Lightspeed Presents: “Division of Labor” by Benjamin Roy Lambert

io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is “Division of Labor” by Benjamin Roy Lambert. Enjoy!

Image © 2013 Galen Dara.

Division of Labor
Benjamin Roy Lambert

No one said anything, but Sull could tell they were all a little jealous when he lost his arms and legs. The arms went first, the left one during a bath and the right one a few days later, while he was being fed. Then both legs went at once, which was rare, and Sull was proud of it. He was sitting in a marketing meeting with Glenda and Farook when suddenly his legs quivered and then turned into a slightly viscous liquid that ran out of his trousers like toothpaste from a tube. The liquid ran down the drain under the table with a soft slurping sound.

Renny thought of Sull’s smug face while he was doing his pull-ups and squats and planks. Sull’s smug face when they wheeled him into the office the next morning in a new suit that bundled up his hips and torso like wrapping paper, just his little bald head peeping out at the top. “Think how much I’ll be able to get done,” Sull had said, winking through his little gold-rimmed glasses, “without having to worry about grabbing things and walking places, or what to do with my hands while I talk.”

The whole business—not just Sull but the whole business—bothered Renny so much he was seeing a therapist. The therapist was just a head connected to an arm by a thin strip of tissue (the head asked questions, the arm took notes), but he had a good rank on the ValueIndex. “What is it about . . . efficiency that bothers you so much?” he’d asked during their first session.

“That’s their word, not mine. Some of it I think it comes from my mother. She was a history teacher.” The therapist let the corners of his mouth twitch down, slightly. Renny paused for a moment and cleared his throat. “A history teacher, an athlete, a musician . . . I could go on. That’s not the point though. The point is I grew up with a certain awareness of history, and how people used to live. You know there used to be a quality called being well-rounded. It was a compliment for someone who knew how to do many different things, not just one thing.”

“Many different things,” said the therapist, “but not very well.”

And of course, what do you know, when Renny went up against Sull for the next promotion, it was Sull who won out. “Don’t take it so hard,” said Jesse at Sull’s promotion party, “you never stood a chance.” She leaned closer. She had a bony face and tiny, attractive eyes. “I’ve been thinking,” she whispered, “about giving up math.”

“Math?” murmured Renny, not really listening. He was staring at the dimly lit ceiling of the bar.

“Not all of it, I’ve just stopped doing my higher function review sessions every day. It’s exhausting, you finish work and then you have to go do quadratic equations. If I skip them I have more energy, and plus they keep increasing the tax on biomatter, so the less I cost the company . . . I haven’t done my reviews in more than a month now, and my contribution-to-cost ratio is going up.”

Renny’s eyes had come down from the ceiling and focused on her. “How does it feel?” he asked.

Jesse shrugged and sipped on her drink. “You notice it more than you think you will. I mean, I don’t do complex math problems here in marketing, but for example, the other day I had to do an analysis on how often we wanted to run the green cherry banner ad on the Valex. I could feel myself reaching for something that wasn’t there. You know, like when you haven’t noticed you’ve reached the top of the stairs.” A sudden gout of clear liquid flowed down from her left nostril and onto the collar of her shirt. “Damn,” she said softly.

“Is that how it drains?” asked Renny.

The next day he came to work early, went into his office, and locked the door. He was Senior Manager, Mid-Atlantic Marketing, for Cherry Bomb International, distributor of fine cherries. Cherries of all colors, flavors, textures, and nutritive values. A giant poster of their all-time bestseller, the Silver Ghost, had been tacked to the rear wall, next to a small window that looked out on nothing. Renny kept the lights off and opened a drawer. He put his hand in and groped around until he found his feeling board. He ran his fingers over it and it woke up. The flat surface became elaborately ridged. “Three circles interlocking enclosed by a square,” said Renny.

“Co-rrect,” groaned the feeling board’s ancient vocal circuits. Renny would have bought a new one, but he couldn’t afford it. The best models couldn’t be had for any price: You had to have connections. After he was done with the feeling board he turned on the lights and spent a half-hour reading a quarterly journal of analytic philosophy, then another half-hour reading in German. He looked up when he heard a knock on the door.

A slender young man with all of his parts was standing on the other side of the office’s glass wall. The man waved tentatively and Renny shoved his book under a stack of papers, as if it was one of those dirty magazines showing giant penises sticking themselves into giant vaginas. Renny got up and opened the door a crack. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Platt. I work one floor up, in Strategy. Look, I know this might sound strange, but I’m an admirer of yours. I also come to work early, and sometimes when I’m down here getting a coffee—your machine makes better coffee than ours—I see you doing your exercises. You really put a lot of effort into it.”

