tagNovels and NovellasNo Future Ch. 84

No Future Ch. 84


Our Daily Bread

No one could ever call Chris a shirker. He worked hard to pay off his debts to the distant City corporation to whom he was indentured and he might well have expected some kind of recompense for his loyalty and exertion. But the instructions received from distant Nanjing showed no appreciation of Chris' efforts at all. The shareholders scattered around the globe had approved the management board's recommendation that the company should consolidate its European agricultural assets. As Chris was as much a property of the Chi Chong Investment Bank as the ethanol trees, the meat vats and the asparagus collecting robots, he was now to be thrown onto the open market to the mercy of the highest bidder.

"How much more do you have to do to earn your freedom?" asked Chloe, Chris' wife and the mother of his five children. "Surely there can't be many more years of indenture. You've worked for Chi Chong for nine years now..."

"It's actually twenty-one years I've been indentured," said Chris. "I was just fourteen years old when I sold my labour to Chingford Christmas Trees. That was well before the company was bought up by the Chinese."

"It still can't be many years yet..."

"They cut my salary remember," said Chris. "That was a few years back. I don't think I'll ever earn enough to buy my freedom. As every year passes, there's always yet another obstacle on the way."

"Well, at least we get to keep a cottage in the village," said Chloe as she gazed through the cracked glass of the antique late twentieth-century window at the wind-generator in the garden just beside the vegetable plots that were an essential supplement to the family's diet.

"That's not certain either," said Chris. "We don't know what the new farm owners will do. Chester Beeches' business used to be mostly Christmas trees and livestock when I first started working there. Over the years, they've tried every kind of agriculture there is. It's whatever makes the most profit at the time."

"And what's that at the moment?" Chloe wondered.

Chris shook his head. He'd worked long enough to realise that you couldn't make predictions about what the far distant shareholders and business executives might decide, whether they were based in London, Nanjing or Chester. But he'd find out soon enough.

What he probably didn't expect was that not only would he no longer be working for Chi Chong, but that he would no longer even keep his home. This was a real shock to a man who'd lived all his life in Christleton and when he ventured beyond the county borders it was only as far as the occasional agricultural show in the outskirts of Manchester's urban sprawl. Chris hoped that whatever else might happen, he wouldn't have to live amongst the crime and squalor of a big city.

"The new owners are replacing us with robots," said Chris, still in shock when he returned home after the announcement and not yet able to really believe what he'd heard. "Robots!"

"That can't be so," said Chloe. "It doesn't make economic sense. Surely human labour is still cheaper than an expensive thing like an agricultural robot."

"Labourers are cheaper than they used to be," Chris admitted. "Especially since the banks decided to trade indenture for inherited mortgage and household debt. But robots have been getting cheaper and smarter and more capable all the time. They don't look anything like humans and you can't have much of a conversation with them, but if you see them in the fields—herding cattle, picking asparagus, ploughing fields, sorting out the produce—they're as good as a man would ever be. They're ten times more productive and their running costs are getting steadily lower."

"So there's no competition?" Chloe remarked bitterly.

"None," said Chris. "All the lads are being replaced by robots. Not just me. Everyone. Christleton will just become a ghost town. The local supermarket will have to close as well. Robots don't need groceries."

"And what about us?" wondered Chloe desperately. "The boys are still in school and the girls aren't at marrying age yet. What's going to happen to them?"

"Well, unless the administrators find a buyer for me, we won't be able to afford school fees for the boys," said Chris. "The other lads and me: we're all gonna be auctioned off with the other stock that the new buyers don't want."

"And who are the people who're taking over Chester Beeches Farm?" asked Chloe. "They sound soulless and cruel. To sell their indentured labourers as if they were nothing more than old tractors or beaten up combine harvesters..."

"It's a company I've never heard of before," said Chris. "International Consolidated Capital Investment or some name like that. I've heard they buy assets, sell what they don't want to the highest bidder, and make what's left as profitable as they can."

"And I take it that you and your mates are what they don't want?"

"I guess so," said Chris with hangdog resignation.

The day of the auction was rather sooner than Chris or his friends would have liked. The bad news had hardly sunk in that each and every one of them would soon be evicted from the cottages and terraced houses where most of them had lived all their lives and where, in most cases, so had their parents and grandparents all the way back to the days when fuel was cheap, jobs were more plentiful and town-folk would choose to escape from mundane suburbia to a house in the country. They had less than a week to prepare, while also having to work many times harder than usual to disassemble, dismantle and slaughter those assets that were deemed to have no significant resale value.

The labourers lined up along a makeshift stage and in front of each of them was displayed a printed brochure on which each of them was depicted in bland marketing prose. They were described mostly in terms of health, age and physical strength. There was also a detailed account of the numbers of years and months of likely continued indenture on a sliding scale of their anticipated value. Generally, the more menial the employment the longer the remaining period of indenture would be. For those like Charles and Stuart who were now old men in their early fifties, their age had so reduced their resale value that it was likely that they would die of old age within the next ten years well before they'd had a chance to pay off their debts.

