Fiction co-winner, Fair Australia Prize
In the grey light, the only noise was the hum of the console as it worked through the day’s roster. Elizabeth waited, stretched out on the mattress, not wanting to get up if there wasn’t a reason to. The console whirred, the low-level purr of a sleeping cat, for a few more beats, and then announced the outcome with a sharp bleat.
A notice flashed on the screen.
0730–1600: Old Mason Jar
The console bleated again. The two-minute warning. Elizabeth stared at the screen, exhausted. She looked at the time code in the corner.
She pressed the accept key and swung her feet to the floor. Willing herself to get moving, just a little faster.
‘Waste no time, save a dime,’ her father had told her that every day before she’d left for the Central Zone. It was also the last thing he said as he ushered her into the carriage with her bags. As she settled into the seat he ran his hand down the side of her face, pinching hard on her cheek. It stung, the bitter twinge of too much force, and Elizabeth had let out a yelp, almost involuntarily.
He’d opened his hand then and slapped her, not hard, but enough to shock, ‘Smarten up piglet.’
And then, not even looking back, he’d walked off, leaving that rhyme ringing in her ears.
The concrete floor was ice beneath her toes, with no sun coming to warm it until long after she was gone for the day. In the bathroom she cranked the heat up high, the bright lamps shocking her awake. The console in the bedroom had switched over to day mode, the headlines piped into the shower, so she could listen as she lathered.
The two leaders exchanged gifts, President Bolton receiving a tank of pure mountain air from Rural Zone Seven. Aides say this will be the first fresh air the president has inhaled since a tour of Rural Zone Three in May 2042.
Elizabeth was halfway through brushing her teeth when the water stopped.
She pressed the button, but nothing happened. She pressed it again. ALLOCATION EXHAUSTED. She spat out the paste and reached for the mug on the shelf, rinsing with the water caught from the dripping rose.
It filled her mouth with the blood-sweet taint of rust.
From the fridge she pulled two cheese sticks and some dusty protein crackers. Munching as she dressed, Elizabeth pulled on the Barrett’s uniform, and stuffed the three other shirts she needed in a backpack. She laced her shoes, and pulled on her raincoat, pulling the door closed heavily behind her.
Today would be a good day, and tomorrow she’d turn off the console. Just for a few hours. Her eyelids were heavy and as she walked along the embankment, she longed for a few more hours sleep.
At Barrett’s the work was simple. Stock the shelves, label the produce, and maintain displays. Get everything ready for shopping hours. It was a forty-five-minute walk to Barrett’s, and then another half an hour to Old Mason Jar. The connections today were tight, but it would be okay.
When she got to Barrett’s, Reg Barrett was present and expectant. His fat little hands made pincer movements as he gesticulated, his colour rising from pasty pink to overcooked lobster.
‘You, girl, what shift are you on?’
‘0500 to 0700.’
‘Well, I only need you until six.’
‘Just the one hour?’
‘What does this look like? A charity? I said six, you can stay on if you want but I won’t be paying you for it.’
He grabbed at her wrist and waved his reader over the chip. It bleeped, acknowledging the transaction.
‘Go on then, get to work.’
‘Thank you, Mr Barrett.’
Inside, Elizabeth started with the crickets. The dried ones needed to be sorted and seasoned before they were bottled for sale. She mixed the spices, and filled the shaker. Working quickly she doused their shrivelled bodies and shook the mixture through. She spoke to no-one, and at six she packed up.
In her free hour, Elizabeth decided to sleep. She walked the half hour to her next job and found a bench in the weak morning sun. She set an alarm, and dozed sweetly, enjoying the unexpected windfall.
The rest of the day went as scheduled, and at midnight, exhausted, Elizabeth was slinging gin at Shutterspeed, her favourite job.
‘Hi there.’ He was new, way too chatty.
‘Worked here long?’
‘On and off, five years.’
‘Right, you’re Elizabeth yeah?’
‘Are you from Central Zone?’
‘No, Rural Zone Two.’
‘Right, I grew up here.’
‘Didn’t know anyone did.’
They looked at each other a while, and Elizabeth noticed his smile. It was crooked where a tooth stuck out the wrong way. Endearing.
‘Better get back to it,’ she said, and stepped out of his path.
Later when the shift ended, she found him out the back sipping gin from the bottle.
‘Where’d you get that?’ She asked, surprised.
‘What do you mean, how? I scanned it through and then I scanned my chip. Same way you’d buy it.’
‘Wouldn’t spend money on that.’
‘What’s better to spend it on?’
‘I’m saving for citizen rank two.’
‘Rank two! What’s so great about rank two?’
‘Eight hours. Eight uninterrupted hours, every single day.’
‘What would you do with it?’
‘Sleep of course.’
‘Dreaming big then.’ Elizabeth could hear the sarcasm in his voice.
‘What’s wrong with wanting rank two? Wanting to have eight hours off every day, wanting a real routine?’
