Andy loaded the body into the back of the van, then slammed the door.
“Last one,” he called out, knocking on the rear door with his knuckles. The van’s engine started up with a roar. Its tailpipe shuddered, enveloping Andy in a swirl of exhaust. He coughed and waved the noxious fumes away from his face. Thanks, asshole, he thought.
As he moved around to the passenger side, Andy swiped his finger along the length of the filthy white van, creating a wobbly clean streak under the faded Chargers Inc. logo. The “I” in “Inc.” was a lightning bolt with an electrical plug at the bottom. It reminded him of the logo for the Los Angeles Chargers, his father’s favorite football team back when Andy was still a kid. Back when football —and Los Angeles—was still around.
Andy yanked the door open and hauled himself into the van. His weight squeaked down on the threadbare seat. The springs dug cruelly into his aching back. He pulled the door shut, then took off his Chargers Inc. work cap and massaged the sore red line it left on his forehead.
The driver, Barry, a rough-hewn, heavy-set man in his mid-40’s, snatched the hat from Andy’s hand.
“You gotta break it in,” he said. He pulled on the bowl of the hat, stretching it outwards in each direction, then tossed it back at Andy. It rolled off his lap and onto the floor.
“Thanks,” Andy mumbled.
As he bent down to pick it up, the thick muscles in his back cried out in protest. It had been a long day, with a lot of lifting. He was young and strong, and he had worked plenty of jobs that required manual labor. This one was different though. Lifting bodies wasn’t like lifting boxes. Boxes were symmetrical. Structured. You could lift properly: squat down, straighten your spine, lift with your legs. Bodies were limp. Awkward. Their limbs flopped in odd directions. He still hadn’t figured out the best way to lift one without damaging it. Or himself. Or both.
The Help Wanted listing Andy had answered promised on-the-job training, but he hadn’t gotten any. He was just thrown into the deep end on his first day. Barry showed up in front of his apartment building, picked him up, and that was it. Ten minutes later, they were hauling bodies into the van.
Andy considered calling in a report to the main Chargers Inc. number while Barry was on a shit break, but then he decided against it. Better not to be flagged as a complainer on your first day, he figured. He’d get the hang of it eventually. He just hoped his back would hold up in the meantime. Besides, it was way better than his last gig.
At least nobody was shooting at him at this one.
Andy flapped the dust from his hat, then put it back on his head. It fell low and loose over his ears, the bill tipping down to cover his eyes.
“Better?” Barry asked as he shifted the van into gear.
Andy tipped the hat back so he could see. It fell over his eyes again. He turned it around backward instead.
“Perfect,” he replied.
“Should be coming up on the right,” Andy said.
He consulted the digital map on the grimy tablet mounted on the van’s dashboard. Small yellow lightning bolt icons were scattered around the map. A different icon representing the van moved along the road, towards one of the lightning bolts.
Andy squinted through the van’s windshield, searching for the target in the fading evening light. It was near dark, but the street lights hadn’t turned on yet. Deep shadows filled the doorways and alleys.
He consulted the map again. The van icon had moved past the lightning bolt.
“Shit. We missed it.”
Barry slammed on the brakes, throwing Andy hard against the seatbelt. He threw his hands against the dashboard to brace himself.
“Goddamn it, kid,” Barry growled. He put the van into park, then looked at Andy. He raised his eyebrows, waiting. “Well?”
“Can you back up?”
“Can you back up?” Barry whined, mocking him. “I’m sure you can find it.”
Andy took a deep breath, held it for a second, then exhaled slowly. “Thanks, boss.”
Andy climbed out of the van and shut the door.
“Fucking dick,” he mumbled under his breath.
The guy was useless; he did nothing. The orientation video on the Chargers Inc. website had said partners were supposed to trade off on each pickup: one person picks up the bodies, the other stays in the van to protect the merchandise. Then, on the next stop, they were supposed to switch. But Barry never moved from the van, not once the whole day. Didn’t even try. He just sat there scrolling on his phone while Andy did all the work.
Andy knew Barry was taking advantage of the fact that he was the new guy, but Andy didn’t dare challenge him. The man was clearly an old-timer, had been with the company for years. You could tell just by looking at his hat. It was rumpled and misshapen and was faded to a dull grayish-blue. The Chargers Inc. logo was barely even visible anymore. If it came down to a choice of who to believe, it was clear who the company would side with. Then Andy would be out of a job. One he needed, badly. He hadn’t worked in almost a year. He couldn’t afford to fuck it up.
