Continued from part one
The Gallentean gently stroked his mask. The plaster was not new, but it was made of durable material that would break only under intense pressure. This meant that any ridges and bumps on the surface, once the plaster had dried out, were generally there to stay. This was particularly notable around the holes created for eyes, nose and mouth. The gap in the plaster through which he fed had sharp edges, and cuts on his fingers were not uncommon.
Work was varied, and depended on the harvest. These narcotics obviously couldn't be grown outdoors: with this amount of drugs, satellite photography and even off-world lenses might conceivably pick up the fields of plants, spelling the end of the entire operation. So it had been taken underground, into massive caves both natural and man-made, now serving as greenhouses. The lights, which switched from natural to halogen, were the only indicators of day and night. The air was constantly humid, and every prisoner without a mask was issued several dry cloths to wipe their face. The masked ones did not do this; the plaster was set fast on their heads for life, and they learned to live with the constant itch from sweat. Flies buzzed around in enormous swarms, settling on practically every surface, but even despite the tantalizing drops of sweat that trickled from every masked man, the flies kept away from them.
Tempting as it might be, the regular workers rarely stole any plants for their own use. For most of the flora, serious processing was necessary if their active ingredients were to be of any effect at all. You could chew leaves and buds all you liked and get nothing for your trouble except diarrhea. There did exist the occasional plant which could be eaten or subtly smoked for a slight buzz, but it amounted to about as much as a few cups of coffee.
One exception to this was the masked prisoners, most of whom chewed the leaves incessantly. They were given far more leeway in doing so, and only punished if their pickings dropped noticeably below those of the regular inmates.
The Gallentean's fingers were dry and scarred, partly from the edges on his mask, and partly from the razor-sharp leaves and thorns on the plants he'd harvested. Occasionally he would put down his picker's basket, raise his hands to the mask and wipe away the strands of brown saliva dripping from its mouth hole. He might even lean down and expel the chewed leaves from his mouth, looking like a bird regurgitating food for its young, only to shove a handful of fresh leaves right back in. Then he'd pick up the basket again, and march on. Any time the thorns cut his fingers, he would hardly seem to notice.
"Mind if I smoke?" Gilea said.
"Not at all," Vertan replied.
She pulled a golden case from her purse, flipped it open and selected a long, thin cigarette. Vertan noticed how she closed the case and put it back in its proper place before pulling out her lighter. "So," she said, puffing out a small cloud of smoke, "where do we go from here?"
"You pick a face," Vertan said, keying in a sequence of digits to his remote control. The wooden panel on his desk slid aside again and the holographic projector cast the rotating picture of Gilea's head, but slightly smaller this time. On the screen behind him, Gilea's face also grew smaller and moved to the side. Beside it, on both the screen and the holograph projector, appeared the face of another woman: quite a pretty one, a Caldari, the same race and bloodline as Gilea.
Vertan handed Gilea the remote. "Manual browsing. Green button scrolls forward, red button back. Press the third blue button from the top to see two faces at once, press again for four, eight, sixteen."
"Just how many people do you have in there?" Gilea said.
"More than enough, believe me. Before you can really start picking individual faces, though, you need to filter it down for us. The four arrows indicate parts of the face that we've categorized. Press the circular black button that's between them, please."
She did. The prisoner's nose turned neon yellow.
"Automated selection. Looks kinda silly, but it's worked well so far," Vertan said. "Press the button again, please. Thank you." The nose returned to its original colour. "You're choosing the type of nose now, so use the left and right arrows to scroll through the types, and the up and down arrows to determine size. Press the circular button again to confirm your choice, or press the white button near the bottom right corner to cancel it. Once you've done this, the yellow light will return again, and you can use the arrow buttons to select which other facial part you want to adjust. You with me so far?"
"Sure," Gilea said, already enraptured in the remoulding. "And you guarantee that whatever choice I make, you can fulfil it with a real person?"
"Yes. The choices you get are based on digitized stills of the thousands of prisoners we have. We use facial recognition technologies at our bases every day to prevent spies. Everyone is scanned when starting work, and when leaving it. If their faces have changed noticeably, they are taken aside, checked out, and either eliminated or digitized anew. Any selection you make is based on data that was fresh this morning. You can have practically anything you like."
She took a fresh drag of her cigarette. "Anything?" she said.
"Well, within limits," he said. "Obviously the person has to be Caldari, and the same bloodline as you. And the same gender. We've occasionally had to explain this to some very unhappy people"
Gilea stared at him. "You've got to be joking," she said. "Who in their right mind would even think of doing such a thing?"
Vertan laughed. "You'd be surprised. Anyway, do you have any questions?"
"Not really. Except I trust you put the prisoners to death afterwards," she said.
"Of course," Vertan replied. He picked up a cherry-flavoured candy from the bowl. "No loose ends."
She smiled at him. "No loose ends."
"Besides," Vertan said, unwrapping the red sweet and popping it into his mouth, "you couldn't expect anyone to go on living after a thing like that."
They had been working for what seemed like forever. Each cartload of ore hewn from the ground was transported to the surface in carts set on rails. About halfway up, there was a checkpoint, and machines took care of pulling the carts. Up until that point, the carts had to be pushed.
Six men per team. Four to push, two to pull, the latter lashed in like cattle. Minmatar were strong, even when imprisoned. Especially when imprisoned.
Teams were picked at random, except for the masked men. Those worked only with each other; no one else dared get near them. The grunts, sighs and curses commonplace elsewhere were absent from their groups. They made no sound at all while moving the carts except for the crunch of sand and rock under their boots.
