from The Literary Review

excerpt from

Manus

 

zoologyanatomythe terminal or distal portion of the forelimb of an animalespecially a vertebratehomologous with or analogous to the hand.

roman law: a form of power or authority . . .

--The Oxford English Dictionary

 

The architecture firm I worked for had gotten the contract to design the supplementary housing for the Masters’ new American headquarters in Washington, which meant extra hours at the office. A lot of plans were getting scrapped and having to be redrawn, because after seven years we were still learning about the Masters. They had an absolute loathing of physical contact, even with each other, so all the hallways had to be three times as wide as we would have made them for people. They hated rough surfaces, so where we would have liked to put carpeting there had to be acrylic tile instead. As soon as you thought you’d sorted things out they would pass down a new mandate: no incandescent lighting, no windows, as few corners as possible. I was glad we didn’t have to figure out the headquarters building itself—another, bigger firm in New York was designing that, although the construction couldn’t be started until a third company finished hauling away the remains of the Pentagon.

My coworker, Beatrice, called Masters “the snots,” because that was pretty much what they looked like—giant globs of snot. Every time she said it I got the same thrill I had in elementary school when one of the older kids did something illicit at the back of the bus. Beatrice’s desk faced the hallway, so I guess there wasn’t much chance that any Masters could get in hearing range without her noticing, but I still felt a buzz of adrenaline every time she said, “Oh goody, another visit from the snots.” She was an older woman, plump, always wearing frilled blouses—she looked like she ought to be at home watching Family Feud, which just made her defiance more entertaining.

Bea and I spent most of the morning playing online Scrabble at our desks and sending each other links to hilarious or disgusting internet videos, but around eleven a Master slithered into the doorway and said, “Hey, anyone who don’t have upgrades needs ta go to tha conference room.” I waited until the Master left and rolled my eyes at Bea.

“Have fun, sucker,” she said.

I went into the hall and followed a stream of people down to the conference room. It was a much smaller group than it had been the last time we went through this ridiculous exercise several months ago. Once we were all seated, Peggie from HR clicked on the projector, and someone turned out the lights.

The blue screen gave way to the words, “Official Re-Handing Procedures,” and I probably would have dozed off right then if the video hadn’t immediately switched from the title screen to a close up of Daniella Cortège. Which I guess was the point of her—flawless face of the Re-Handing Procedures Initiative. I had seen this same footage at least a hundred times, like everyone else in the world, but I still did a double-take when she came on the screen.

The familiar images continued. Daniella—French, nineteen years old, hot as a cast-iron skillet in a white angora blouse and tight gray skirt—walks down the hallway of an Exchange Center. She is followed by two Masters, their gelatinous yellow bodies gliding along the floor tiles, two undifferentiated masses indistinguishable from one another. Smiling, Daniella walks into the exchange room and approaches the blank, buffed zinc face of the “Exchange Apparatus,” known to everyone with legs as the Forker. Here was where I always started to think that maybe the Masters were just playing dumb when they said they didn’t understand why people complained so much about the re-handing, that in fact they had a very good grasp of human aesthetics, because when Daniella holds her hands out to insert them into the Forker they are ugly: mannish, calloused, the fingernails chewed down to warped little buttons. A blemish on an otherwise breathtaking girl. Without hesitation she puts her hands into the two dark slots in the face of the Forker, and the pneumatic cuffs hiss shut around her wrists.

 

The full version of this story is featured in the spring 2015 edition of The Literary Review (the John Le Carré issue). To purchase a copy and read more, click here.