Renny nodded slowly. “Thank you, I guess. I’m not trying to show off here or anything, just taking care of business. I didn’t notice anyone else here.”

Platt gave a funny smile that was too wide. He was wearing a diamond choker that lit up when he smiled. “There are a few of us who come early. I think it’s pretty common, you know, for people who want to stay in shape.”

Renny didn’t answer. He’d spent a lot of time thinking how stupid the majority of people were, and on the few occasions he met someone who agreed with him it made him feel uneasy. “Well, thanks for saying hello,” he said, and began to back away into his office.

“One thing I wanted to mention,” said Platt, leaning forward.

“Yes?”

“We have a kind of club, for people who work in the building and who want to stay whole. Called the Dawn Brigade. We meet every middle-week-day, right around, you know, dawn, on the roof. It’d be great if you could come by.”

Renny said something polite and closed the office door. He didn’t go that week, or the week after. When he told his therapist the man said, “It could be a good decision not to go, Renny. Sometimes, being around people who share our obsessions only makes those obsessions stronger, and harder to control.”

Renny thought of Sull’s smug face while he ran laps around his apartment, and while he copied drawings out of an old art book, and while he looked at his rank on the Valex and saw it was down another ten places.

At dawn the roof was cold and windswept. Renny saw a group of young people huddled by the side of a giant AC unit and walked over to them. Only Platt was like Renny, still with all his parts. The rest all had the usual little things missing here and there: a finger, an eye, or something else below the skin or in the skull. Renny was surprised to see Jesse there too. “I was panicking at how big an effect losing my advanced math was having,” she told him, “so I tried to go back to doing my reviews, but I couldn’t. You know how some people say that if you lose something you can get it back sometimes, but it didn’t work for me, at least. There’s just an empty hole in my head where that stuff used to be.” She laughed as if she was gathering herself together. “Now my new resolution is to keep as much as myself as I can for as long as I can.”

Platt called the meeting to order and introduced Renny. “To start us off today, I was thinking—as someone who’s been doing this a lot longer than any of us, maybe you could share some tips.”

Renny stared at them. “Well,” he began, “one thing I do is, I always keep a little metal disk in my pocket—you can get something like this at a hardware store—and when I have a few minutes to spare I do tricks with it using my hands and fingers, like this, see?” He showed them. “And every night before I go to bed I make sure to memorize a string of a hundred random numbers. Then I test myself in the morning.”

“What do you do,” said a short man with dyed teeth, “about the soft skills, like empathy?”

Renny nodded. “Those are hard. Novels can be good, or going to bars and making yourself listen to strangers—you know, imagine yourself living their lives, and that kind of thing.”

After the meeting, Jesse came up to him and asked if she could run with him sometimes. Her own apartment was too small to run in, and she didn’t want to try to do it outside and get a charge for inefficient activity. Soon she was coming over every evening after work. Renny also began to see more of Platt. Now, most mornings, the younger man would stop by his office, bringing a mug of coffee for Renny and chatting for a few minutes before heading back upstairs. Renny didn’t enjoy these visits, but he felt his ground for objecting was so weak that he couldn’t bring himself to avoid them.

“If I’m not putting too fine a point on it,” he told the therapist, “he thinks he’s better than me. He thinks I’m a nice guy and all, and he admires me for keeping in shape. But to him, if I had any balls I’d be out on the front lines, protesting the Biomatter Act or something. Firebombing clinics. Hell if I know.”

The therapist tapped on his desk with his pen, which meant he wanted you to think he was thinking. “So for this man Platt,” he said finally, “there can be no separation between the personal and the political?” The head smiled. “Maybe what you find distasteful is just your old nemesis, efficiency, presenting itself to you in another form. After all, if you think you have found the correct way to live, which is more efficient, from the perspective of utility: perfecting yourself or perfecting society?”

When Renny got home Jesse was waiting for him, and they ran their small laps together, barefoot to keep the neighbors from complaining. Afterwards Renny did his strength routine while Jesse sat at his desk and checked the Valex. Sometimes it worried him that she liked to rest after running, instead of working out with him. He didn’t want her to lose the strength in her core muscles, like the young people you sometimes saw creeping down the street, curled up like worms over their walkers. When he thought about her like that he felt tender. “Who’s got the first rank in marketing?” he asked, holding a plank.

“It’s still that Korean guy, Jee-sun Choi. Lately all my tagged categories are pretty static. Quela Allred is still best in personal charm, Drexel Phrase is still best in strength, Marne Smith is still best in engineering.”

