By Eamonn Murphy
WE WERE KICKING A POE WHEN the newbie first arrived and I didn’t like the way he frowned at us. It was, after all, a perfectly healthy, communal activity—a team sport shared by everyone. The scowl seemed a bit off but I didn’t attach too much importance to it right then. newbies are often a bit strange at first. I blame the Board Schools. They seem to have gone soft since my day. The reduction in annual deaths is generally seen as a good thing but I‘m not so sure. Death weeds out the ones who aren’t fit for purpose. Now they seem to slip through the system right into the Hives. Of course, we weed them out then but it should be done sooner.
As soon as he walked in the door I stopped kicking and turned and walked over to him. I’m the section leader and greeting newbies is part of my job. It’s also my duty to make sure they fit in quickly and get productive. Pastimes are all good fun but our real job is on the factory floor, making things.
I stuck out my hand in greeting. “Welcome to Hive 236. I’m Pete 97D. What’s your name, newbie?”
“Bron 54F.” He had to look up at me because I’m tall and broad-shouldered. That helps give me an air of authority useful for a leader. He was short, a bit pale and scrawny looking too. I guessed he wasn’t much of a sportsman. Apart from that he looked normal enough: clean shaven with his hair neatly trimmed to three millimetres. As he shook my hand he looked around the games room, which wouldn’t have been very different from the one in Board School. It was a large hall with soft plasto-cladding on the walls and a translucent plexiglass roof. The surface was mostly artificial turf with a few concrete paths linking the venues together. There were teams playing basketball, soccer, baseball and so forth in various corners. Rugby had been allowed back in my youth but the managers put a stop to that because of the injuries. Time off sick was time not producing. Mental health had to be maintained as well, obviously, which was why there were outlets like the Poe kicking game for busybees to vent their frustrations.
I let go of Bron’s hand. “We’ll get you settled in shortly, worker. Do you want to play a team game? Or maybe you fancy kicking a vattie after your long journey.” I waved a hand to indicate the dead poet simulacrum that my buddies were still laying into. It was reduced to whimpering now and would soon expire.
The newbie bit his lower lip and shook his head. “Kicking vatties isn’t really my bag.” He looked down at the ground and I think he actually blushed!
That was a bit disturbing but I just shrugged. “The vendor’s over there,” I said, pointing to a food provider near the exit. “Have you got credits?” He nodded. “Take a seat, have a coffee and I’ll be with you shortly.” With that I turned and charged back to the gang. “Leave some for me, boys!” I yelled. I wasn’t actually that enthusiastic but a section leader has to lead. Even then I was a bit disturbed by Bron 54F. He seemed too quiet and that looking at the ground, blushing, not wanting to join in, that wasn’t right. Everyone should join in! That’s what life’s all about, damn it. That and productivity, of course.
It turned out he wasn’t very good at productivity. It’s a section leader’s job to keep an eye on newbies and make sure they don’t fall into bad habits. Bron had a job on a line producing aircars, obviously for the Execs. Busybees like us would never own an aircar. It was quite technical, putting together circuit boards for the control panels. Hive 236 took the smarter men and used them for this kind of higher grade job. They were educated in science and could read and write, necessary to make reports and handover notes at the end of a shift. Some Hives were for dummies and just did manual labour, farm work or very simple manufacturing. The kids destined for that weren’t taught to read or anything. What would be the point? They were simple.
But I bet they were productive. The trouble with clever men is that they’re more liable to have some imagination. Even the hardest schools couldn’t stamp it out completely. This meant they might start thinking about unimportant stuff even when they were on the production line. I reckon that’s what happened to Bron. Quite often I looked over and saw him staring dreamily ahead, not really focused on the circuit boards in his hands. It was a sort of dopey, stupid expression and I despised it. The supervisors had a name for it.
