Project XYZ: Chapter 2
This is the second chapter in a series co-written by misslinda and Chillbear Latrigue. To read the first chapter, click here. © 2012 misslinda and Chillbear Latrigue.
Nick Moore dragged a one hundred pound bag of feed to the trough. He had another four hours until the Y-Workers returned to the warehouse, but the slurry needed time to thicken. When the feed didn’t sit long enough, it ran right through them. Nick learned this the hard way and never made that mistake again.
He leaned the burlap sack over the edge of the trough, pulled a switchblade out of his front pocket, and in one fluid motion slashed the top of the bag open. The grayish beige feed looked like rancid oatmeal and kicked up dust when it hit the bottom of the bin. It didn’t have much of a smell until it was mixed with water, which is why Nick waited until the last possible moment to mix the slurry. Once wet, the feed’s odor was somewhere between a dentist’s office and rotting beef.
The feedbag was labeled “Y-Worker Nutritional Supplement/Treatment” and contained warnings that it was “Not For Human Consumption” and “If you accidentally ingest more than a teaspoon full, induce vomiting and contact a POISON CONTROL center immediately.” Yet even with the warnings, Nick still tried some on a dare. He and his coworker, Ray, each took a spoonful just to see what it tasted like. It was so putrid that Nick began retching and spit it out onto the concrete floor, but Ray somehow managed to keep it down. Their curiosity abated, they never tried it again.
Nick had been offered bribes for a sample of the feed by everyone from Amnesty International to the Humane Society, but turned them all down out of fear of losing his job. He had no idea what was in it other than some sort of protein and a medication that keeps the Ys from progressing into full-blown Zeros, and the Ys ate it up like it was candy. If he let them stick their heads directly into the trough, those dumb bastards would drown themselves in slurry. To save them from their own stupidity, Nick sealed the trough with a tight-fitting lid and the Ys would drink the slop through thick plastic tubes that stuck out of the top. The tubes had to be replaced after each round of feeding or they’d get clogged with dried up feed.
“Hey Ray, hit the water,” Nick shouted.
Ray was walking along the catwalk above the warehouse. “Do it yourself, I’m up here,” he shouted back.
“What the hell are you doing up there? We’ve got shit to do.”
“I’m looking for something.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? How the hell did you lose your gun up there?”
“No, jackass. I lost it down there. Figured I’d get a better view.”
The warehouse was sixty feet wide by one hundred and twenty feet long. A row of six ten-by-ten steel-caged pens ran along one side of the warehouse, with a twenty-foot food trough and a row of storage cabinets along the other. The pens were open on the top, and the doors opened and closed electronically. The main control panel for the pens was located in the office space at the back of the warehouse, but there was also a secondary control panel in the catwalk above. Nick also kept a remote control on him at all times. Whenever the Y-Workers were feeding, Nick and Ray were supposed to be in the office watching on surveillance cameras. But, that wasn’t always practical since they often had to enter the warehouse section to swap out clogged feeding tubes or clear a spot at the trough so that the smaller Ys could get their meals.
The Y-Workers ate in groups of twelve, so only manageable amounts were out of their pens at one time. They never bothered Nick so long as there was still food in the trough, but once the food was gone, they started ambling around. Once that happened, Nick used his remote to turn a buzzer on in an empty pen. The Ys were attracted to sound, and the noise lured them back into their cage. Once inside, Nick would hit a button on the remote that closed the doors and started the head count. If the Ys were returned to the warehouse late, Nick would start the head count while the last few groups were feeding. When that happened, he relied upon Ray to get them to and from their pens.
Head counts were done three times a day from the catwalk above the pens. The first took place just before dawn. That number was logged in and given to the field crew at the time the Y-Workers were transferred to their control. Any injured Y-Workers were kept behind at the warehouse. It was Nick’s job to do the paperwork and call in the Y-Worker Repair Technician to determine if an injured Y could be salvaged, or if it needed to be sent to the disposal facility. That morning, the night crew transferred a full house of 120 Y-Workers with no visible injuries to the field crew. When Nick looked at the paperwork, he saw that eighty Ys were sent out into the pecan fields for harvesting; thirty Ys were sent to the shelling factory; and ten Ys were sent to the packing and shipping facilities.
The second head count was done by the field crew midway through the workday, and Nick did the third when the Ys were returned to the warehouse. If Nick’s numbers matched the field crew’s count, Nick and Ray could leave at the end of the shift. For as long as Nick had been working at the warehouse, the numbers always matched.
While Ray navigated the catwalk looking for his gun, Nick prepped the feed. He turned on the hose and began mixing the slurry using aluminum canoe paddles. They were lightweight, and the paddles were sharp enough that in a pinch, they could double as weapons. The night shift also used the paddles as hockey sticks, but Nick and Ray never had time to screw around.
“Find it yet?” Nick shouted as he turned off the water.
“No, you?” Ray replied.
“No, it’s not at the bottom of this reeking pile of ass meat I’ve been working on for the past twenty minutes while you do your best Mary Lou Retton impression.”
“Forget it. No, Ray, I didn’t find your goddamned gun. If you need me to stop working and help you save your ass again, just say the word.”
“Nope, I see it. It’s there, next to the toolbox.”
“Fucking asshole,” Nick muttered.
Nick and Ray got along well enough, but Ray never seemed to take the job very seriously. There were risks that went along with Y maintenance, and Nick and Ray had to rely on each other for their own safety. The company issued them each a firearm for a reason, and a loose gun in a warehouse full of Ys could be disastrous. Unlike Ray, Nick had Level Three Y Workforce Safety Certification. He was taught to expect the unexpected from the Ys. They used to be regular people, and there was no telling what they knew how to do in their former lives. Since they retained some amount of cognitive memory, there was no guarantee that a Y wouldn’t know how to shoot a gun, or start a car, or climb a ladder. Nick knew that loosing a gun in the warehouse three hours before the Ys returned from the fields was dangerous. Ray, however, only saw it as an inconvenience.
