The truck rolled to a stop, and within seconds the back doors were thrown open.
Greg got to his feet with the other slaves but hung back to let them get out first. Most of the slave handlers were pretty good about letting the old crippled slave take his time getting down from the truck but the new guy was out to impress. He caught Greg with a blow from the crop on his forearm and then another one on his back as he flinched away from the first.
"Get your lazy ass down from that truck, slave. This place is paying for twelve hours labour from you and they're damn well going to get it. We have a reputation to maintain."
Greg jumped down from the tailgate. His bad leg collapsed underneath him and threw him against one of the younger slaves who pushed him off without a word. He managed to steady himself and fall into line with the rest, his leg sending shivers of pain up his spine with every step. It was going to be a long day.
They were herded into the building, a hospital, and down to the basement level. It looked like there had been a fire, the walls were scorched and the floor was filthy with a mixture of ash and water. The smell was overwhelming. The handlers were given masks and gloves to wear, the slaves got nothing.
It was evident that the slaves were there to clean up the mess and they were quickly put to work. Greg wondered why the hospital didn't have its own slaves to do this sort of work. He was currently owned by a labour hire company who rented out their stable of slaves to workplaces that didn't keep their own. This hospital looked large enough that it should have at least a few slaves but he hadn't seen any yet - only his fellow slaves from the company.
He struggled to keep up with the others as he always did. He sometimes wondered why the company kept him on, or indeed had bought him in the first place. Most of the slaves were young and fit, and Greg was neither. Permanently crippled by the infarction in his leg he was a liability at best on most of their work sites and he soon proved one here.
Unable to shovel quickly with his precarious balance he was set to hauling buckets of debris up the stairs and out to a waiting skip. He managed three trips well enough but on the fourth his lameness had him faltering and then tripping over, spilling the contents of his bucket over the floor. He staggered back to his feet and began picking up the mess with his hands but one of the handlers sent him on his way with a slap to the back of his head.
"Get out of here, slave. You're useless. They want someone to go clean the bathrooms, you can go and do that. Try not to trip over anything."
He made his way up another flight of stairs to the first floor and located the necessary equipment in a janitor's closet. Keeping his head down he made his way to the first bathroom he came across and entered, first checking that no-one was using it. The bathroom looked neglected, like it hadn't been cleaned for a while. He knelt down on the cold tiles and set to work. Once the first one was done he went to the next, and then the next.
He was on his way to yet another bathroom when he passed a knot of doctors outside a room. They were talking about a patient, discussing his symptoms. None of them could work out what was wrong with the man - they were all arguing with each other, their voices raised. Greg listened to the conversation with fascination. Some of the words sounded familiar, like old friends. He tried to reach for them in his mind and felt a wave of nausea go through him, and a sharp pain slice through his head. He gasped involuntarily and held one hand up to his temple.
"You boy, what are you doing hanging around?" The doctors were staring at him, their faces angry at the interruption. One of them advanced towards him.
Greg went to his knees and bowed his head.
"This slave is cleaning the bathrooms, sir."
There was a moments silence and Greg waited for a blow to come.
"Get on with it then." Greg heard footsteps as the doctor walked away, back to his colleagues.
He got to his feet quickly and slipped away to find the next bathroom to clean. His stomach still felt unsettled and there was a dull ache in his head. He drove all thought of the doctor's conversation out of his mind as he went about his work.
Doctor James Wilson threw down his pen and rubbed his tired eyes. The fire in the hospital's basement had led to their closure for two days, and since they'd reopened he'd been struggling to catch up with the backlog.
He got to his feet and made his way out of the office, he needed a break for a few minutes and nature called. Going to the nearest bathroom he swung the door open, only to nearly hit a man who was about to leave.
The man quickly sunk to his knees with his head bowed. At the sight of the leather collar around the man's neck Wilson choked off the quick apology he was about to make. One did not apologize to a slave.
He went over to the urinal and did his business, only realizing when he turned around to wash his hands that the slave was still there, quietly kneeling. Of course, he hadn't been dismissed.
Oh well, he'd leave soon enough once Wilson had left.
