|DRONE OF A NEW QUEEN by William Kitcher|
I walk past the WorkFlash and it doesn’t flash. At least, I don’t think it does. Usually, you can see it out of the corner of your eye. I’m just about to turn around and ask my Supervisor if it did flash, when I’m pushed forward by another Worker going past the Flash. I watch some of the others and the Flash works. Flash. Flash. Flash.
My Supervisor looks at me strangely. I start to say something but then it occurs to me that if the Flash had flashed on me, I wouldn’t be thinking these things: about talking to the Supervisor (no one ever talks to the Supervisor; he talks to us); about wondering if the Flash went off or not. I’m thinking. I’m aware of myself thinking. The Flash could not have flashed.
This is very peculiar. I go to my work area and try to remember if it has ever happened before. My memory (and all Workers’ memories, for that matter) isn’t very good, but I can’t remember it happening. Not ever, I don’t think. Not at a WorkFlash, or a StreetFlash, or a HomeFlash. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Flash not work when someone goes past one. Of course, Flashes don’t work when Supervisor-types go past them, but that’s because they don’t need the Flashes. The Flashes are for the Workers, to help us be better people.
I attach the wire to the socket behind my right ear, put my nose above the machine, and a smell comes out. I wait for another one, and look at the other Workers, staring blankly as they smell. I suppose that’s how I look when I work. But don’t they all look different now?
Across from me is one of my co-Workers, Jan, who looks at me every once in a while. A funny, confused expression comes over her face, and she says, “What’s the matter, Tim?” And I know that if I tell her, she won’t understand anyway.
“Nothing,” I say.
My job is smelling things, and a lot of other people do that too. I don’t know why we do it, but they say it’s useful. Sometimes they’re really bad smells, but I know that some Workers do things that are even more painful than what I do. Sometimes they put needles and liquids into Workers, and sometimes we never see some of them again. And then there are other Workers, like my friend Joey’s other friend—I don’t know what his name is; we just call him the Tall One because he’s so tall—who get to stand there and look at what they call fixtures. I don’t know what those things are. The Tall One stole one from work one day and showed it to me. It looked familiar, but none of us knew what it was for. I’d like to do what the Tall One does. It sounds easy, and I hate some of the smells I’m supposed to smell. They say animals used to do what I do, but now there aren’t many animals around anymore. I don’t know why.
After a while, I realize that I’m smelling a lot faster than I usually do, and I remember that the WorkFlash probably didn’t go off, and think that it must have something to do with the way I’m feeling.
Jan breaks into my thoughts. “You missed one, Tim.”
I quickly go back to smelling, and Jan looks at me sideways. She must have noticed that something is different, or else why would I have missed the smell, and why do I go back to it so quickly? But she doesn’t say anything more. I smile at her, and scratch the scar around the socket behind my right ear. Jan goes back to work, and concentrates hard. Perhaps I had been as intent at one time, too slow to know any better. But now it seems very simple.
As I work, I look at Jan, at her reddish-blonde hair, her high cheekbones, her dull green eyes. And I think, Jan is pretty, in a way. And that’s odd, because in all the time I’ve worked with her—who knows how long? Ages. More than two, three weeks—I’ve never looked at her except as another Worker. And now, inside, I feel... I don’t know what it is I feel, but I want to... touch her. Like I’ve seen the Supervisor-types touch each other. Not exactly like them. I don’t want to mash lips with her; that seems, somehow, unclean. But I do want to hold her. But that’s foolish. Workers don’t hold. Workers work, and then they eat, and then they work, and then they sleep, and then they work.
Jan looks at me again. Is she thinking the same things? No, of course not. The WorkFlash has probably worked on her. “You missed another one, Tim.” So I do have to concentrate on working, although not as much as I remembered doing. Before the Flash didn’t work...