Renny let his plank go and lay down on the floor, catching his breath. A drone drifted in the window, sniffed for biomatter to collect, and drifted back out. “It would be interesting,” said Renny finally, “if there was one big rank, in everything. Just, where does everyone rank in every category, averaged together.”

Jesse gave him a measuring look. “I don’t think I’d like that,” she said. “It’s enough of a pisser knowing how bad you are at one particular thing.”

A week later they would have slept together, but Jesse had lost the ability in her twenties, she told him. Renny tried to do what he imagined a gentle, sensitive person would do. Later he said, “I want to take you to meet my mother.”

That first-day-not-working they walked uptown to a small private clinic. This was where a good portion of Renny’s salary went. A doctor who was two giant hands and a head with a swollen cranium guided them down the hall to a wooden door with a small window set into it. Through the window they could see a cozy, sunlit room; a small bed stood against the wall and a head was lying there, attached to a feeding bag. It had no mouth and only slits for a nose, and no ears. Small swirls of salt-and-pepper hair swept out from under a snug pink bonnet, and beneath them were two thin eyebrows and two large, blue eyes. A pair of mechanical hands was holding a book up for the eyes to see. As Renny and Jesse watched, the eyes blinked once, and with a loud whir the hands deftly flipped the page.

Shortly afterwards Renny had his last conversation with Platt. Platt’s visits had been getting less frequent, but he still stopped by Renny’s office in the morning once a week or so. “Did you see the top news story on the Valex?” he asked.

“No,” said Renny, “tell me about it.”

Platt leaned against the wall. “A massive exposé on misappropriation of the biomatter,” he said. “Three members of the RulingBody were caught on tape with clonesof themselves.”

Renny shrugged. “Maybe they’ll get recycled, but then whoever replaces them will be just as corrupt, and nothing will change.”

Platt sighed and flopped into a chair. “If everyone has that attitude, then nothing can really change,” he said. “They tell us that for maximum efficiency all biomatter must go where it’s needed most. So what’s so efficient about duplicating some leech on the RulingBody?” He looked around. “How long have you been in this office?” he asked.

“About five, six years.”

Platt nodded. “Five or six years without a promotion. How many times have they passed you over?”

“A few.”

Platt ran a hand through his hair. “See, that’s the problem. I bet the guys who got promoted over you were all missing something.”

Renny nodded, thinking of Sull, fat and wormy like a grub.

“The problem is, the only people who get ahead now are the people missing arms and mouths, people who can’t see color, or taste anything anymore. That’swho our heroes are these days.”

Later, lying in bed next to Jesse, trying to feel her stomach muscles for soft spots without her noticing, Renny told her about how upset Platt had seemed. She turned toward him. “Do you know about his family?”

“What about them?”

“They’re rich, is all. Everything that’s so hard for us, he has help with. He’s got private tutors to make sure he reads books in foreign languages. He even has a machine that runs electricity through his muscles while he sleeps, to keep them fit. He’s an interesting guy, but I think he’s got a complex.”

He closed his eyes. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how he takes all of these issues so personally. Maybe I used to be that way, and I just got ground down. Do you think I’m avoiding some kind of duty?”

She shook her head. “No.”

A few days later Renny came back from lunch to find police tape blocking the entrance to the office. He went to a café, and saw footage from the office security camera playing on the Valex. It was a breaking news story, the first ranking news story of the hour. A group of workers were shown, standing near each other, probably gossiping. Text underneath them read: “Cherry Bomb International Internal Footage.” At the edge of the screen a man appeared moving quickly, awkwardly holding his jacket shut. He stumbled, caught his balance, and just as the other workers were turning toward him, he threw something: a large plastic bundle. It struck a woman in the chest and burst, splashing thick fluid all over her and the surrounding workers. Text flashed: “Man attacks co-workers with raw biomatter.” In the footage a man was lying in the center of a pool of fluid, trying to stand up as it sensed him and seeped into him. Tendons stood out on his neck. From the stump where his left arm used to be a new arm was growing, flapping and writhing. Platt was standing over the man, screaming at him. A voice spoke over the footage “Shown here is the man police have identified as the perpetrator, Frederick Platt. Witnesses report that that he was yelling ‘Why are you struggling? Why are you screaming? Don’t you want to be whole?’” The footage cut to a reporter.

Renny left the café without drinking his coffee. The police picked him up at his apartment that night.