Wilson washed his hands and left. As he walked away from the bathroom he heard the door open again and something made him turn around. The slave was leaving, his head still bowed, his eyes on the ground. He left in the opposite direction to Wilson and as he walked away Wilson could see that he was extremely lame. His right leg dragged heavily when he walked, and the slave had one hand on that thigh, as if supporting it. His progress was quicker than one would expect, with such a severe limp, and soon he was out of sight.
Wilson frowned. Surely even a slave would be entitled to some sort of assistive equipment if he was injured, or permanently disabled. He tried to think if he'd ever seen a slave using a cane, or crutches, but could not recall one. Not that he had extensive knowledge of slaves, he'd never had one of his own and his Department didn't rate one. The hospital slaves were used for janitorial work, not for admin. Or what was left of them, the fire had killed several. Luckily they were insured and Cuddy would be able to replace them once the paperwork was sorted out.
He recalled seeing an email that explained the hospital was using a slave hire company in the meantime. The one from the bathroom must be one of those. Why such a business would employ a lame slave was another question.
He took one step in the slave's direction - intending to seek answers to his questions - and then stopped. It was none of his business what arrangements were made for a slave. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He must really be tired if he was letting trivialities like this distract him. He should go home and get some rest. Of course home wasn't all that pleasant a prospect at the moment. He'd split up with Julie, his third wife, and was living alone in a small apartment in Princeton. It was a place to stay but it wasn't really a home.
He headed back to his office, he'd work for a little while longer.
Greg was finishing up the last in a long string of bathrooms when a mild shock went through him and his collar buzzed. That was the recall signal. He did a final polish with his cloth and then got to his feet. Like always after a hard day's labour both his back and his leg were gripped with pain. There was no time to waste however if he wanted to avoid another shock, and a punishment for being late. He quickly returned his cleaning materials to where he had found them and made his way to the stairway. It would be quicker to travel by elevator, especially given his disability, but that was strictly forbidden. Elevators were for freemen, they could only be used by slaves if they had been given explicit permission. Greg supposed that if he were cleaning a fifty floor building he'd be given permission to use the goods elevator at least, but three flights of stairs were nothing.
He was descending the last flight of stairs carefully, when his right leg began to cramp and spasm. He moaned in pain and bit his lip. Deciding to try and walk it off he put his foot down on the next step.
His leg collapsed underneath him, pitching him off balance and down the rest of the staircase. He landed heavily on the tiled floor below, his head striking the ground.
Wilson had just left the elevator and was heading for the exit when he heard a cry and then the sound of something hitting the floor. He spun around and saw a man lying at the bottom of the staircase, motionless.
When he got to the man's side and bent to examine him he realised it was the slave from earlier. He must have fallen down the stairs - not surprising considering how lame he was. The slave appeared to be unconscious and he rolled him over carefully. The slave's face was bloody and as Wilson probed the source of the blood he could see he'd cut himself above the eyebrow. Not serious, but bloody as all head wounds tended to be.
There didn't appear to be any more serious injuries but the slave would have to be examined properly. Wilson turned around to call for a guerney, one hand still resting on the slave's body, when he felt a shock go through his body. He yelped and looked back at the slave. His collar was making a buzzing sound and a red light was blinking on it.
"Careful, Doctor Wilson, you don't want to get shocked again." A hand fell on his shoulder, urging him away and Wilson looked up to see one of the hospital's guards - George. "That's a recall signal. Whoever he belongs to is calling him back. The shocks will get stronger if he doesn't respond."
"He can't respond, he's unconscious," Wilson snapped.
The guard shrugged. "Well whoever is calling him doesn't know that. He's not one of ours. He belongs to that slave hire company - Rent-A-Slave. They were called in to help clean the basement. I'll contact them to let them know what's happened. They can come pick him up."
"No, he needs a cervical collar and a back-board before he can be moved. Then he needs to go to the ER for assessment. He may have spinal or head injuries."
"He's just a slave, he'll be fine."
"Even slaves can break their backs. Don't argue with me. Call the ER and get them to send a gurney up, and then call whoever you need to and tell them not to shock him again. He's not going anywhere soon."