Perhaps Joey and the Tall One are right. The metal things stuck into our heads (and I touch my scar to re-assure myself) could be the things the Flashes work on. Supervisor-types never react to Flashes, and I bet they don’t have scars on their heads. They used to tell us the metal things are just I.D. marks from when we were in the ChildPlace, but they haven’t told us that one recently. Not all of us are quite that stupid. Someone once said that, in the olden times, people used to have these things that they talked into if they wanted to talk to someone a long way away, and then people didn’t want to have to hold them so they had them attached to their ears, but then sometimes they fell off so people had them put right into their heads and everyone really liked that because it was so convenient. And then the Supervisor-types realized what else they could do if things were put into people’s heads so that’s why we have what we have. I don’t know if that’s true. That sounds kind of stupid too.
Once, Joey passed himself off as a Supervisor-type for a while, even went into one of their high-rises. They found out he wasn’t a Supervisor-type during a party when they were all attaching electric wires to their heads to get high, and when they attached them to Joey, he passed out for two days and had a bad headache for a long time after.
Joey and the Tall One figured out about the things in our heads (“M-plants” I think I heard someone call them), and it seemed to make sense to everyone else, although we aren’t as good at logic as Joey and the Tall One. They even worked out that the stars in the sky at night are Flashes on other places, and that our Sun was the big Flash that kept us going. Someone asked them then if we had a big Flash like the Sun, why did we need all our city ones? Even Joey and the Tall One couldn’t answer that.
The horn sounds, and we all file off to get a drink of water and sit down for a minute. After I drink, I think that I should tell Joey what happened to me, so I find him and tell him all about the Flash that didn’t go off. He asks me a lot of questions and I don’t know the answers to a lot of them, and don’t even know what he’s asking sometimes. Two Supervisor-types come over to us and tell us to stop talking, which we do, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. The horn sounds again, and we get up to go, but Joey stops me and says, “Don’t go to lunch.”
“Why not?” I say, but a blue hits me with a stick and pushes me forward.
“Just don’t,” says Joey as he goes in the other direction.
I think about that a lot when I go back to work, but I don’t understand. Joey’s way too smart for me.
Just before lunch-time (somehow it’s getting easier to judge time), the Tall One shows up at work. It’s very strange, him arriving so late. Usually, we all come in at the right time, or else we take the whole day off due to sickness or injury or something. He walks past me and I’m about to ask him what happened when I see two more blues, and decide not to say anything at all.
When the horn sounds for lunch, I still don’t understand what Joey meant, and I follow all of the other Workers to the Food Room. Just inside its door is Joey, looking all around for something or someone. When he sees me, he gives me a strange look. It’s a combination of fear and pleading and distress. I stop walking, look at Joey, and his eyes bore into mine. I try to think, but nothing comes to me. Joey just shakes his head
I know that Joey, of all people, would never mess me around, and that he must have a good reason for telling me not to go to lunch, so I turn off down the hall, and go into the toilet. I stand at the trough, trying to think, and pretending to pee. Other Workers come in, pee quickly, and look at me funny before they go.
I’m alone in the toilet, not knowing what to do. I go into one of the cubicles and sit down. Then I remember something that happened to me quite a while ago, perhaps over a month. (I’m pleased and surprised that I can remember things from such a long time ago). I had been a little sick one day from something I smelled, but not enough to keep me from working. However, at lunch-time, my stomach had become quite upset, and I went to the toilet with diarrhoea. I had been in there for several minutes when a blue came in, reached under the cubicle door with a stick and tapped me on the legs, saying, “Time to go to lunch.”
So I know they’ll be looking for stragglers, and I pull my feet up onto the toilet and wait. Sure enough, a little later, I hear two sets of footsteps come in. I can hear my heartbeat. Then I hear a sound, a very distinct sound. A writing tool falling out of a breast pocket onto the tiles as someone bends over to look for legs in the cubicles. “No-one here,” one of them says, and they leave. I’ve done it. I’m safe. But why doesn’t Joey want to me to go lunch? It still doesn’t make sense.
