The Ghouls of Bangalore by Newton Webb
In the 25th Century, technology has changed lives.
But what it couldn't change is human greed.
New Bangalore, Alpha Centauri System
The air was pregnant with the scent of spiced protein cubes and the constant drone of the ever insufficient air filtration systems. Kleman strode down the metal gantry, his boots crunching through the garbage strewn across the lower decks of the New Bangalore colony. He reached his quarters. A vagrant had passed out on his doorstep, blocking the entry. Kleman could see an empty hex needle was still attached to his spine. Grunting, he nudged the body into the rest of the street trash. His door hissed open, the lights flickering on his apartment. Cartons of discarded ration packs lay stacked in the corner as he searched for a bottle of spirits that hadn’t been previously emptied. Finding a third of a bottle of uisge, he slumped into his gel chair with a glass. Thumping the wall, he caused a menu screen to illuminate. He filtered through the musical selection and found Paula’s favourite composer. Tinny music blared through recessed speakers. The notes fighting through the background sounds of the lower decks. Kleman glanced over at the corner and sighed.
“Yes, Paula, I’m late and yes, I’m drinking.” He took a hefty slug of uisge. “But it’s been a hell of a day. I need the uisge to help me think.”
There was no response. There never was these days.
“Oh, it’s like that, is it? Well, I guess the day can’t get any worse.”
He swilled his uisge around in his glass.
“I’d been cleaning the nutrient vats on level B. The posh ones.”
Kleman finished his drink, pouring another and ignoring the scorn that washed over him like a wave. “I’d had a drink. I need a bit these days to keep my hands steady, but I still dropped my scraper into one of the empty vats. Stupid, I know. But it gets worse. I jumped in to get it back and my feet slipped on the sludge at the bottom. I banged my head. Must have faded out for a bit.”
He turned his head and indicated a scabbed over bruise.
“Stupid. Stupid Kleman. Sometimes I think you married me as an act of charity. The only good thing in a long, messed up life.”
He filled his glass.
“Better lower my voice. Lucja will be sleeping. I’d like to see her before I sleep. The memory of her face is the light I see when I scrub the vats.”
He closed his sallow, sunken eyes. A sudden weariness came over him.
“I heard something, Paula. Something bad. A team had come in to feed the vats. The best protein paste comes from feeding meat to the microorganisms in the vats. Real meat, Paula. We aren’t even allowed to see it. They store it in a sealed freezer. See, I always thought it was from animals or even synthetically grown. You know, the bits they can’t serve as cuts to upper management. But I think I might be wrong. I don’t know. Sometimes I get confused. I see things or hear things that others don’t. The uisge helps it all make sense.”
He gulped down another slug.
“The workers were carrying something large. It took two of them to load it onto a cart. It was wrapped in some kind of an opaque film. But Paula, they referred to it as an expended asset. One of them tipped it from the cart into the vat and laughed, wondering who it was. Who Paula. Not what.”
He looked at the empty bottle.
“I can’t be sure, Paula, but I think they are feeding the vats people. I get so confused sometimes. But that is what I think.”
For a long while, his bleary eyes stared into space.
“Yes, yes. I know. I need to be sure. I have to know the truth. I don’t know why it matters to a cleaner, but it’s just not right. It doesn’t sit with me.”
He paused. His eyelids were heavy now.
“I’m going to say good night to Lucja now. Yes, yes, I’ll be quiet.”
Kleman stumbled to the back bedrooms. He carefully opened a small room to look upon a cot surrounded by dolls. A thick layer of dust shrouded everything in the room. He pulled the door gently shut and then collapsed onto his bed, sighing. He didn’t bother with the sheets. Two thumps from his fist shut down the music as he faded into sleep. Then the dreams started up again, visions of his past torturing him.
* * * * *
A buzzing sound cut through Kleman’s head like a knife. He thumped at the wall to silence the alarm. It snoozed three times until he eventually lumbered, cursing to the kitchen to shut it down. His hands were shaking and his head pounded. He fumbled around for a bottle and, not finding one, latched onto a can of StimJuice. The drink finally brought his brain to a state of wakefulness and he used that brief moment of clarity to find a new bottle of uisge from the cupboard. For a moment, he knew despair, his memories pulling at the corners of his mind. , teasing loose long-forgotten terrors. He shook his head and swigged from the bottle burying them in a fog of alcoholic oblivion. Looking up, he was relieved to see his family at the breakfast table. They never spoke to him. Why would they? He was a mess. His stomach wasn’t ready for breakfast, so he stuffed a packet of protein cubes into his pocket.
