Written for the Corporate Abuse Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds.
That’s the wisdom I have for you. We lost. No surprise, when you look at history. Technology, wealth, education, privilege—what chance did mere numbers have against that? We sent wave after wave of people against them, to die futile deaths on the spikes of their citadel. The world burned, furious, fast. The world burned and turned to ash.
The corporations flexed their muscles—military weapons, economic chaos, the morale-sapping reality of poverty—and we conceded. Governments collapsed. The corporations, bloated, putrid, triumphant, took over the running of the world.
Work shifted to where it was cheapest. Wages bottomed out; a desperate man would work for a handful of bread. The corporations offered a deal: work for us and in return we will shelter you and feed you. We moved from camp to camp, making gadgets, luxury yachts, beautiful things that sold to other corporate CEOs. We worked on vast farms, feeding cows too weak to stand, who remained upright only because they were supported by the four walls that surrounded them.
Occasionally, from a distance, we would see a sleek car pass by the walls of the camp, the windows tinted black, and we imagined a warm little bubble, stinking of champagne, in which a rich man and his wife giggled together.
I had managed to acquire a book, stolen from a publishing house at which I had worked for a short time. Real books had become rare, those that could afford to read chose e-books, churned out by a writer-farm, a group of desperate word-smiths that typed-typed-typed for endless hours.
The few paper books that remained were works of art, full of colourful pictures and clever typesetting. This book I had was no exception. The insides were filled with bright drawings, of a man clad in black skin-tight clothes leaping from buildings. At first, I admired the art, but later his masked visage started to haunt my dreams. For freedom. That is what he said, whenever he rescued a child, or defeated a comically flamboyant villain. For freedom! I read it many times, looking at the pictures of the mansion in which the black-clad hero lived and wondering what it would be like to have a bathtub and a bed.
I tried to teach my daughter to read it, but she was more animal than little girl. She picked fruit with ferocious intensity, and nearly always claimed the ‘pickers prize’, a hunk of bread filled with dripping steak. She treated me with contempt, which was fair enough—we were all worthy of contempt, living in that pit.
But I read that book again and again.
One day, I upended the family and went hunting for work in the textiles industry. It was not a favoured industry—working there invariably led to asbestosis and other lung diseases. My daughter wept as she worked the giant looms, her tears streaking a white trail down dusty cheeks. She hated the fetid air and gloom of the factory, and longed for the open orchards where she had been prized.
My wife accepted the move with dumb resignation. She worked less and less these days, and ate less as a result. I tried to give her my portion, but she just stared at it. Her ribs stood out on her white skin, and her eyes were sunken and bloodshot. I tried to ignore her, and focus on my plan.
Difficult to steal from the company, as armed guards—they ate for every stolen item they found and confiscated, so were diligent to the point of fraud—searched us hourly. I gave them obvious wins and took what I really wanted over the course of many weeks.
My wife stopped going to work. She lay on the iron bunk that passed as a bed, and stared at the pockmarked steel of the bed above. Her fingers twitched against her stomach like skitterish spiders. My daughter, still two years from independence, ran away. I wished her well, but I had little hope she would survive long. The best fruit-pickers were children, adults got slower and slower. Her skills would not last.
I worked on my secret project after dark, when everyone else slept the exhausted sleep of workers that had worked eighteen hour shifts. I could barely see, working by moonlight and touch, and the costume was a ragged mockery of the one from the bright pages of the book. I loved it all the same, though the fabric sagged about my spindly limbs and stretched across the swollen paunch of my belly. Even so, the cloak furled and swished most satisfyingly.
On the night my wife finally died, her face a skull, her body shrunk to little more than bones and skin, I cut a drawing from the comic, a close-up rendering of a red rose, and folded it into her long fingers.
We lost. That’s the wisdom I have for you. Yet here I am, ignoring my own wisdom, running into the black night to start again. Taking up the fight, armed with nothing but a dream plucked from the pages of a brightly coloured book. Oh, but what a dream!