Twenty minutes later, as lunch-time is ending, and some Workers come to use the toilet, I remember what I’d once heard about the way some people figure out things. Some people, like Joey, are very logical types, and work out a problem step by step. Other people have what they call “N-spiration”, “N” presumably standing for New Thoughts, which is different from “A-spiration”, which is what the Supervisor-types have. (I don’t know what the “A” stands for.) I know I will never be the logical type like Joey, so I hope for that sudden thought, that flash of N-sight. And that’s it! The Flash! When Workers leave the Food Room, we have to go past a WorkFlash. Joey knew that, and that’s why he told me not to go to lunch!
Hungry, but happy at my N-sight, I leave the toilet and find Joey just outside the Food Room. He smiles when he sees me, and comes towards me. “Good boy, Tim,” he says. “You’re gonna make it.”
I don’t know what he means, but I don’t want to appear stupid. “What happened to the Tall One?” I ask.
“Don’t have time. I’ll tell you later,” he says, and disappears into the crowd of Workers returning to their places.
I go back to my area, and wait for the smells to start. I don’t want to be there, and must look impatient because Jan looks at me strangely again. “I’m still hungry,” I say, which is not at all a lie. Even Food Room food seems appealing.
When the smells start, I feel even more different than I had in the morning. Missing one Flash changed me a bit, but missing two is incredible. I don’t feel like working. I want to sing and whistle and jump around and talk to Joey and the Tall One. And Jan. I want to do something with Jan, but I don’t know what. I do know, though, that touching her is the first thing...
It’s all very strange. My head is clear, as if I’ve just walked out of fog into sunlight, or as if I’m a piece of wood that has just been carved into something recognizable. For the first time I can remember, I feel confident of my own thoughts. Before, I had been part of a group, the Workers, discouraged from anything that would make us distinct from each other. Now, I know I’m different.
Some Workers blame the things in our heads for everything, although much of it is their own fault. They use the M-plants as a crutch. I had never thought very much about it, just accepted it. Now I question, question a lot of things. It seems strange that the only change can occur because of something not happening.
In the afternoon break, I find Joey and ask him about the Tall One.
“Well,” he says, “the Tall One was taken away by the blues and asked questions. He doesn’t remember all of the questions they asked him, and I don’t remember all of what he told me, but I guess what happened is they asked him if any of the Workers were showing any strange behaviour.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“Like thinking,” Joey says. “The blues know me and the Tall One talk a lot, so they’ve been watching us. They think we’re going to organize the Workers in some kind of rebellion. But that’s crazy. The Workers are too slow and stupid to talk to, and even if we did, the Flashes would just stop us all anyway.”
Which makes me think of a question I had almost asked a hundred times, but had never been able to put into a sentence. “Why aren’t you and the Tall One affected by the Flashes?”
“We are. Believe me, we are. It’s just that we started out smarter than most people. Even the Flashes can’t completely ruin a good brain.”
This is getting more confusing. “How,” I ask, “did you start out smarter? Don’t they give us all the same brains in the ChildPlace?”
Joey rubs his forehead. “It may be hard for you to understand, but I don’t think, and the Tall One agrees with me, that the ChildPlace has anything to do with making children. I think they tell us that to keep us from knowing the real reason.”
“You’ve seen the high-rise buildings.”
“The Supervisor-types and the blues live there, and they do something to each other to have children. They lie down and the man puts his thing into the woman, and this makes children.”
“What? That’s ridiculous.”
“It sounds it, doesn’t it? But I’ve seen it. Remember when I went into that party in a high-rise? They were doing that.”
“And that makes children? How?”
“I don’t know. But I think then they take the children away and turn some of them into us.”
“How do they do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the M-plants.”
“Is anything going to happen to you and the Tall One?”
“I don’t think so,” Joey answered. “He told the blues that not many of us think, maybe just two in this whole factory. They’ll probably keep watching us, but I don’t think they’ll do anything. Workers are nothing to worry about.”
