Wednesday, January 9, 2008

4. The Battery #1

Once each shift. Once at precisely eleven hundred hours.

Forty thousand pale, softly-scaled claws flexed like the tiny hands of babies.

And feebly clenched on nothing.

In the early days of her contract, Ether Dease had reflected on this collective act. It was apparently meaningless, but in the absence of any true demand on her time, she had dwelled upon it. The only hypothesis she found at all engaging was the possibility she was witnessing an effort at communication. If her twenty-thousand headless charges had struggled against impossible odds and attained a form of telepathic unity, could this somehow be a function of it? What would it say then about the resilience of life if these non-descript organisms, remarkably still referred to as chickens, had found voice to tell of their plight?

It was an idle thought. To begin with, the chickens had no brains as such; their body functions were governed by a logic board in the factory mainframe, linked to a tiny nub of ganglia in their hindquarters. And besides, it was hard to imagine anything even remotely transcendent occurring in the deadening environment of The Battery - it was a place where life was sheared of redundancy, where doctored bodies functioned efficiently in the face of market forces.

Later she was to learn that the frail spasm [with its attendant flup!] was a response to the minute surge in hormone levels which occurred as a spent progesterone cartridge was jettisoned and a fresh one installed. The knowledge helped Ether desensitise herself to the awful symbolism in that blind clutch.

Now, with a quick sure movement, she punched her key.

Her dark green eyes focused on nothing. She replaced a stray lock of red hair beneath a laminated cardboard cap which displayed a fat, good-humoured chicken bearing no resemblance to the moist glistening creatures under Ether’s command. They were packed tight against each other in their stainless steel pans; a clonal monoculture of pale gooseflesh that birthed four thousand sterile eggs every thirty seconds. At each neck, where a dripping tangle of feed ducts left the body to join a common channel, Ether could see a lather of pink froth foaming weakly as if to register the infirmity of a life-force diluted to a watery plasm, pared to the simplicity of crankshaft and lever.

With a quick sure movement, she punched her key.

The one key. Every thirteen minutes. She did not need to think. Though the key was worn clean and smooth, the remainder of the deck was crusted with a sticky amalgam of dust and growth medium, fused by an ancient splash of kecap manis. The monitor was turned in to the wall and painted the alloy panelling with ghost lights.

Long ago, a bug in factory logic had randomised the oestrus cycle of the number five layers, leaving them chronically out of phase. The problem had never been addressed and was now worked around. Ether was the improvised link between two complex homeostatic systems processing seventeen tonnes of edible biomass hourly and her task, every thirteen minutes, was to punch a key, booting a software application that converted data from the two systems into a common language. Punch a key. Every thirteen minutes.

If she hadn’t needed the job so badly, she could probably have rigged something up with a clock, an elastic band, and a roll of sellotape. It would have been expected back on the farm; one of her chores had been to service their antiquated harvesting machines with little more than common sense. She had her father’s quick sure hands.

And with a quick sure movement, she punched her key.


The Battery was a dim grey bulk beside a featureless carriageway in a shambling and largely disused region of the Dandenong Industrial Conclave. Its walls were a crazed pastiche of grimy safety glass, paper-thin galvanised iron and Besser Brick greasy with a century’s worth of dark industrial accretions. Little distinguished it from the neighbouring structures, save the faint odour of some non-specific meat that mingled disagreeably with the suburb’s signature scent of dust, urine and desolation.

Dandenong was depopulated and dispossessed, home to autonomic industries, noxious plant-life, the husks of plague insects and little else. It was the ill-fortune of an unselect few to work here, Ether Dease among them.

Seventeen years earlier, Ether had been born into a depressed farming collective near Nhill, in Western Victoria. Her job at The Battery was seen as a rare chance to escape the futureless rural areas before conventional agriculture was finally superseded. In recent times, the even pace of obsolescence had accelerated as farming lands were smothered by Roman’s Scab, a blight which thrived in salinated soils and absorbed any attempts at irrigation from a depleted river system already congested year-round with blue-green algae.

Roman’s Scab was the energetic by-product of fung - the world’s single most successful food commodity. It had first appeared on the Dease property a decade ago - cinnamon-coloured patches where mushrooms used to grow, a russet frosting on the animal manure, a deadly smut in the wheat kernels - now it formed spreading lakes across the countryside and hung from skeletal eucalypts like banners. There wasn’t much left to do out there now, but observe an ecosystem in its death throes and process scab for the astringent alcoholic derivative known as feth.

Ether’s father had not given up lightly; with his food crops gone he sought to turn the tide with the assistance of a direct marketing chain who offered to promote and distribute special fir trees for the Christmas market if farmers would agree to grow them. Designed to thrive even in scab-ravaged lands, the heavily engineered dwarf conifer was at first a real delight. Its branches twisted into a needled Star of Bethlehem at the top and in place of cones there hung coppery baubles and golden spangles dusted with bioluminescent silver. Sadly though, like scab itself, the hybrid proved irrepressibly fertile and Ether’s father could take no profit off what quickly became a common sight - cheerily ornamenting roadsides, railway embankments and abandoned lots, smoothly usurping urban ecologies of blackberry, spear thistle and fennel.

These same christmas trees haunted Ether as she walked to work. The sharp morning sunlight reflecting off their strange fruit was an unwelcome reminder of home, her father and the desolation of the outlands. Her nightmare memories of Nhill were clear, but the odour that greeted her outside The Battery each morning, with its sweet suggestions of decay, was clearer still. Meat on the littoral of decay. To her annoyance, she would find herself salivating at the first mouthful of breath. A flesh memory recalled by some vulturine ancestor. Scavenger dog hunched over something rancid. Drooling...

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