer screen and the body slumped down.
Thirty minutes later the two men stood before the security cameras and watched 37 as he picked the lock on his cuffs and proceeded to free the others. James held up the splintered piece of bone they’d found in his pocket that he’d used to do the deed. “Must’ve broken it off himself,” he said.
Finally fully dressed and showered George picked up the phone and put in a call to the higher ups.
“We heard,” Richard told him.
“The whole batch is lost. Those that weren’t killed harmed themselves so badly we can’t use them anymore.”
“It is unfortunate that you destroyed 37. Our researchers were interested in studying him.”
“And the project?”
“Given the current circumstances and further work needed we have decided to suspend the project. Replacing so many workers is not considered cost effective at this time. You are released from the rest of your contract. We will be in touch if any additional work comes up.”
George let out a sigh of relief as he put down the phone. In front of him he watched the cleaning crews as they swept up the decaying remains and dismantled the computers.
He pulled forward and brought up the name Ted Blanch on the screen. They’d chosen him the same way they’d chosen all the others: performance reviews had shown him to be a particularly poor and unskilled worker, only able to do the more menial tasks.
“They got that one wrong,” George said to himself.
He shut down the computer and pulled the cord from the wall.No tags for this post.