His hands and breathing were stable now. He took another pull from the bottle and then filled up his hip flask, so he had a drink ready for lunch.
The front door hissed open. Kleman slid down the street, barely noticing the effluence around him. Children were picking at the garbage and debris clustered around the walkways. Everything in New Bangalore was recycled hand me downs from the upper decks. They used machines and cleaners in the upper decks to clear the streets and reprocessing the materials. The trash wasn’t worth enough to justify it in the lower decks, so instead, it just clogged the colony’s corridors.
He was early for work. His previous life as an engineer had given him a great deal of respect for punctuality. Of course, that was when the monarchy had been in power. He never discussed politics, but he’d been a staunch monarchist. He’d liked to think that people were born to fill a role in life. He’d never bought into the lie that’s social mobility. The only direction Kleman travelled in was down. He didn’t mind, although he thought Paula deserved better. As a senior engineer, he’d been able to afford to live on a higher deck in the colony. They’d been able to eat the higher quality protein cubes, too, back then.
His thoughts darkened as he thought of the protein cubes being made in the vats. He needed to know. His suspicions gnawed at him. He swigged out of his flask and cursed. He needed to take it slow, or he would run out midway through the day. There was a limit to the size of the flask a man could conceal in his overalls.
The entrance to Derkin Hydroculture loomed at the end of the corridor. The huge armoured vault door was coated with a film of grease and dirt. It was cleaned daily, but the filth from the lower decks pervaded and infected everything that came into contact with it. His boots crunched as he trod on the chitin shell of one of the insects that had come to plague the colony. Kleman welcomed them. They were the only ones to bother reprocessing the filth.
He fumbled to find his entry pass. The vault door chimed as he swiped his card and then pressed his thumb into the DNA scanner. A series of beeps sounded, acting as a countdown before the vault doors slid open. He looked into the barrels of two armoured Prefects with shotguns levelled at his head.
He nodded dismissively. “Good morning Izydor, Good morning Miron.” Behind him, the door closed with a clunk.
“Arms up, prepare to be scanned.” One of the helmets replied. The integrated voice changers made it impossible to distinguish one Prefect from another.
He stood with his hands in the air as the walls beside him hummed. “Right you are then, lads,” he said. The humming stopped and the guns were lifted. The Prefects dismissed him with a nod in the direction of the exit. He strode past them with a wave. He wandered through the corridors to the locker room, where he retrieved his cleaning tools and then began his day’s work. The first hour was always spent doing the toilets on the executive floor. They needed to be immaculate before they arrived at the office. The cleaners had to be gone before management started their shift. It wouldn’t do for them to soil their eyes by seeing the likes of him.
Picking up his cleaners kit, he took the opportunity to take his old engineers toolkit and slip it into his trolley. Kleman needed to know. He didn’t know why but he felt an invisible will pulling him to the protein vats. Pulling him to the locked freezer. It was quiet now. He levered the plate of the locking mechanism from the wall and then rewired it to release the doors. He saw dozens of hanging sacks and, pulling out his multi-tool, Kleman tore one of them open.
He didn’t gasp.
He didn’t cry out.
He’d known deep down what he was going to find.
He’d also known precisely what he was going to do about it.
* * * * *
Music blasting through his cochlear implants, Trevor strode through the gleaming chrome doors. They parted before him with the merest of whispers. The receptionists smiled, their happiness never quite reaching their eyes as they waved at him. He graced them with a curt nod. Brushing an imaginary piece of lint off his suit, he entered the lift and pushed a button for the top floor. Sneering at the control panel, he pulled out a bottle of antibacterial gel and swiftly rubbed off any germs. The lifts should be voice-activated like his transport.
A gentle instrumental played as the soft scent of sandalwood wafted from hidden vents. When Trevor emerged on the top floor, his new secretary Janice rose and bowed her head.