‘It’s a crock. It’s all bullshit. You think being rank two makes it better? You pay them, what, six years’ worth of your sweat, and in return the console will make sure you’re only working a sixteen-hour day.’
‘Get paid a bit more, too.’
‘So you can save for rank one? Then what? When you’re rank one, and you’ve got twelve hours off a day will you spend the extra four here? Drinking gin us threes serve you?’
‘This system’s rotten. You know I heard the reason us threes get so many shifts is they don’t want to give ’em to the twos or the ones. Say they can’t roster them how they want, so it’s easier to hire threes. I heard the twos and ones end up working half as much again. Can’t pay their bills. Can’t keep their flats. Can’t do shit. You know I met a guy once, a one, he was on zero.’
‘No-one’s on zero, Wallace.’
‘Yeah? Well this guy was on zero. No hours. Couldn’t get work for weeks, and then he’d work doubles. Twenty-four-hour days, as many as the console would give him, just to make it up. Zero hours. That’s some stone cold bullshit right there.’
‘Zero hours is propaganda. Everyone knows that.’
‘Why don’t you ever meet a one?’
‘Because they get the good shifts. And the safe jobs in city central.’
‘Bullshit. It’s because they don’t really exist. The truth is you work your guts out in how many jobs, and you scrimp up the extra coin and you give it over to Central Wage, and they take it and screw you in the bargain. The higher you climb, the less hours you get and then you can’t pay the bills.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘I met one guy, working train maintenance, he was a one. Lost everything, had no shifts, no money, his chip shut down. So he scraped together enough under the counter hours at an electronics place, and in return they fixed his chip. Made him a three. Been working steady ever since.’
He looked at her, a bit softer, thrust the gin bottle her way and motioned for Elizabeth to drink. She took a long swig, the heat catching in the back of her throat. She coughed deeply, spluttering a little, and felt the flame on her face. Handing back the bottle, their hands brushed close.
‘I worked the last three weeks, twenty-one-hour days, almost no cancellations,’ she told him.
‘Shit, are you taking some days?’
‘Gonna take tomorrow, back at it on Saturday, and then if I can get another run like that, I’ll make two before mid-year.’
He shook his head.
‘You don’t want it. Trust me.’
‘I want to be a one. I’m going to be a one.’
‘You really taking the day?’
‘Will you let me show you then?’
‘OK, sure. Prove it.’
In the early dawn light they walked along the ring road out towards Industrial Zone Metals. There was no-one around, and Elizabeth began to think coming with Wallace had been a mistake. Behind them the rumble of truck wheels in the distance moved closer. A lorry barrelled past, churning up mud and ruining their clothes. Elizabeth wiped the spatter from her face and laughed at Wallace as he shook it from his hair. The walk was easy, but took the better part of three hours. When they arrived at Metals she was spent.
‘I need to sleep,’ she told him.
He took her by the hand and led her into a warehouse, the windows broken and the floor covered in dirt. The whole building had been abandoned. All that was left were the skeletons of industry, their mechanical bones piled high around the cavernous room. In a corner, there was a small office. Wallace led Elizabeth inside, to a large mattress behind a row of filing cabinets long since abandoned.
‘How did you know this was here?’
‘Because I lived here.’
‘You lived here?’
‘You know that one I told you about? Couldn’t get any work so he went back to being a three? That was me. When I lost my flat I came out here, found this place. Haven’t quite been able to give it up yet – I like the space.’
‘You’re a one?’
‘I was a one. Didn’t stick.’
‘I’m really tired.’
‘Go to sleep. I’ll tell you about it when you wake up.’
They lay down together on the mattress and because it was cold, he pulled her body in close to his.
‘Is this okay?’
And then they slept.
Without the bleat of the console, Elizabeth didn’t wake for some time. When she roused herself, it was past dark again. Wallace had real bread, some crickets, and a handful of raisins. They ate in silence, watching each other think.
In the sweet cool evening breeze Wallace went back over his story again. And then he told Elizabeth something surprising.
‘It wasn’t always like this you know. Before the change, when the world was stable, the rules were different. There were no ones, no twos, no threes. People just did a job. And there were rules about how often they worked and how much they were paid, and you didn’t have to pay Central Wage to be treated better.’
‘My father said that’s how the world got so sick. Because everyone did what they wanted.’
‘That’s not true. The world got sick because the governments and the business owners didn’t want to make less money, and they didn’t want to share what they had with people who didn’t have as much. So when the change came, they used the chaos to stack the system. They are all doing fine, the business owners and the politicians. They work when they want, they spend what they want. They make more money in a day then you will in a year. And you know what else, they’ve convinced you that this is how it has to be. Because if all us threes said we’d had enough, they’d be cooked.’
‘Telling businesses how to treat us will just mean less people have jobs. If we don’t do the work that’s available, then we are the ones that suffer,’ Elizabeth said.