The buyers at the auction wore expensive suits, almost certainly purchased in the swanky salons of Shanghai, Chongqing or Buenos Aires, and exuded an aura of wealth and pitiless calculation. They were mostly men, although there were a couple of women amongst them: tight-lipped, sour-faced and with steel cold eyes. Although the finance behind International Consolidated Capital Investment was almost certainly from the Far East, none of the buyers were oriental. They were all European and a minority were even English. Chris choked a little when he overheard one of the men speak to a colleague with a Scottish accent. He'd always hated the Scots, as any true-blue Englishman might, and he hoped that he wouldn't become a vassal to England's historical foe and the nation that more than any other had brought about England's decline and fall.

The auction was as humiliating as it was tedious. For most of the time, Chris stood in line with his fellow labourers in neatly starched company uniforms, while he held up his chin and pulled in his chest in an attempt to bolster his saleability. God help any man sold below the reserve price. For such a man the future was truly bleak. The inherited debt would continue onto the next generation and beyond as compound interest piled high on a man's market value. The man who was sold at a good price, offset against accumulated debt, might well yet see that day when he could till his own field, buy and sell chickens, and maybe—if he worked hard and achieved the required statutory minimum income—even be eligible to vote in a General Election.

Chris watched with anxiety as the bidders walked by. Several stopped beside him and asked him to flex a muscle, stick out his tongue or turn around. One of these was the man with the Scottish accent. Chris hoped that he wouldn't be sold to the jocks. They were known for their hatred of the English and there were enough medium-range missiles on the tartan border pointing south to leave no doubt as to how willing the Scots were to avenge perceived past wrongs.

However, it was one of the women who successfully bid for Chris and several of his colleagues. The bidding wasn't especially fierce and the numbers mentioned in the bidding were somewhat abstract. The value of each indentured labourer was calculated in a complex way which took into account the number of outstanding years of indenture, the estimated years of productive labour, and an overall abstractly weighted quality rating. Chris was somewhat put out to realise that those with most marketable value were the younger labourers with the least experience and the highest level of debt. Nevertheless, like a beauty contest where the contestant had no opportunity to demonstrate his or her other qualities or, more accurately, like the sale of livestock at a cattle market, Chris' fate and that of his family was decided on the bidders' whims. The auctioneer's hammer came down decisively on Ms. Charrington, the English representative of Consolidated Minerals, Pyongyang. Chris was now no longer a Chinese asset but rather one that belonged to the Federal Republic of Korea.

"What use does Consolidated Minerals have for agricultural labourers?" wondered Chris' pal, Ian, who'd also been purchased by Ms. Charrington. "Do they have an agricultural division?"

"You just don't know what these corporations do," said Chas who'd been purchased by the Scotsman, who was actually a representative of an Ecuadorian company. "You'd think it was agriculture, but it might turn out to be biofuel, genetically enhanced fabrics or pharmaceuticals. Perhaps Consolidated Minerals has a connection with agribusiness that you'd just never imagine."

"Perhaps," said Chris, who was worried more than anything else by what he could say to Chloe. She'd rather placed her hope in the possibility that he'd be purchased by Chrystal Planet, the only bidder that was in any sense a local concern, although Chris wondered what use he would be in a business that manufactured nanocarbon tubes for the communications industry.

"I'm going to be a coal miner, dear," was what Chris finally had to announce to his wife.

"Coal miner? I thought mineral extraction was all done by robots these days."

"There's still a need for men to help fix machinery underground and to handle those situations that robots aren't fully equipped to respond to."

"You're not a coal miner," said Chloe. "You've never been underground. Why'd they choose you?"

"I'm as cheap as labour can possibly be," said Chris with resignation.

"And what about me and the boys? Where will we live?"

"I don't think it's part of the package, dear," said Chris who'd finally got to the part of his briefing that he'd most dreaded having to pass on to his wife.

"Not part of the package?"

"Family obligations aren't factored in," Chris said. "I've been told that we'll all be assigned to a dormitory more than twenty meters beneath ground. There's no space for families."

"So what do we do?" asked Chloe.

"I've been told that it's not any concern of Consolidated Minerals," said Chris. "The agreement to provide family accommodation in the village became void when Chi Chong Investment Bank liquidated its assets. The only person in the family that Consolidated Minerals is interested in is our middle son, Chester."

"Why only him?"

"He's the designated inheritor of my indentured debt if I die in service," said Chris. "Do you remember that peculiar document we had to sign several years back? The one that was described as Liability Insurance. The one that named Chester as the security on my continued employment."

"And what's going to happen to Chester?" wondered Chloe. "He's only nine years old."

"As an asset of Consolidated Minerals, he'll be coming with me and he'll also be indentured to them unless I can pay off my debts before his age of seniority."

"And is that likely to happen?"

Chris shook his head sadly.

"I don't know," he said. "I can only hope."

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