“What am I going to do, Joey? I’ve missed two Flashes, and I feel great. But when I leave work, I’ll get flashed by the StreetFlashes and HomeFlashes. I’ll go back to the way I was, and I don’t want to be like that. I want to be like I am. I like thinking, and figuring out things.”
“Then there’s only one solution. You have to stay in here.”
The time after the afternoon break is the longest three hours I’ve ever spent, and I can’t concentrate on my work, can’t care less about it. I have too many questions, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
When the horn sounds for the final time, I follow the other Workers to the exit. One by one, they leave the building. I walk towards the exit, thinking I might just forget all about this unreal day, and give in to the Flashes. I look over the heads of the Workers, see the outside, a glittering and grey concoction of concrete, glass, wire, and Flashes. I see Joey and the Tall One standing on the street looking back at the building. I stop moving and they see me. Joey gives me a thumbs-up sign, then, with his forefinger, points towards the sky.
I turn around, find a box that has been left on a table, and walk down the hallway past the toilet. Two blues stop me, and one says, “Where are you going?”
I try as well as I can to recreate the slow, careful speech of a Worker. “I was told to return this.”
“Where?” says the other one.
I point upward, and they let me pass. I walk up three flights of stairs, find a store-room, go inside, close the door, and hide behind some large boxes.
A time passes, perhaps several minutes, perhaps several hours, but no-one comes into my hide-away. With any luck, the Supervisors have forgotten about me, and I’m alone in the building. Cautiously, I leave the store-room and search the level I’m on. Finding no-one, I continue up the stairs, five flights.
The stairs end, and the only alternative to descending again is a plain, grey door. I push it open, tearing apart great spiderwebs, freeing prey. Something brushes against my face, a moth or a flutterby. On the other side of the door, pigeons flap and rodents scurry away.
I step out onto the roof of the building, which stretches thirty metres in every direction. The door slams shut and locks behind me. I look at that door, and wonder if I’ve done right.
Around me rise the structures the Supervisor-types call progress: factories, chimneys, towers, high-rises, and electricity wires which make low humming noises. They don’t look very friendly. I look across into a high-rise and see some Supervisor-types and blues standing on a balcony, drinking, laughing, and oblivious to everything else. I go to the edge of the building and look down. Shuffling along are the Workers, seemingly with no destination in mind. It’s all so sad, and the thought comes into my head that maybe I should just jump off and join my fellow Workers. But I look at the high-rises and I feel... I don’t know what the word is... I feel like I do when something goes wrong and I can’t do anything about it. But it’s more than that. I feel hot and I want to hit something.
I look more closely at the figures on the balconies and in the windows. They’re now more animated, made pliable and numb by drink and smoke and electricity. Raucous, self-serving laughter comes from balconies all around. Some of the people drop things like glasses on the Workers below and laugh.
I see in one particular window a man and woman drinking and talking, slowly advancing on each other. The man reaches to her blouse, undoes buttons, and puts his hand inside, rubbing her. She puts his arms around him, and they mash lips and stroke each other’s hair as people once did with pet dogs and cats in the old movies. Then suddenly, they tear at each other’s clothing, throw their glasses away, and hungrily chew at each other.
Then the event occurs that Joey told me about, although they’re standing up, not lying down. The man puts his pee-er in the woman’s hole. They rock back and forth, quite unlike any urination I’ve ever seen. The rhythm is quite curious, and I discover my own pee-er has become larger. For some reason, I think of Jan. But I’m most excited because I’m going to see a baby!
A few seconds later, they stop and just stand there, holding each other. Then the man goes away. The woman does not look pleased, and certainly doesn’t have a baby with her. Naked, she goes out onto the balcony, and looks about her, breathing deeply. Then she runs her hands over her body, massages her breasts, pulls at her tummy, and lightly rubs below it. Her eyes close, mouth opens, body shakes. I watch in amazement, and have a strange desire to touch my own pee-er, although I do not.