Ray clattered along the metal beams above the warehouse until he found one of the retractable ladders near the front entrance. After reaching the ground, he left the ladder in the down position. Nick, already aggravated by the misplaced gun, shook his head in disgust. Ray wasn’t just making Nick’s job harder—he was jeopardizing their safety.
“Could you at least put the goddamned ladder back, Ray?” Nick yelled. “For Christ’s sake, this place is going to be crawling with Ys in a couple of hours. Can you at least try to give a crap?”
“Jesus, fuck you, Nick, I was gonna do it,” Ray snapped back as he slid the ladder into place.
Nick and Ray spent the rest of the afternoon preparing the warehouse in silence. Nick finished mixing the feed while Ray hosed down the pens. While the feed was thickening, Nick retreated to the back office to catch up on some paperwork. Two days ago, the field crew brought back four injured Ys. Three were in such bad shape that they were immediately shipped out for disposal, while one was sent out for repairs. It was returned the next day, along with three fresh replacements. Nick still hadn’t logged in the replacements or assigned them numbers, and he needed to submit a report on each newbie to the corporate office: size, condition, estimated age (human), estimated age (Y), general abilities, task recommendations, and any other unique feature Nick discovered during his initial assessment. After about eight months on the job, Nick began to doubt that anybody even read the reports. But, he filled them out anyway, happy for any excuse to be away from the pens.
When Nick emerged from the office, the pens were spotless, the buckets and mops were all put away, the lid was snapped onto the trough, and a dozen fresh feeding tubes were sticking out of what could accurately be described as the world’s worst cocktail.
“Darrell called, they’re on their way back,” Ray said as he slid open the front doors. “Full house, too. Two injured, but nothing serious. Arms.”
“It’s about fucking time, they’re running behind. Did you say two injured? Great. More goddamned paperwork,” Nick replied.
“I already called the repair guy, he’ll be here in a couple of hours. Darrell said they just looked dislocated, no breaks, so they should only have to sit out one shift, maybe two. I can start on the paperwork if you want.”
“Oh. Yeah, thanks. Forms are in my file cabinet under ‘Repairs,’ just let me see them before you fax anything over.”
The entire front of the warehouse opened up so that the field crew could herd the Ys in like cattle. But instead of horseback, they drove pickup trucks. The field crew was cocky. The foreman, Darrell, would drive his truck right into the warehouse, between the pens and the food trough. That pissed Nick off. It was hard enough keeping the warehouse clean without the dust and grime from Darrell’s truck, but it also crammed the Ys up against Nick’s office in the back of the warehouse, leaving a rancid smell in the office area. It also made it harder for Nick to evenly distribute the Ys in their pens since they were all clumped together. When Nick first started at the warehouse, he would ask Darrell to leave his truck outside. But Nick noticed that it only made him drive the Ys deeper into the warehouse, so eventually he stopped asking.
When Darrell and his crew brought the Ys back that evening, the two with the dislocated arms were tied together with rope. Ray grabbed the end of the rope and led the injured Ys into the holding pen closest to the office while Nick distributed the rest of the Ys in the remaining cages.
“You got a head count for me, Darrell?” Nick asked.
“I already told Ray. Two broken, but a full house,” he answered as he began to back his truck out of the warehouse. “See you ladies tomorrow.”
Nick brushed off Darrell’s remark and got to work feeding the Ys, one pen at a time. To save time, Nick climbed up the ladder to the catwalk while the Ys were eating and began the headcount. It was a task that required concentration since it involved counting up the bodies as they moved around in their pens. The Ys were hungry and could smell their feed, so they were especially agitated. Nick counted the Ys one pen at a time, stopping only to yell down to Ray when a group of Ys had finished feeding.
When he finished counting and climbed down from the catwalk, the last Ys were feeding at the trough. Nick walked past them, carefully, and into the office. He closed the door and added up the Ys in his head. “Two injured, plus twelve at the trough, plus ten in the third pen, plus fourteen, plus twelve, plus ten, plus eleven, plus twelve, plus twelve again, plus thirteen, plus eleven is…one hundred and nineteen. Shit.” Nick added up his numbers a second time using a calculator, but he still came up one short.
“Hey Ray, I’m going to need you to get up there and tell me how many Ys you got,” he said.
“Are you serious? You want me to count those fuckers again?” Ray replied, not moving from his seat.
“Yeah, I need you to count. I came up short.”
“Guess I should’ve left the ladder down, huh?”
“Ray, just shut the fuck up and get up there so we can go home, alright?”
“Fine. But you’re going to have to get the last batch into their pen,” Ray shot back as he got out of his chair, grabbed a pen and paper, and headed out to the warehouse.
The night shift arrived just as Ray reached the ladder.
“The headcount is off and there are two with fucked up arms in the last pen,” Ray informed them. “I’ll be down in a minute, Nick’s in the back, and the repair guy is on his way.”
The two guys from the night shift headed to the office as Ray climbed the ladder to start the recount. He was tired. It had been a long shift, and Nick was breathing down his neck the entire time. He knew how many Ys there should be—120, a full house—but when he finished the recount, he only had 119, including the two injuries.
“Fuck it. There’s probably a junior hiding in a corner somewhere,” Ray muttered to himself. “Hey Nick!” he shouted from above, “How many you got?”
“One nineteen. You?”
“One twenty, asshole. I’m coming down.”
With all of the Ys accounted for, Nick and Ray handed their guns over to the night shift foreman, and went home.