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I couldn’t usually read anything in Big Steel Jim’s eyes, not since the company chromed them, but that evening I saw murder written in them plain as day. He was trying to keep himself composed, but the way he threw open the office door was a dead giveaway even before I saw the hammer in his hand.

“Here to see the foreman,” Jim grunted through gritted metal teeth.

I played it cool. “What about, Jim?”

“Just need to talk to him. Open the door.” Jim loomed over my desk. He’d got bigger in the last upgrade, like he did every upgrade. It was hard not to be intimidated.

“You need that hammer to talk to him?” I nodded at the tool in Jim’s hand. He was gripping it too tightly, claw end out.

“Open the door,” Jim repeated, breath whistling through the valves in his jaw. “Or I open it for you.”

Jim could follow through on that threat. Big Steel Jim could break down a mountainside with nothing but his fists. That’s what they built him for. He could’ve swatted me out of my chair like a gnat. Hell, he probably didn’t even need my security console. The foreman’s office had a reinforced door, but I’d have bet my whole quarter’s oreshare that Jim could rip it right out of the wall if he had a mind to.

But Jim hadn’t done any of that yet. That meant there was still a chance to talk him down from whatever fool idea had got into his cranial processor.

“Shift’s almost done, Jim,” I said, acting casual. “Foreman’s not going to have time for you today. How about we hit the saloon, and you can tell me what’s eating you? I’m buying.”

This was an expensive offer. Drinking was the only thing Big Steel Jim did as well as rockbreaking. But it’d be less expensive than whatever he was planning to do to the foreman with that hammer.

“Open the door. Not gonna ask you again.” The hammer bent in Jim’s grip.

“Alright. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? Maybe I can help you out.” I tried to defuse him.

I could see Jim debating whether to start talking or start swinging. As deputy foreman I was a company stooge, but Jim could remember when I’d been a rockbreaker working right beside him.

It took Jim a long time to make up his mind about things, especially since the last round of processor replacements. The rockbreakers got the cheapest kind they made, the kind that turned thinking from a stroll through a field into a slog through a swamp.

“We’re saving money for musculoskeletal upgrades,” the foreman had told me. “Can’t waste it on brains. The best rockbreakers have a mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.”

Foreman really was a bastard.

Jim let out a deep breath, valves whistling again. “The new contracts. The ones foreman had us sign last week.” Jim had settled on talking. “Josiah says the company’s gonna cut our oreshares. Says foreman tricked us.”

Josiah. I should’ve guessed. Josiah probably would have got the deputy foreman job if he weren’t an agitator. He’d tried to get the other rockbreakers to unionize a while back. That killed his promotion prospects stone dead.

“Nothing in the contracts about cutting oreshares,” I said. “Sounds like Josiah’s just trying to stir folks up again.”

Jim pulled a crumpled contract from his thorax storage compartment and slammed it on my desk. He jabbed at one line with a finger as thick as a mattock head. “There. Right there. Says it means they get to cut oreshares whenever they want.”

I knew the line Jim meant. I made a show of reading it anyway, like it was new to me. “The company reserves the right to make adjustments to employee compensation as necessitated by economic conditions. By initialling, employee waives rights to arbitration or other legal process to contest such adjustments.” Jim had signed with an X. “Doesn’t say anything about your oreshare, Jim.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid,” Jim roared. “Josiah told me all about it. Says the company’s going to cut all our oreshares, and this says we can’t do a damn thing about it.”

“The company hasn’t cut any oreshares, Jim.” Like all the best lies, it was true. The board hadn’t voted yet, which meant it wasn’t official. But everyone in management knew it was coming, even the bottom-tier guys like me.

“I’m so close.” A sadness welled up in Jim, drowning out his rage for a moment. “I’ve been saving up my scrip. Almost got enough to pay off my body. Enough to get out. If they cut my oreshare …” The thought was too terrible for him to finish.

“Josiah’s just talking.” I patted Jim’s forearm. “Don’t let him rile you up like that. Go on to the saloon, have a drink and calm down. I’ll join you in a bit.”

Jim nodded slowly. He slouched out of the office, still holding his bent hammer.

Foreman poked his head out of his office once Jim had gone. He’d been listening to the whole thing through the intercom. “Nice job,” he said, blowing cigar smoke at me. “Remind me to have maintenance turn down his cognition another 20% or so.”

“Yes sir,” I answered, trying not to breathe in.

Foreman retreated to his fortress. I looked at my calendar, counted the days until I’d be able to pay off my own body. Just a few more years, as long as I kept the management job.

I’ll open the door next time.

I tell myself that every time.

The story behind the story

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Douglas DiCicco reveals the inspiration behind Made out of muscle and oil

It isn’t a new observation to say that history has a tendency to repeat itself, but living in this particular time really drives the point home for me. This story comes from thinking about how old systems of exploitation can return in new guises, and how technology can provide new ways to perpetuate old inequalities. The system in the story draws from the truck and scrip systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which kept workers in perpetual debt bondage. In a future where employment requires not only specialized equipment but specialized bodies, it is all too easy to see how this particular form of exploitation could resurface.

The story draws particular inspiration from ‘Sixteen Tons’, a song that is also about truck systems. The title and several lines are allusions to the song.

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