Content Warning: Kidnapping
Mahender perked up as the door slid open with a shrill beep. He covered his ears as the thundering of the fans and machinery outside shook the room. After sitting alone at his desk watching security camera feeds for almost four hours, he welcomed any distraction.
Mr. Gibson burst into the room, looking even more red-faced than usual. He hauled two fabs into the room behind him, holding them by their wrists.
The door slid shut, silencing the white-noise roar. Mr. Gibson pulled off his yellow protective headphones, threw them onto Mahender’s desk, and turned to the fabs with a scowl.
“Hello, Gibbo,” said Mahender. “It’s lovely to see you too. How can I help you?”
Some of the other guards had nicknamed Mr. Gibson ‘Gibbo’. Mahender had taken to calling him Gibbo too, mostly because it irritated him. Irritating Mr. Gibson was one of the few entertaining parts of his job.
Mr. Gibson ignored him. He was facing away, but Mahender could tell from Mr. Gibson’s stance he was glowering at the two fabs he’d dragged in.
“What the hell was that?” he said.
The fab he’d addressed–st98 according to his jumpsuit–avoided eye contact, his hands twitching as his fingers tapped against his leg.
Mahender was surprised to see a fab looking so nervous. He’d never interacted with one before, but Mr. Gibson had told him they were mindless automatons. He hadn’t even known they could get nervous.
“What… what was what, sir?” said 98.
98 jumped a little as he spoke, as though the sound of his own voice startled him.
Maybe it did. After all, he did spend all his time bombarded by the ear-splitting roar of the fans and air handling systems.
“Those hand signs you were doing,” said Mr. Gibson. “What the hell was that?”
98 grew paler, his fingers tapping a faster, more irregular rhythm against his leg.
“We developed hand signals as a way to communicate in our loud work environment–“
Mr. Gibson scoffed.
“Communicate? What the hell do you have to communicate about? Just do your bloody jobs.”
“Sir,” said 98. “We usually work alone, it’s true, but sometimes we have to… to convey things to one another, and the hand signals can be a good way to–“
“If you were meant to convey things, you would’ve been designed to convey things. You lot are basically monkeys; you don’t need to communicate anything with hand signs!”
“Monkeys can learn sign language,” interjected Mahender.
Mr. Gibson whipped around, turning his scowl on Mahender.
“If I wanted input from the peanut gallery, Henry, I would’ve asked for it.”
Henry? Seriously? Mahender was used to people butchering his name, but Mr. Gibson didn’t even try.
“My name’s not Henry.”
“You work for me. You’re called Henry if I bloody well say you are.”
Ugh. Mr. Gibson was really something else.
“I don’t believe that’s how names work.” Mahender leaned back in his chair. “Also, I don’t even work for you, I work for a third-party company.”
Mr. Gibson’s face reddened.
“Be that as it may, I have the authority to terminate your employment if I deem it necessary.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I may not have direct authority to terminate you, but I will be speaking to your supervisor at Melbourne Majestic Security about your insubordinate behavior.”
Mahender had only heard that threat about a thousand times.
“Good luck telling him who I am,” he said. “You can’t even get my name right.”
Mr. Gibson gave him a final scowl, then whipped back around to face 98 and 59.
“I’m getting distracted from the matter at hand. You two were using hand signals. Why?”
Mahender wasn’t sure what the problem was. So what if the fabs were using hand signals? It was impossible to hear anything out there. Hand signals seemed like a good idea.
Not that it was surprising Mr. Gibson was making a big deal over it. He was always on some kind of power trip with the fabs, pulling them into the soundproofed rooms to yell at them, or making them do pointless things like line up in numerical order.
“Sir,” said 98. “As I said, it helps to be able to communicate when we’re working together on certain–“
“That’s enough out of you,” said Mr. Gibson. “But I noticed it’s been awfully quiet.”
Mr. Gibson turned his glower on the second fab–59, according to his jumpsuit.
98’s eyes met Mr. Gibson’s for the first time in a wide-eyed stare. If he’d looked nervous before, he was terrified now.
“Well, 59? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Some of 98’s fear crept into 59’s expression. He didn’t respond.
“Sir,” said 98. “I think–“
Mr. Gibson slammed his hand onto the desk behind him, startling Mahender. 98 flinched at the sound, but 59 didn’t.