The guard looked at him strangely but turned away to comply and Wilson turned his attention back to the slave. Blood was still dripping out of the cut and as Wilson watched the slaves eyes opened. Wilson quickly shook his head, put a finger to his lips, and closed his own eyes. When he opened them again the slave was lying quietly with his eyes firmly closed.
Once the ER team arrived Wilson supervised the precautionary measures and had the slave placed on the gurney.
"We can take it from here, Doctor Wilson."
"No, I'm coming with you." Wilson felt a proprietary interest in his patient now. He'd make sure the man got proper treatment, that was the least he could do for him. "Show me as his doctor."
"Expanding your practice?"
Wilson looked up from his coffee to see Cuddy standing next to him, and amused smile on her face.
"We generally send all non-emergency slave cases down the road to General. They're better equipped to deal with them."
"He fell down our stairs, I thought the least we could do is make sure he hadn't broken his back before kicking him out."
"Rent-a-Slave won't cover the costs you know, they are saying we treated him without their permission."
"It only happened an hour ago and already you're arguing over costs." Wilson shook his head.
"There are procedures to follow, and books to balance. We can't all be 'heroes in white coats'." Cuddy pointed the file she was holding at Wilson. "Thanks to you we have to stable him for the night - the rest of them have gone back to their home base. Not to mention the cost of all those tests you ordered."
"He's lame, Cuddy. And old, and he was cleaning our bathrooms all day, and then walking down four flights of stairs because he isn't allowed to use the elevator. They shocked him while he was lying on the floor."
"You sound like an abolitionist."
"No, but I am a doctor. You know, first - do no harm. Maybe you remember that one."
"I've heard of it." Cuddy sighed. "I'll take it out of discretionary funds. He can't stay on a general ward but there's a small room I can have him moved to out of the way - we sometimes use it for slaves. The other slaves from that company are coming back tomorrow - he can rest up and then go home with them in the evening. Will that suit you?"
"Yeah," Wilson said. "Thanks, Cuddy."
Greg cautiously opened his eyes and looked around the room he had been placed in. He was alone, although he could see people moving around outside. Like much of this hospital his room had glass walls, although some blinds partially shielded him from view.
There were restraints around both his wrists, tethering him to the bed The restraints were soft, and padded, and he assumed that normally they would be used on aggressive patients. They would be kinder on his wrists than the metal handcuffs that were usually used for disciplinary measures on slaves.
He'd obeyed the order of the man who had found him on the stairs, and kept his eyes closed for much of the time the medical staff were examining him. They'd roused him to 'consciousness' in the ER by using pain - it had been impossible to keep feigning sleep. They'd asked questions about his fall, and where he was feeling pain and then quickly had him x-rayed, presumably to rule out spinal damage. He'd been stripped of his work clothes and given a hospital gown to wear. Then they'd moved him to this room, fastened him to the bed and left him alone.
He hadn't experienced any further shocks from his collar, although he must have missed recall. He wasn't sure of how long had passed while he was being examined but he thought it must be quite late at night. He was hungry - morning meal was many hours in the past and he'd had no evening meal - but hunger was something he was used to. He'd drunk from the faucets in the bathrooms he'd cleaned so that wasn't a problem at the moment, although he wondered what would happen if he needed to use the facilities here.
He tugged lightly at one wrist but the restraints were strong, and besides, there was little point in trying to free himself - where would he go? In his younger days, in his first weeks as a slave, he'd tried to escape several times. Even with his first owner he'd still made an escape attempt. His owner hadn't been as concerned with scars as the training place had been, he'd collected his first set of lash marks on his back as a consequence for that attempt. Worst had been the extra confinement imposed on him in the weeks afterwards. The small degree of freedom a slave had was valuable; losing any of it hurt more than the lash of a whip.
He felt uneasy, both from being in a hospital, and being in a strange place. His life was one of grinding routine, and the absence of it was strange. He was as helpless here as it was possible for a slave to be - completely at the mercy of these people. Furthermore he wasn't where he was supposed to be - which was back in his dorm in the company building. He wondered what the other slaves would make of his absence.