This was one such team. It moved steadily upwards; not fast, but it didn't pay to rush the masked prisoners anyway. Occasionally one of them would fall to his knees in exhaustion, and roll out of the cart's way as the other five picked up his slack for a while. Guards with electric prods traversed the tunnels to ensure that no one was out of commission for too long.
One fell now. His teammates increased their efforts without comment, and the masked prisoner rolled to the side of the tunnel to breathe. His hands clenched and unclenched, clenched and unclenched. The jaw in his metal mask trembled silently on its hinges.
After a few moments, his hands became very still. He slowly raised his head and looked up at the ceiling above him, as if he were seeing it for the first time. Then he looked down again, and his hands brushed over the dirt. They dislodged a few bits of rock, like miniature replicas of those that lay in his cart. The rocks rolled over to him and came to a stop by his feet.
He looked at those rocks for a long time. Had anyone put their ear to his metal jaw, they would have heard the faintest whisper of a note, like a scream from the bottom of a well.
His hands picked up one of the rocks and brought them to the jaw, pushed them through. There was a swallowing sound. Another rock was picked up, pushed in, swallowed. Then another. And another. And another.
By the time the guards saw him, the walls were red with his blood.
Gilea leaned back in her chair, got out another cigarette, lit it and exhaled the smoke contentedly.
"Satisfied?" Vertan asked.
"Completely," she replied. The face of a Caldari girl revolved in front of her. It was quite petite, with a small, slightly pouty mouth, high cheekbones, long, thin eyebrows and the one thing Gilea wouldn't get from her: Long, beautiful black hair." What happens now?" Gilea said, handing Vertan the remote control. "Do I sign a contract?"
"We'll take care of that later. Right now, a verbal agreement will do just fine," Vertan answered with a smile. He keyed in a few numbers on the remote control. "You're absolutely sure this is the face you want?"
She returned the smile, and put out her cigarette. "Yes," she said.
"Very good." He pressed a small red button on the bottom end of the remote. A tiny green light flashed onscreen near the Caldari girl's face. Then the images faded, the screens turned themselves off, and the lights in the room returned to normal. "If you'll just step this way," Vertan said, "we'll get started."
The Caldari colony was segregated according to gender. The women sat hunched over sewing machines, in complete silence apart from the tak-tak-tak of the tiny steel needles. There were rows and rows of them, hundreds of women hunched over their work. Guards proceeded slowly along each row, hands resting lazily on inactive electrical prods. Rebellions were rare here. They were not part of Caldari nature.
In one row there sat a young, rather pretty girl. Her small mouth pouted in tired concentration over the work, and her thin eyebrows arched slightly. Her hair, which was black and nearly reached her waist, was neatly combed but rather dirty from a long day's work.
A guard walked up and touched her on the elbow. She looked up in confusion. The man turned his head to indicate that she should get up and walk out. Prisoners were sometimes taken into solitary rooms, for any number of reasons: Special commission work, extra rest, checkup of their digital portraits.
The girl obeyed. Silently, she got up and, head bowed, walked out of the massive room. The guard followed. Once they had exited, entering a small steel corridor, he took the lead. She was marched through a veritable labyrinth of corridors, each one exactly like the last. They went on for so long that she had begun to suspect they would simply come back to the sewing room, but at last the guard stopped in front of a steel door. A lens beside it scanned his face, and the door opened. They stepped in, the door closed, and the girl felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, as if she were being pulled downwards.
A minute later, the door opened again. To sunlight.
The last thing Gilea saw was a blinding flash of light.
Her unconscious body, strapped and secured on a gurney, was placed in a special container inside the frigate. Moments later the ship undocked, accompanied by a guarding force, and sped off towards the company's research facilities.
Once there, Gilea was unshipped and placed on an operating table. Vertan had explained that while it wasn't strictly necessary to put her under while still in company headquarters, experience had shown it to be by far the best option. She would remain completely unaware of the laboratory's exact location, which was a good thing for both her and the company, and there would be no risk of nerves and second thoughts during the trip.
The operation itself went without a hitch. The machines severed her face and placed it in a special sterile container. As they moved on to the subcutaneous remoulding necessary so that her new one would fit, one of the scientists took the container and headed towards the vaults. Amongst themselves it was called the Gallery of Faces, a large room with one wall completely white and ice cold to the touch. The scientist entered the room while another monitored inside a control room on the other side of a pane of glass. A drawer in the wall slid out and the scientist in the room slotted the container into it with a click. The drawer slid back, there was a sound like the dropping of ice cubes into warm water, and the scientist behind the glass gave a silent thumbs-up. Gilea's face had now been flash-frozen, ready for use if she ever needed it back.
Elsewhere in that same laboratory, another scientist entered another surgery room. In his pocket he carried a white mask.
In this room there is no sound, not even the tak-tak-tak of the sewing machines. The women are too tired to talk, and most lie motionless on their beds, trying not to hope.
The colony is not only separated by gender. The masked women have separate beds at the back of the room.
One of them adjusts her mask slightly, her arms bruised from the electric prods. Her long, black hair is held in place by a cheap elastic. It had kept falling in front of her eyes, and she had kept pushing it back, until she started pulling at it. She had torn out several handfuls before the guards got to her.
The girl stares dully at the floor for a long time, her mask showing the same beautiful, expressionless face as everyone else in the room. Then she crosses her arms and, hugging herself tight, lays down to sleep.