“I don’t give a good goddamn what you think, fab. I wasn’t talking to you.” He fixed his glare on 59. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
59 was silent.
“Well? Answer me!”
59 still didn’t respond. Mr. Gibson stepped forward, his round face a shade of purple-red. He slapped his hands together centimeters from 59’s face, and the sound was loud enough to make both Mahender and 98 jump.
“Answer me!” Mr. Gibson bellowed in 59’s ear.
59 shrunk back, but didn’t flinch at the noise. It was as though he hadn’t even heard it.
“I don’t think he can hear you, Gibbo,” said Mahender.
Mr. Gibson wheeled around to face him.
“What the hell do you mean you don’t think it can hear me? Of course it can hear me!”
“Well, it’s very loud out there, and the fabs are always out there without any ear protection, so maybe–“
“Their eardrums are designed to withstand sustained sound pressure levels of up to 190 decibels, you idiot–“
“There’s no need for name calling,” said Mahender.
“The only way a fab would have any sort of hearing loss would be if there was a defect in its genetic…”
Mr. Gibson trailed off before he finished his sentence. All color had drained from 98’s face.
“A defect in its genetic code,” finished Mr. Gibson.
“Mr. Gibson. Sir, please,” said 98.
Mr. Gibson sighed.
“A defective fab,” he grumbled. “This is just what I need right now.”
“Mr. Gibson, he’s an excellent worker. There have never been any issues with him. In such a loud environment, there’s not even any reason to–“
98’s voice was pleading and frightened, breaking a little as he spoke. He sounded so human, so unlike the mindless, emotionless drone he was supposed to be.
He was afraid for his brother.
Well, that had some unpleasant ethical implications about Mahender’s job.
“Oh, shut up,” said Mr. Gibson. “Another word out of you and I’m disposing of both of you. We have two mature Stanley fabs in Section 0 ready for activation, and I’d just as soon–“
Without warning, 98 lunged at Mr. Gibson with the speed and desperation of a cornered animal with nothing to lose. He collided with Mr. Gibson, sending him tumbling backward into the desk with a surprised grunt. 98 lashed out again and again with an almost frantic energy, hitting and kicking blindly as Mr. Gibson flailed, trying in vain to escape. Mahender stood up, moving out of 98’s range.
“Do–ow, ow!–do something, Henry!” shouted Mr. Gibson. “Get–ow!–get this bloody thing off me!”
Oh, right. Mahender was a security guard. He’d better do his job, he guessed.
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
98 didn’t ease his assault on Mr. Gibson.
“Henry!” Mr. Gibson’s shout was louder and more frantic. “Ow! God damn it, Henry! Shoot it! Shoot it!”
“I don’t have a gun, sir.”
Mr. Gibson raised his hand to his face, protecting it from 98’s onslaught.
“Well, do something! Do your bloody job!”
Mahender raised his nightstick in a halfhearted threatening gesture.
“Excuse me,” he said flatly. “Don’t do that. I have this stick and I’m not afraid to use it.”
The second fab–59–had been still until this point. His head snapped around when he saw Mahender produce the nightstick. 59 thrust out his hand, and Mr. Gibson was torn from 98’s grasp. He flew off the desk, slamming against the wall with a crash, then crumpling to the floor.
What the hell? Since when could the fabs do that?
For a moment, 59 stared at his outstretched hand, looking nearly as shocked as Mahender felt. Then, 59 turned to Mahender, his hand still raised. His eyes were fierce, daring Mahender to move.
Mahender glanced at Mr. Gibson. He was motionless, but breathing.
Mahender dropped his nightstick and raised his hands in a placating gesture as he sat back in his chair.
59 walked over to 98 and placed a hand on his shoulder. 59 lowered his hand to his side.
“Please don’t blast me into a wall for asking,” said Mahender, “but what just happened?”
The fabs ignored his question.
“I need to get him out of here,” said 98. “How?”
Mahender thought for a second.
“Freight entry is in Section 1. There’s a loading dock. You’d need to get him into the back of a truck without being seen. The doors are locked, but…”
Mahender removed his key card and placed it on the desk.
“If you were somehow able to steal a guard’s key card, you’d be able to get in.”
“You’re helping us,” said 98. “Not because we’re making you, but because you want to. Why?”
“Gibbo–sorry, I mean Mr. Gibson–treated you like you weren’t human. Like you were less than.”