“Get me a StimJuice, Janice.” He paused, wrinkling his face with disgust. “Wait.” He stalked towards her. “Have you been crying? How dare you? I told you before, you look so ugly when you cry. Sort your face out, then get me my drink.”
Marching through the double doors to his office, they slid shut behind him as he mentally committed to replacing Janice with a more mentally stable subordinate. His desk loomed in front of him. It was made of genuine mahogany, a rarity of staggering expense. Reaching for a decanter of single malt uisge, he swore. It was half empty. Someone had been stealing his imported uisge. He spun, eyes flaring with rage. In the corner by the doors sat a cleaner, a filthy, ragged cleaner in his office. His gaze lowered to see a glass of his uisge in his hairy, unkempt hands. He shivered with rage, his anger blooming red as he pointed a finger like a weapon.
“You’re fired! I’ll see you destroyed for this! You imbecilic gibbon.”
The cleaner stood and strode towards him, his eyes dead. He placed the glass on the desk with a resounding thud. “Sit down,” he commanded.
Trevor’s mouth flapped. For the first time in a long time, he felt physically intimidated. He spun and tried to open the doors. They stubbornly refused to open.
Trevor looked incredulously at the simpleton who stood watching him, eyes glowering. “Do you know who I am?” he demanded.
“That is why I’m here. I have questions for you.”
Questions? “Who the hell do you think you are? Questions!” Racing to his desk, he hammered on the intercom. “Security to my office, now!”
“They won’t get through that door any time soon. I said I have questions.”
Trevor reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a gauss pistol. “Questions? The only question you need to ask is, why shouldn’t I pull the trigger and pop your head like a ripe melon. Do you want to fucking die? What do you think of that?”
The oaf wasn’t bright enough to be scared, that, or too drunk. “The protein vats. I think you are feeding them human bodies.”
“That is a statement, not a question, you idiotic peasant. Besides, you are a cleaner. The slop you are issued with is far too low grade to be ‘protein enriched’.” Trevor chuckled. “You come to my office and make demands? Ruining your life will become my personal pet project.”
“You can’t hurt me. Not really.” The cleaners, tiny dull eyes tracked him. Trevor stepped forwards and made if to pistol whip the man. But then, when the man cocked his head curiously at him, Trevor jerked back as if stung. He aimed his pistol at the cleaners head again. “So you do feed human bodies to the protein vats.”
Trevor sneered, “The mid-tier vats, those who are valuable enough to warrant good nutrition but not valuable enough to warrant genuine meat. It is not like you’d ever get any.”
“I used to be a senior engineer.”
“And then what happened? You fucked up somehow, didn’t you?” A malicious grin spread across Trevor’s face. Looking at the man’s badge number, he keyed it into his console. “Kleman, stupid name. Drunk on duty, demoted, oh, look at this.” Trevor cackled. Kleman had taken the bottle now and collapsed back on his chair. “Oh, this is magnificent. You come in here full of anger and righteous indignation. Your wife, your fucking wife, got cancer. At a cleaners grade, the medication we hand out is just sugar pills.” Kleman’s eyes narrowed. He remained silent even as his face darkened. Trevor tightened his grip on his pistol. “Don’t move.” Kleman remained seated, pouring himself more uisge. “Your drinking ruined your life and didn’t just kill your wife. It fed your supervisor. Oh, this is wondrous.” Trevor snorted and leaned back, his hands on his hips. “Look at you, so angry and yet there is nothing, nothing that you can do.”
Trevor nodded, finished his glass and stood up.
“Sit the fuck back down. Sit down!”
“I don’t need to do anything. I already did it. Shoot me if you like.” Kleman tossed the ammunition clip over to Trevor.
Numbly Trevor checked his pistol. It had been unloaded the whole time.
“What have you done?”
“The intercom, I rewired it. It’s been broadcasting through the announcement speakers.”
Trevor turned to the windows. Already the first fires had started as riots started across the colony. “What have you done.” He said numbly as Kleman returned to his seat with another glass.
“Ruined my life. Reckon you’ve done worse, though.” Kleman looked at the almost empty bottle. “Wouldn’t hold out for security, reckon they’ve got bigger problems.”
Trevor didn’t respond. He just watched through the window in horror.
The fires were getting larger.
The fires were getting closer.