The woman stops, and seems to look over at me. She starts to point, then runs into her rooms, and closes the curtains.
I slowly circle the roof again, stopping at the front of the building. Across the street, a small crowd has gathered, which is unusual, because the blues usually move loiterers along, and, at any rate, the StreetFlashes encourage us to keep walking. But there’s a reason the crowd has stopped. The StreetFlash isn’t working. It has either malfunctioned or been broken. Beneath where the Flash used to be is a taller than average man throwing brightly-coloured balls into the air, catching them and continuing the cycle without end. Beside him is another man looking up at the building I’m on. It’s Joey and the Tall One.
The Tall One has learned the ancient and very skilful art of juggling. I watch in fascination, and it suddenly seems very obvious to me that what he’s doing is proving to the Workers that we’re capable of more than anyone thinks. I know that and, with some encouragement, all those people will know it too. I wave down, and Joey waves back briefly. I want to yell down at him, to glory in the broken Flash with him, but know that, even with allies below, I’m alone, and I must remain alone, silent.
I look up through the fluorescent orange-yellow glow of the city lights, through the cloudless sky at the stars, and stop counting them when I reach twenty. The Flashes they make are less severe than the ones we have. They’re gentle, twinkling, steady, colourful, serene. They encourage me to reach out, not slow down. The stars free me. I want to go there.
From across the roof comes the sound of a door opening slowly. Then footsteps tread carefully over the asphalt, preceded by the beam of a flashlight. Someone is coming for me, and I have nowhere to hide, so I simply stand there.
I can see three men, two large muscular ones in blue and one smaller fat one in black, walking towards me. When the flashlight hits me, they stop.
“He’s in green,” says one. “A Worker.”
“What’s your name?” says the fat man.
“Tim,” I reply.
“What are you doing up here, Tim?”
“I... I came for a look. How did you know I was here?”
“He’s sensible,” says the other one, an ugly blond-haired man with perfect features. “We got a report from a lady in one of the buildings around here. She said there was a strange man on this roof.”
“She must be quite strange herself,” I say. They laugh.
“Well,” says the fat one, “we’ve got to take you down.”
“Because you can’t stay, that’s why.”
I look down at the street, and see a repair crew of Workers trying to get at the broken StreetFlash. The crowd does a good job at keeping them away. In a moment of coherent N-spiration, I understand what it was that the Tall One had stolen that day from his assembly line. How could I have been so blind?
Quickly, I turn back to the three. “I can’t go down there. The Flashes...”
“The Flashes won’t hurt you,” says the fat man, “they’re there to help you.”
“Why don’t you let them help you?” I shout.
“The Flashes help all of us,” says the ugly blond man.
“But they don’t work anymore,” I lie. “They don’t do anything to me. That’s why I’m up here.”
The fat man sighed. “They may misfire once in a while, but I assure you, practically all of them are working at any one time.”
“They don’t work on me. They don’t work on a lot of people.”
“Like Joey, and Roger?”
I stop short. “I don’t know their names,” I finally say.
The fat man comes up very close to me, and stares at me. He reaches behind my ear and touches my socket and scar. I pull back from him. “You’re a smart one,” he says, “but it won’t help you. There’s nothing you, or I, or anyone, can do to change the way things are. You just have to accept it. Come with us.”
“No. No,” I say, backing away.
The other two men come towards me. I don’t know what to do. I can’t fight them, but I can’t run away from them either. There is only one choice left to me.
I look down at the crowded sidewalk. I almost take a step, but know I don’t want to hurt anyone below me, and that my death won’t contribute to anything anyway. The way to help is to be like Joey and the Tall One, fighting back where one can.
In my moment of hesitation, the two large blues grab me by the elbows and stand me back from the eight-storey fall. They grip me tightly and half-carry me across the roof toward the stairway. But...
As they take me away from the edge of the building, I hear the sound of glass breaking, and see lights go out all across the city.
And I’m not even sure that the Flash didn’t go off in the first place.