They brought Jesse in the next day. At first she was left alone in her cell, if you could call it a cell. It was more a like a well-furnished studio apartment, with a comfortable bed, a bookshelf, and a small breakfast table. There was no clock to keep track of time, so she had no idea how long she had been waiting when two men, dressed in powder blue policing jumpsuits, let themselves in. Each was carrying a folding chair, and they opened them and sat down without speaking. Each had a face with only a single feature. The first had enormous drooping ears that looked like runnels of candle wax going down the sides of his head. The other had giant bulging eyes. She told them exactly what she knew and how she knew it. There was no point in holding back—either she was innocent or she was guilty, depending on how they wanted to frame it. The man with the bulging eyes asked the questions, and the man with the drooping ears took notes. After each question Ears would pass his notes to Eyes, who would read them and nod before asking the next item on the list.

Then there was another long period of solitude. Jesse began to feel anxious. It was hard to stay active in the small comfortable room. It might have been easier in a spartan cell.

The next person who visited her looked just as whole as Renny. He was slender and elegant, with a head of closed-cropped black hair and a crooked, flattened nose that whistled when he breathed in. Jesse had never seen anyone with a deformity before, and she couldn’t help staring, taking in the way the small changes to the lines of his nose affected the expression and feel of his face.

“Have you heard what your boyfriend is up to?” the man asked.

“You mean Renny? No,” said Jesse. “I don’t get any news in here.”

The man pulled a rolled up screen out of his pocket and flattened it out on the table. It was showing the Valex news rankings. Number four was Renny. He was on strike. “Oh no,” whispered Jesse. The video showed Renny sitting in complete stillness at the center of a cell that looked like hers. He must have been sitting like that for days, because parts of his hands and legs were missing. Jesse shook her head. “He’s so stupid.”

The man shrugged. “I don’t agree. Most action is waste. Just like all that running you two were doing. Yes, I read your statement. Do you know that running like that you burn off enough calories to feed a young child for a day? And for what? Just vanity. At least with no action, most of the biomatter eventually gets recycled.”

She went and sat on the soft bed. “You look pretty fucking fit,” she said.

The man began bouncing on the balls of his feet and shadowboxing. “I have to be,” he said, “in case I need to fight bad guys.”

He came back later. This time Renny was the first ranked news story, and she could see fluid running off of him like sweat on a hot day. Big parts of him weren’t falling off at once. He was just shrinking. He was collapsing into himself like rotten ice. Jesse looked at his eyes and tried to judge how much of his brain was left. Did he even know why he was doing what he was doing anymore? But the will remained. “Why don’t you release him? Release us?” Jesse asked the man.

“We were going to release both of you. Then he started this nonsense. We don’t think you knew anything about what Platt was going to do. You’re just someone with wrong-headed beliefs.”

“Can’t you at least stop them from filming him?”

The man made a pained expression. “Look at this jail cell,” he said. “If we are a security state, and I’m not saying we’re not, we’re definitely one on the down slope.”

Jesse held back from crying. When the man left she did her push-ups, squats, and planks. She made a model of the room in her head and practiced rotating it. She didn’t have willpower like Renny. But she was strong, too. He could only think in extremes. That was also a kind of brokenness.

Finally the time came for her to be let go. The man came back and led her through a twisting series of hallways. “I guess this means Renny is finished,” she said.

The man nodded and smiled. “He’s sent his matter back to help someone who can make better use of it.”

When they reached the door leading outside Jesse stopped and looked him up and down. “Don’t you worry that you’re holding yourself back, looking like that? Aren’t you worried about your next promotion?”

The man smiled. “No,” he said, “the rules work differently past a certain point.” Then he guided her through the door, which locked behind her with a dry click.

Outside it was cold and crisp. Jesse found herself standing on the sidewalk of an empty city street. The only other figure was a well-dressed man, walking slowly toward her. His hand clasped a gold-headed cane. When he passed her a single eye looked up at her wetly from the junction of his arm and his leg.

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the July 2013 issue, which also features original science fiction by Carlie St. George (“This Villain You Must Create”) and SF reprints by Margo Lanagan (“Mulberry Boys”) and Ryan North (“Cancer”). Plus, we have original fantasy by Adam-Troy Castro (“The Boy and the Box”) and Laura Friis (“Ushakiran”), along with fantasy reprints by Sophia McDougall (“Golden Apple”) and Ursula K. Le Guin (“The Stars Below”). All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with bestselling authors Hugh Howey and Austin Grossman. For our ebook readers, we also have the novella “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky” by John Langan and a excerpts of the new Shannara novel Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks and Interrupt by Jeff Carlson. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!