The door to his room slid open and he tensed. It was the man from the stairs - the one who had held his finger to his lips to tell him to be quiet. As he looked at him now he realised he'd seen him before, while nearly knocking him over in a bathroom. He hadn't seemed angry then, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Sometimes free people stored up their anger for a long time.
"Hi, just wanted to see how you were going?' The man said, hovering near the doorway, he almost looked... embarrassed?
Greg didn't know what to answer to that, or what to do. He should kneel - but he couldn't get up. The man had asked him a direct question so it would be permissible, indeed necessary, for him to answer but what should he say? That his head was hurting and his leg was, as was normal, in agony? He hadn't been given any drugs, not even the ibuprofen he was usually handed at the evening meal.
Apparently he had taken too long to answer as the man continued on in a rush. "I'm Doctor Wilson, I found you on the stairs, that was quite a tumble you took. Did they tell you what's happening?"
"No, sir," he answered. That one was simple, no-one had told him anything.
"The people you were with have left for the day. They'll be back tomorrow and you can go home with them in the evening. We just want to keep an eye on you for a few hours. They x-rayed your spine and there's no damage, but you were knocked out, so there's concussion."
He was to spend the whole night and the next day in this bed? Doing nothing? That was a luxury indeed, despite the restraints on his wrists.
"Yes, sir." He said in response when Doctor Wilson seemed to be waiting for some reaction.
Doctor Wilson crossed the room and picked up a folder that was in a holder at the end of his bed. His chart, Greg realised. He ran his eyes over the top page and then flipped through another couple of pages, obviously looking for something. He looked up at Greg and frowned.
"Slave 435689-28-GH ? I can't call you that - what's your name?"
"Greg, sir." He briefly thought his surname but the wave of nausea that instantly engulfed him was enough to stop that line of thought. He didn't have another name that people might use. He was Greg, that was good enough for a slave.
"They haven't given you any medication, Greg? Nothing for the pain?"
Greg wished he hadn't mentioned pain. He'd been trying to dismiss that from his mind.
The doctor frowned and made a note in the chart.
"Are you in pain?"
Again he wasn't sure what to answer. Any answer could be wrong. But he was in pain and even the slim chance that Doctor Wilson would provide medication was better than nothing.
The Doctor frowned again and rubbed his hand over his face, he seemed exasperated.
"Is that all you can say? Yes, sir, no, sir? Where does it hurt?"
"Sir, my head hurts, and my side. And my leg hurts, of course." Might as well slip that in there as he was asking. "Sir, I usually get some ibuprofen with evening meal." He held his breath, he might have gone too far, this was more than he had talked to a freeman for quite some time.
"What happened to your leg? The chart doesn't mention it." He frowned again, he seemed displeased about something or other, Greg wasn't sure what.
"An infarction sir, in my thigh, seven years ago. Some of the muscle was removed. There was some damage to the nerves."
"And all you get is ibuprofen?" Doctor Wilson made another mark on the chart. "I'm ordering up something stronger for you - some oxycodone. Have you had anything to eat?'
"No, sir. Not since morning meal."
"Damn. Kitchen will be closed. I'll go and get you something, you need to have something to eat with the oxy."
He stared at the doctor, surprised. Maybe he had knocked himself out and he was dreaming this encounter. Doctor Wilson made a little gesture with his hand, somewhat like a wave, and quickly left.
Greg looked down at the bonds on his wrists. They seemed real enough. He closed his eyes and waited. Maybe Doctor Wilson would return, maybe he wouldn't. But just the promise of it, the idea that someone, someone who didn't own him, would care enough to go and get him food and pain killers, was enough.
Wilson paused outside the slave's... Greg's room long enough to instruct the nurse on duty to have some oxy ready for when he returned. She looked at him oddly and he rolled his eyes impatiently. Was it so odd that a slave should receive adequate medical care? Even from a purely pragmatic point of view surely it made sense that a slave should be cared for well to extended their useful working life.