We all learned at school that Poe symbolised the bad attitudes that had sometimes prevailed in former, less-productive ages. There were other names associated with that wasteful, pointless individualism: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lennon and so forth but we didn’t learn much about them. Only one supreme bad example was deemed necessary and that was Poe. After an undistinguished military career that ended dishonourably he had wasted his life writing stories and dreaming of romance, spirits, puzzles and other useless things. Worst of all, he had not fit in even to his own society. He had been odd, eccentric, dreamy. These were the traits that had to be stamped out. They were unproductive. Poe was the antithesis of modern values and we were shown pictures of him with his long hair and silly moustache. He was easy to duplicate with modern biotechnology so the Poes were grown in vats, dressed in the style of the dead poet and shipped to the Hives for use. They were a powerful symbol of everything we despised and useful for venting the frustrations that, psychologists knew, inevitably built up in even the best busybee. They weren’t human but I suppose they were animals, of a kind. They moved and they whimpered when you kicked them but they weren’t really alive, not like a real man born of a prozzie. And if they were, well, they were soon dead.
Bron 54F looked Poe faced far too often for my liking.
I let it go for a couple of days. He was a newbie and you had to cut them a bit of slack. Then one of the checkers showed me a circuit board he had assembled that was wrong—two components jammed together that shouldn’t have been. Really bad work, as if a child had tried to force a square peg into a round hole. I stomped over to him and threw it down on his work counter.
“What the Hell is this, Bron?”
He almost jumped out of his pale skin. “Eh? What?”
I put my face too close to his and looked hard at him. “Dreaming again? Were you asleep when you put this together?” I pointed to the ruined boards. “We expect a better standard than this in Hive 236, mate.”
His face went red. He stammered an apology.
“If you can’t do technical work we may have to get you re-assigned,” I said. “Fancy mucking out pigs the rest of your life in cold sheds? Eh?”
He looked really scared. I could tell he wasn’t the type that would like physical labour. “It won’t happen again,” he said. “I prom ... I promise.”
“It had better not.” I turned away so he couldn’t see the little smile on my face. I had come on deliberately strong because it seemed the best tactic. Scare the shit out of them and they’ll straighten out and hover right. It always works.
His productivity improved over the next few days and there were no more flack jobs like that, but he wasn’t happy. The motto of the Hives is that a happy worker is a productive worker. The sports are part of it but we also have the lottery, quiz shows during downtime, cinema nights, and even a bar, though it’s only available if you have a free session the next day. Busybees don’t produce well with a hangover. I had made Bron productive but I also wanted to make him happy. I’m a section leader and that’s part of my job.
There were the prozzies, of course, but I thought Bron, fresh out of school, was too young for them. No. Games were the best way of letting out the frustrations of factory life. I had used prozzies myself, now and then. It was allowed but frowned on. They drained you and left you with a dull sense of satisfaction that made you sort of quiet and contemplative. Those were not good states of mind. The good bee is always alert; ready for work; ready to produce. The prozzies were used for reproduction as well as leisure, birthing the next generation of workers. They were a necessary part of Hive life but not for Bron at this stage.
Sports. That might have been the answer usually. A good busybee takes part in team games. If I could have found Bron a fixed position on one of the teams, got him caring about winning and given him some éspirit de corps, that would have made him happier. It wasn‘t going to happen. The Hive teams all had their quotas filled so the spare ones played each other in random groupings just for fun. They weren’t very good, but even they always picked Bron last. He was small and not strong; he tended to fumble the ball and he was reluctant to tackle, scared of getting hurt no doubt. A lot of the time he would beg off sports saying he had hurt his ankle or wasn’t feeling so good.
So if sports were out, that left Poe kicking. I was pretty sure there was a lot of pent-up aggression in him. There is in most weaklings.
Worrying about him was making me frustrated so I took a couple of hours off at the end of the shift and went to a prozzie. I managed to bag one of my favourites, a blonde with big mamms. She had once been in an all-female Hive but had committed some offence and been sent to us as a “Recreational Service Worker.” She was good at it. I felt better afterwards. Looking at my finger watch I noticed it was downtime. The guys would be in the games hall. I hurried off to join them and when I got there, who should be sitting in the corner at the vendor, all alone, but Bron.