“We’re not human,” said 98. “Not really.”
“It’s the same way he treats me,” said Mahender. “I was listening to him talking about disposing of you like you were nothing, and I realized he’d do the same to me if he could.”
98 nodded and took the key card.
“Besides,” said Mahender. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out a fab escaped.”
“Will you lose your job?” said 98.
“Maybe,” said Mahender. “Probably. I’ve been looking for new work anyway.”
As much as he needed this job, it would be hard to justify working here to himself after seeing how human the fabs seemed.
He turned to the computer monitors by the desk and found the one displaying the freight entry security feed. He disabled the cameras.
“Oh no,” he said. “I seem to have accidentally disarmed the cameras in Section 1. I hope there won’t be any security breeches there.”
The fabs stared at him.
“Go!” he said. “Before another guard notices that the camera is off.”
The fabs headed for the door, and 98 pressed the exit button. 59 paused as the door slid open and made a gesture with his hands.
“He says thank you!” shouted 98 over the roaring fans.
Mahender knew neither of the fabs would hear his reply, so he smiled and gave them a salute.
Mahender struggled against his own handcuffs as two other guards hauled him into a lab in Section 10. About a dozen Stanley fabs filed in behind him. Their hands were bound too, but they didn’t resist.
“You can’t do this!” he said. “You won’t get away with it!”
“Won’t we?” said Mr. Gibson.
“My aunt works directly under Billy Clyde himself. If she finds out you’ve done this–“
Mr. Gibson gave him a skeptical look.
“Mona Sharma. Overseer and specialist of operations in–“
“Oh, that’s right. I’ve met Mona. Pretty girl, but so unpleasant. She’s mentioned her nephew, but I never made the connection until now. Small world.”
“Yes, well, she’s Billy Clyde’s direct report, so if you–“
Mr. Gibson snorted.
“Mona’s hardly a high-ranking member of this company. And if my memory serves, she doesn’t exactly think highly of you. If she gets word of this, she’ll probably send me a bouquet.”
Mr. Gibson wasn’t wrong. Mahender’s aunt would have sold his soul for a piece of cheese. And she was lactose intolerant.
Still, his bluff had been worth a try.
“I think you’ll find we can get away with whatever we want,” said Mr. Gibson. “You have no meaningful connections, no wife or girlfriend, no close friends. As far as we’re aware, you won’t be missed.”
Mr. Gibson’s words sent a cold chill through him, even if they weren’t entirely true. Mahender’s job had been the main reason he hadn’t had a social life. Was that why the guards here had to work such long late hours in such an isolated environment? So they wouldn’t make any meaningful connections? So they wouldn’t be missed if they had a sudden conflict of morality and had to be ‘disposed of’?
“My mum will try to find me. She’ll–“
“Your mum. Reena Stephens, correct? I’m not too worried about her snooping around.” Mr. Gibson sneered. “I’m sure immigration services will be happy to take care of her for us if she decides to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Mahender felt another cold chill.
“We do our research,” said Mr. Gibson. “We have to be thorough in case one of our guards steps out of line. We know all about how your parents split up. How Mrs. Stephens obtained permanent residence under false pretenses.”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“Unfortunately for her, the law doesn’t care what it was or wasn’t like.”
“Leave my mum alone. I’m warning you.”
“Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t,” said Mr. Gibson. “Either way, you won’t be in much of a position to do anything about it where you’re going.”
Mahender looked at the guards holding him. He’d seen them in passing before, though they’d always been unfriendly.
“Don’t do this,” he said. “If they do this to me, they’ll just as soon throw you away too if you become inconvenient.”
One of the guards, a burly blond man who Mahender thought was named Barry, grunted, shoving him forward toward the chamber.
“It’s Barry, right?” said Mahender. “Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re keeping us isolated. They’re making us easy to get rid of.”
Barry ignored him, giving him another rough shove.
A man in a lab coat unlocked the chamber with his key card, and the glass door slid open. Barry and the other guard threw Mahender in, and the door slid closed.
The technician pressed a series of buttons on a panel.
“You can’t do this to me! Let me out!”
Mahender lifted his cuffed hands and pounded them against the glass, his fists stinging as though he was slamming them into solid rock.
The last thing he saw before a sickly green and black fog consumed his vision was Mr. Gibson’s smug, sneering, red face.