Third-place winner of our second annual flash fiction contest, this piece brings us to a horrific future and explores the dehumanization of workers.
by JP Relph
The water is oily, always tepid, metallic. It batters my stubbled head, scours my face.
I long to rip my scalp like a satsuma, dig fingers hard into my skull’s suture-lines,
crack it like a novelty egg. The nesting prize is broken, spoiled. The water sluicing,
would grasp the infiltrated core with slippery fingers, disrupt it. My corrupted brain
bobbing in the waterlogged cranium like a wormy apple. I’d be uncoupled, lost to
perpetual darkness, in peace. But I can only hug my knees, let the water pound and
close my eyes.
The sun beats hot drumsticks on our faces. The river canters over large flat stones.
We try to outsmart it, a wobbling bare foot on each eel-slick surface. Mayflies whirl,
chill-water froths at our sun-pinked legs in agitation. We grip with limpet-toes,
windmill arms like hydra. Our laughter fresh as the breeze that chases us as we
leap, battle grabby weeds to the bridge. An arc of weather-beaten wood forming a
grinning ogre’s mouth with its own reflection. We play Poohsticks off the midpoint,
drop paper birds into the gurgle. We lay with our backs curved over silvered planks;
eyes lost to the infinite blue. The roiling, toiling river rushes beneath. Ever moving,
ever cleansing, ever free.
My eyes shoot open to bellowing claxons. Shift change. My ten-hour stretch in the
rendering plant looms. Endless rivers of fallen stock for processing. Enduring in my
nostrils: greasy-foul, sharp-sour. Boiling extracts valuable fat to lubricate robotics,
feed livestock, fuel ships. Steam-heating dries the crackling ground to bone meal for
field-crops. Nothing wasted. Nothing lost. Except the sanity of those who must
reduce other humans to their component parts. Or join them.
In the early weeks, many refused to perform the hideous task. Choosing the
instantaneous disassembling of slave-masters’ weapons. Plant efficiency
plummeted. New cadres of workers were neurologically altered with nanites. Purging
all free will, defiance, the ability to speak or feel. Muted and lobotomised. Perfect
Quietly over many years, brains rebelled, rejecting alien neuro-pathways. A new
battle waged on a nano-level. Our humanity returning, so covertly that nanite
readings appeared unchanged, brought an agonising torrent of memory, a
reminder of melancholy, love, joy. Fear. We fought to hide this onslaught, continued
to render our brethren. Despite our returning will, our rage reborn, we cannot
overcome our enslavers. There is no way off the slave ships docked in deep space.
There is one way out.
The shower sputters and I stand, let out a long fetid breath, reach for the others.
Bruised hands connect and squeeze. Three milk-pale humans, ropy muscled from
hard work, eyes fearless in tarry hollows. I don’t know their names. The blades
secreted amongst our clothing are blood-crusted, our tears moisten the stains. We’re
masters of where to cut, how to bleed. We close our eyes and slice.
We lay with our backs curved over silvered planks; eyes lost to the infinite blue. The
roiling, toiling river rushes beneath. Ever moving, ever cleansing.
About the Author: JP Relph lives in North West England and uses knowledge from a forensic science degree, a passion for bugs and botany, and a dogged determination to make people laugh in her work. JP has flash fiction published on the NFFD 2021 Write-In and was longlisted for Free Flash Fiction’s Competition Four. You can follow her on Twitter at @RelphJp.