‘You don’t get it, they need us. They can’t run the world without labour. You can’t open a bar if no-one is willing to work the till. You can’t run a supermarket without shelf stackers and delivery drivers and someone to turn on the checkouts. We are the ones with the power, because if every three said they weren’t coming to work again, the whole world would stop.’
‘I don’t know, how do you get every three to stop work at the same time? You can’t talk to them all.’
‘I have an idea about that. What if we got into the consoles? Told everyone they had zero hours one day? What do you think would happen?’
‘That’s mad. You’d get locked up.’
‘How would they know who did it?’
‘Sounds to me like you’ve already got a plan.’
Wallace didn’t answer directly. Instead, he took her by the hand and led her up the rickety stairs into another office – this one whirred and sputtered, full of electronic life. At the centre sat a fat balding man with one eye.
‘Horace, she’s awake.’
The small fat man lifted his head from the work in front of him and smiled at Elizabeth.
‘Hello Elizabeth,’ he said politely.
‘How did you know my name?’
‘Wallace told me. But while you were sleeping I checked your chip against the database, just to make sure. Elizabeth Deacon: twenty-three, born in Rural Zone Two, 2025. You’ve worked in Central Zone since ’42. Came straight out of school.’
‘That’s right, yes.’
‘Do you know how many people we can reach through this database Elizabeth?’
‘I guess a lot.’
‘Every one, two or three with a working console. And we’re going to tell them all they’ve got zero hours.’
‘Tonight. Tomorrow, they’ll all stay home. And then we’ll jam the consoles, and no-one will be able to call them in.’
Wallace squeezed her hand reassuringly.
‘It’s for everyone,’ he said. ‘If we do this, we will show people how important they are. How powerful they can be.’
‘Why tell me?’
‘I don’t know really. Why did you come here with me?’
She looked at him for a long time, and they both knew the answer was the same at both ends.
‘Zero hours?’ She asked, uncertain.
‘Zero hours,’ Wallace replied.
‘Let’s get on with it then,’ Horace interrupted.
Elizabeth and Wallace left the warehouse around midnight, Horace stayed behind to make sure nothing went wrong with the programming. They walked the three hours back into Central Zone, and Elizabeth led Wallace back to her flat, where they lay tangled in dirty sheets and waited for the 0400 work notice. The console whirred into action as usual and Elizabeth waited, holding her breath, for her hours.
The console bleated.
She slumped back into the bed, and the console clicked into sleep mode. Wallace grinned at her.
‘Now for the fun part.’
At 0600 there was a bang on the door. Central Zone marshalls in full riot gear stood in the hall. The one in front pulled Elizabeth into the hall and held a scanner to her chip.
‘Zero hours assigned. Another one,’ he said to his partner, who was waving a wand over Wallace’s wrist.
‘This one too. What the fuck is this?’
‘Is everything alright?’ Elizabeth asked them.
They glared at her for a few beats, and then the first one pushed her back into the flat.
‘Nothing to worry you, get back inside.’
And then they were gone.
Elizabeth and Wallace could hear them moving through the building, yelling, frustrated, a note of fear rising in their tone. As the day wore on, people began milling in the streets. With the consoles down, there was no easy way to get news, and no-one knew where to go tomorrow, what job to do. The carefully ordered facade fell gracelessly away.
At 1600, hungry and bemused, Elizabeth walked over to Barrett’s to see if it was open. She needed supplies.
The lights were on and the doors were open. Cooked-lobster-red Reg was pacing in the foyer.
‘Are you here to work a shift then?’ he asked Elizabeth, recognising her.
‘No, I’m on zero hours today, I’ve come to get some groceries.’
‘Can’t you work anyway? Government’s authorised me to engage people outside of the system, if I can.’
Elizabeth thought about it.
‘What are you offering?’ she asked.
‘Offering? You come do the hours I want and I’ll pay you same as I always have.’
‘No thanks, Mr Barrett.’
‘What do you want then?’
‘I’d like a full day’s work, just ten hours, lets say four days in a row, and I want you to pay me the one rate. And you can’t send me home early. If I’m rostered the ten, I get the ten.’
He looked aghast.
‘Can’t do that. Can’t afford it.’
‘Well then, have a good night, Mr Barrett, I’ll see you round.’
Elizabeth wandered the aisles, gathering up the goods she needed, and then she checked them through as usual. She packed her bag and walked out of the shop.
On her way out, she saw Mr Barrett arguing with another three.
‘Ten hours, four days a week? That’s what the last one asked for too.’
‘I heard her. Thought it sounded pretty good to me,’ the man replied.
On the street, people were gathered in groups, discussing the various offers they’d received from their bosses throughout the course of the day. No-one seemed keen to return to where they had been before the consoles shut down.
At home, Wallace was waiting for Elizabeth.
‘It’s working,’ she told him.
‘I know,’ he replied.
‘How did you know it would?’
‘Too many threes in this world for it not to.’