The van was stopped in an industrial area of town. The streets and sidewalks were ill-maintained, with crumbling potholes threatening to break any ankle or axle that got too close, too fast. Some of the buildings were still pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel scars from the war. Rusty chain link fences topped with coils of barbed wire sealed off the lots between buildings. Crooked signs warned of armed Sentinels patrolling the premises.
Andy walked down the street behind the van, to the entrance of a large warehouse. Seemed like the right place. Sure enough, the bright blue Chargers Inc. storage locker was just inside the entryway. Andy swiped his keycard through the reader. The locker doors slid open on their air rails with a crisp whoosh. The fluorescent lights inside flickered to life.
Andy said a little prayer of thanks. There was only one body standing inside, a smaller-issue model. Probably a Tech. It was a relief. A lot of the bodies they had picked up from their manufacturing and industrial clients were Workers or Sentinels. Those were big. Muscular. And heavy.
So goddamned heavy.
Andy put his hand on the body’s shoulder and pulled it forward, preparing to lift it.
“Hello,” the body said.
Andy jumped backward, startled. The body smiled, then froze. The light in its eyes dimmed, then darkened. Its chin dropped to its chest.
Andy exhaled, his heartbeat returning to normal. Still a little charge left in it, I guess.
He still wasn’t used to being near the damn things, even after hauling them around all day. They were creepy as hell. Looked just like real people. Felt like them too. The technology had come a long way since the awkward, dead-eyed sex robots that people used to hide in their basements a decade ago. Not that Andy had any direct experience with those. He’d heard stories though. Had seen the videos too, back in the day.
He reached out for the body again. This time, it remained quiet. Just to be safe, Andy pressed the soft spot on its skull behind its right ear, holding it for 10 seconds to make sure it was fully powered down. Then he ducked his shoulder into the body’s abdomen and hoisted it over his shoulder.
“Alright, buddy,” he grunted as he carried the body back to the van. “Let’s get you home.”
Andy and Barry drove in silence for a little while. Andy debated internally whether it was worth striking up a conversation. He decided he should. If he was going to have to work with the guy, he might as well try to be friendly. Maybe the old fucker would warm up.
“How long you been with the company?” Andy asked.
“Too long,” Barry replied.
Andy nodded. They lapsed back into silence. Barry drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
Andy decided to try again.
“So, we take these back to the shop, and then what? Charge them up, bring them back?”
“How come people don’t just charge them themselves, on-site?”
“Can’t. Syntech won’t let ’em. Charging’s a big business. Sort of a razor and blades things.”
“Hmm. Smart,” Andy nodded. He peered through the cab window into the cargo hold, where dozens of bodies were piled up. “They’re weird, aren’t they? Creepy.”
“You ever have one yourself?”
Barry gave him a look like he was crazy. “I look like a millionaire to you?”
“I thought maybe there’s, you know, an employee discount or something.”
Barry’s jaw tightened. “I got a wife.”
“Oh!” Andy exclaimed, realizing the misunderstanding. “No, I wasn’t implying— I meant a Maid, like for chores or whatever.”
Barry didn’t respond.
Andy tried to change the subject. “Anyway, they’re pretty incredible. I don’t know how they make ’em so real like that. They’re practically human.”
Barry laughed. He glanced at Andy. “You’re serious?”
“What?” Andy asked, confused.
“Man,” Barry said, shaking his head. “Guess you didn’t get hired for your brains. At least you can lift. You work out?”
“Not bad. You’re how old?”
“Huh. Me too. Marines.” Barry knocked on his thigh. It made a hollow sound.
Andy glanced down. For the first time, he noticed the titanium rod extending from Barry’s pants cuff into his boot. An artificial leg.
No wonder he never gets out of the van, Andy thought. He felt like an asshole.
“Shit. I didn’t know. What happened?”
“Confederate drone. Battle of Chicago.”
Barry shrugged. “Could’ve been worse. How about you? You made it out in one piece?”
“Mostly.” Andy unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it up his arm, revealing a thick, horizontal scar across his bicep. “Sniper. Los Angeles. I turned just as he fired. Got Medevac’d out two hours before the bomb hit. Saved my ass.”
Barry whistled. He glanced over as Andy slid his sleeve back down. He noticed the distinctive tattoo on Andy’s forearm, a stylized skull under a banner bearing the words Kill. Bathe. Repeat.
“Special Forces, huh?” Barry said, indicating the tattoo.
“Guess I shouldn’t piss you off.”
Andy laughed. “No, probably not.”
Barry laughed too. A genuine laugh. Andy felt something thaw between them.