I was annoyed. He wasn’t helping me. He wasn’t getting with the program.
He was bent over something and very intent, oblivious to the outside world. When I was closer I saw that it was a piece of paper.
“What’s this, Bron?”
“Huh!” He nearly fell off his chair then moved to cover the paper with his arm. “It’s nothing. Nothing.”
I snatched it up and looked at what he had written. As I read it he squirmed in his seat and blushed. It was pretty obvious why. The words on the paper were these:
I am a bee; a newbie,
But is that what I want to be?
Can anyone in this Hive see,
What is inside of me?
I threw the paper back on the table. “What is this nonsense, Bron? Are you ill? If you want someone to see inside of you there are x-rays available in the medical department. You know paper isn’t allowed outside the factory. There’s no need for it. There’s certainly no need for this.” I looked with contempt at what he had written.
“It’s nothing. Just some ... some words that came to me. I ... I thought ...”
“Shut up, Bron.”
I sat down. It was time to give him a good talk. I was the section leader. It was my duty. “Do you want a drink?”
He shook his head.
I was directly opposite him and looked him right in the eye. I didn‘t want to bully him but things had gone too far. If I didn‘t sort him out now he would have to be transferred, and that would make me look bad. I decided that peer pressure was my best tool.
“The busybees have been talking about you, Bron. They’re saying you don’t want to join in. They’re saying you aren’t a team player. They’re saying you might even be a bit simple, that you may not belong in this kind of Hive.” I leaned back in my chair and gave him a measuring look. “You know what that means.”
His hand shook as he put down the coffee cup. He was paler than I had ever seen him. He cast a glance towards the door but I sensed that in his mind’s eye he was seeing the farm Hives: the cold barns outside where men looked after pigs and chickens. The fields that were blistering hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and hard, dirty work all the time.
“Well?” I demanded.
He shook his head fiercely. “I ... I’m not a loner, Pete. Honest. I’m not. I’ve just been feeling a bit out of sorts lately. It ... It’s the change, you know. From Board School to the Hive, I mean. It’s hard to adjust.” He looked straight at me and I could see the fear in his eyes. “Give me a chance to prove myself.”
I grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Sure thing, buddy. I know you’re okay. It’s just that ... well, you know. They guys talk sometimes. And as section leader I have to make sure everyone fits in. I know you’re not great at sports and that’s not your fault. We can’t all be tops. But there’s one game that anyone can play.”
As usual the Poe beating was on the game square nearest the vendor. A few of the guys had just started on a new one.
“Go to it, Bron” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder to indicate the kicking game behind us. “Get that vattie!”
He nodded and stood up slowly. He stared at the gang laying into the vattie and then looked over his shoulder back at me.
“Go to it,” I said in a tone that would brook no dissent.
So Bron went over and joined the gang. He started off slowly, launching the odd half-hearted kick but he could see I was watching him. He started to lay it on with more vigour, probably thinking of those cold pig sheds. This particular “Poe” seemed to be a bit tougher than usual. Sometimes that happened with vatties, some stray genes getting into the mix maybe. It just made killing him more of a challenge but the boys laid into him all the harder for that. And the one who laid in hardest of all was Bron. After a few minutes he was kicking with a real frenzy; sweating, red-faced, so furious I swear he had tears in his eyes. When his boot connected with the back of the vattie’s head the damned things teeth nearly came out!
Bron turned out fine and he fits right in now. For a time there it looked as if he was showing signs of individualism, maybe even eccentricity. But, as I say, he turned out just fine.
Man, you should have seen him kicking Edgar Allan Poe!
Eamonn Murphy is a writer from Bristol, England. He has been a reviewer for “SFcrowsnest” and has published over twenty science-fiction stories in small magazines like “Perihelion,” “The Fifth Dimension,” and “Empyreome.”