Greg's chart had been skimpy. It looked like the ER staff had done the bare minimum. There was barely any history - even of his pre-existing injury. Wilson wondered if the lame leg had caused the fall. He'd glimpsed the horrific scar on his thigh while Greg was in the ER and he was sure that the leg was causing him considerable pain. His limp was severe and they type of work he had to do could only aggravate it.
As he made his way back to his office he briefly contemplated having one of his junior doctors go out for some take-out for Greg, maybe some thai, or a pizza. He wasn't sure what slaves ate - probably something filling but basic. He'd probably appreciate a treat. Then he shook his head, if he did that it would be all around the hospital in no time. He might not be up on the finer points of slave handling etiquette but he was pretty sure that would be breaking some of them.
Instead, he made his way to the oncology lounge and dug out the peanut butter and some bread. He'd make Greg a couple of sandwiches. It wasn't a hot meal, but it was better than nothing. On a whim he stopped off at a vending machine on the way back to Greg's room and picked out a couple of chocolate bars. Who didn't like chocolate? He shoved the food into a pocket on his lab coat.
The nurse had the oxy ready for him and he signed for it. A couple of pills would probably knock Greg out for the night, as he wasn't used to it, and a good night's sleep would do him wonders. He looked gaunt and worn down; Wilson had been surprised to find out that he was only a few years younger than Greg - he'd put the slave at closer to sixty than fifty.
Greg looked up at him as he entered his room. There was still some wariness in his expression and he didn't meet Wilson's eyes but he seemed a bit less tense than he had earlier.
"Brought you some food." Wilson said, wheeling over the table and putting the sandwiches on it. "It's not much but the cafeteria is closed."
"Thank you, sir." Greg said but didn't make a move to take the sandwich. Of course, his wrists were restrained.
Wilson sighed and bent over one of the restraints. They were the type used for psych patients and were fairly easy to remove if you could use your hands. He undid the right one, at least he'd be half honouring the hospital policy of keeping any slave patients restrained and Greg could manage a sandwich one handed.
Greg still didn't move to pick up the sandwich and Wilson sighed again. "It's okay, Greg. Go ahead and eat. Then you can take the pills."
Apparently Greg had been waiting for permission as he immediately picked up the sandwich and started devouring it. Before Wilson could blink he'd gone through both sandwiches as if they were the best food he'd had in a long time. Wilson smiled and produced one of the chocolate bars.
Greg's eyes went wide and Wilson figured that chocolate wasn't a major component of his usual diet.
"You've had chocolate before?"
"Yes. I wasn't born a slave." There was a trace of resentment in Greg's otherwise quiet voice. That, and dropping the 'sir' were the first signs of a personality beyond that of a bland, monotone slave. He immediately flinched and dropped his gaze to the thin blanket that covered him.
Wilson felt a surge of irritation, did Greg think he was going to hit him for speaking out of turn? Then he realised he was being unfair. Greg didn't know him, and had no way of knowing how Wilson would react. He backed off and sat down in the chair next to Greg's bed and pulled out the other chocolate bar from his pocket, leaving Greg's on the bed next to him.
He started eating his and after a brief pause Greg picked his own up and removed the wrapper. As he ate he seemed to relax a little, and he looked back up at Wilson.
Wilson was struck by the sharpness of his gaze. His eyes were a striking blue, and although there were age, and pain, lines all around them they were still bright. Greg was sizing him up, he was sure of that. Wondering just what Wilson's motives were. Wilson wondered himself.
When Greg was finished eating Wilson gave him the pills.
"They're stronger than what you're used to. They'll probably make you sleepy. I'll leave orders that you get another dose in the morning."
"Thank you, sir."
It was time for him to go. He'd done all he could for Greg. He made a mental note to come and see him after his own rounds tomorrow and make sure he was showing no further ill effects from his fall. He'd like to keep him in the hospital another day or two, maybe get him some proper treatment for his leg, but he knew there was no chance of that.
He gathered up the dinner debris and dumped it in the trash and nodded to Greg.
"I have to go. You should get some rest."
"Good night, Greg."
There was a hint of a smile on the other man's face when he answered. "Goodnight, Doctor Wilson."