Maybe he’s not so bad after all, Andy thought.
As if to prove the point, Barry flipped open the van’s center console and withdrew a dented metal flask. He unscrewed the cap, then handed it to Andy.
Andy took the flask. He began to lift it to his lips, then paused. He looked at Barry skeptically.
“This a test?”
“Nah. We’re off the clock.”
“Alright, then.” Andy lifted the flask in a little salute. “Cheers.” He swallowed the bitter-tasting liquid, then handed the flask back to Barry. Barry motioned for him to keep it.
“So?” Andy asked, taking another swig. “You got me curious. How does Syntech make them?” He nodded towards the bodies in the back of the van.
Barry cleared his throat. “Well, let’s see.” He began counting off on his fingers. “The economy’s shit. Cities haven’t been rebuilt. There are no jobs. There’s no money. People are desperate.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So imagine: you’re broke, you can’t pay your bills, your kids are hungry. Then a Syntech rep shows up at your door and says, ‘We’ll write you a check, right here, right now. Enough to set your family up for life. Your wife, your kids—they’ll never want for anything else as long as they live.’ You’d take that deal, right?”
“I— Maybe? … I don’t know. I’d have to think about it.”
“Ah, that’s the catch. You get two minutes. One-time offer. Take it or leave it.”
“Wow, no pressure,” Andy chuckled. “I’m assuming it’s not free money, right? What do I have to do in return?”
Barry looked at Andy out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to connect the dots. After a few seconds, Andy drew in a sharp breath.
“Oh. Oh, shit! You’re serious? Those are real people back there?”
“I thought Syntech built synthetics.”
“They do. But not for everything. When it comes to the tough, dangerous jobs, real people are better.”
“Really? How so?”
“They’re cheap, for one. Relatively, at least. There’s nothing to manufacture, nothing to repair. Just the neural compute device. Implant one in the skull, wire it up, recharge weekly, done. Easy peasy.”
Andy was dumbfounded. He had no idea. He looked back through the cabin window again. All those things are people, he marveled. Then he corrected himself. Were people.
“So how much does Syntech pay? Must be a shitload.”
“Depends. Low end, for a Maid or a Tech, it’s maybe a hundred grand. Military-grade, Sentinels? A million, million two. Maybe more. ’Course Syntech makes that back tenfold.”
Andy whistled, shaking his head in disbelief. He yawned. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Didn’t expect to be this tired.” He twisted his torso to crack his back. His spine popped like a line of firecrackers. “That’s wild. People are actually volunteering to be, what, roboticized? Is that even a word? Wow.”
“Yep. Most of them.”
“Wow,” he said again. “Shit’s crazy.” He rolled over this new information in his mind in silence for a bit, then took another swig of whiskey. “You said ‘most’. Not all?”
Barry glanced over at Andy, then turned his eyes back to the road.
“There are all kinds of people in the world, kid. Some good, some bad.”
“So, Syntech is buying. People are selling.”
“Selling … what? Other people?”
“Ding-ding-ding! Give the man a prize.”
“Fuuuuck.” Andy shook his head, uncomprehending. “How does someone just go and sell another person?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s like slavery or something.”
“There’s all kinds of ways,” Barry answered. “You got POWs, of course, from the camps. That’s easy. Low-hanging fruit. Their health is shit though. Most of ’em die pretty quick. Then you got kidnappers, grabbing people off the street. That’s unreliable though. Never know what you’re getting. Sometimes a family member sets someone up. A brother, an uncle. A neighbor. Then you got others who treat it more like a business, who’ve gotta be clever.”
Andy rubbed his eyes. His eyeballs suddenly felt fat. Heavy. He looked at the flask in his hand, then up at Barry. The driver’s face swam in and out of focus.
“For example, someone could put out a Help Wanted ad,” Barry continued. “Find some young guy who needs work. Test him out, see how strong he is.”
Andy’s head rolled backward on his neck. He strained to pull it upright. His skull felt like a bowling ball on a pipe cleaner. The flask slipped from his fingers.
“You know what’re the hardest to find?” Barry continued. “Sentinels. They’ve gotta be young, tough, military-trained. Sell one of those, you’re set for life.”
Andy’s chin slumped against his chest. His hat fell off his head and onto his lap.
Barry put on his blinker, then pulled up to the front gate of a sprawling industrial complex. The security guard stepped out of his booth. The Syntech logo glowed green on his uniform. He checked his clipboard, then bent down and looked in through Barry’s window.
“Evening, Barry,” the guard said. “Another volunteer?”