I know I'm not very good at telling a story, but I had this idea in my head and just had to write it out... Characters and plot aren't my strong suit. ;)
The War continues.
We were winning, of course. Sure we were. How could we not win? We of the higher moral ground, we of pride and bravery, we of compassion and mercy. We had to be winning - the radio told us so every evening. The radio couldn't lie, the newspapers couldn't lie, the soldiers themselves couldn't lie. And yet, the War dragged on. And on. And on.
If this was what winning felt like, I thought miserably as I hurried through the empty streets, Gods have mercy on the folks who are losing.
I was running late, of course. Three spirit inspections a day was far too many for a department that was as desperately understaffed as our own. Just last week we had a mess of trouble from a half-crazy inventor that resulted in my sleeping on the little cot in the office for five days straight. Idiot tried to use a foreign-speaking spirit to trick an inspector into thinking it was below Sentient class. How they continue to believe that rubbish is beyond me; there's enough information flooding out of PropDep that the average Joe on the street is a veritable expert on spirit identification. It may have fooled a schoolchild, but our training and equipment has been proven to never give a false negative.
It just reinforced how important our work is. The only difference between us and them is morality. We're neither cruel nor desperate enough to use Sentient spirit power, even if it's more powerful and clever. That we stand so firmly on this issue is what will win us the war. Good shall always triumph over evil, and there is no evil worse than imprisoning the Sentient dead.
I brushed past abandoned, boarded-up houses and humming factories. A few lonely lights danced in the windows of the factories - the evening staff, tending to their spirits. One of these factories was my destination. Just a routine inspection, shouldn't be any problems. It's not the factories we have to worry about, usually. They're built and designed to be run on sub-Sentient power. If they were fitting for Sentient power, it would be obvious. It's not the sort of thing you can hide from our department researchers.
Most applications only need access to the power of the dead, which can be drawn from the unlimited supply of ethereal energy that is emitted by a pinned spirit. A pinned spirit can't move or hibernate; it is effectively imprisonment. We only allow the use of sub-Sentient spirits which don't know any better; they don't understand their fate. We require that they never be left alone for long periods of time. Spirits left unattended have managed to self-destruct, causing great damage to themselves, the machinery they reside in, and other nearby spirits. If they're monitored, a spirit on the verge of destruction can be unpinned and freed before it becomes dangerous. It's not difficult to find and pin a replacement; a minor inconvenience considering the vast amounts of power and even intelligence they give us.
They use Sentient spirits in their weapons, in state utilities... hell, they pin Sentients into their fucking home appliances. They use viscous containment methods that drive the spirits insane. They force them to perform menial tasks over and over, hour after hour, with no rest. I've caught a few Sentient-class spirits that escaped from their machinery, and it's not pretty. "The duty of the dead," their propaganda calls it. It's disgusting. It's filthy. It's not duty, it's slavery. If I could get my hands on the people responsible, I'd -
Ah, here it is. A worse for wear factory that looked as empty and lonely as all the others I passed. I trudged up the steps just as the first fat raindrops fell from the sky. Small miracles, I comforted myself, neglecting to think too much about the trip home. (Perhaps I could borrow a phone and ring a cab, though that's rather unprofessional - though trotting off into a furious rainstorm is also quite unprofessional, when you get down to it. And once I'm done this inspection I'm technically off the clock, providing everything goes smoothly. Of course everything will go -)
"Hello," I said to the young woman who was peering out of a doorway just off the entrance hall. She has the confused look of someone who had closed their eyes for "just a moment," only to wake up several hours later. A lot of the caretakers looked like that, these days. Long hours with little pay will do that to a person.
"I'm Sandra Davis, Senior Spirit Inspector, SpiriDep. I'm afraid I'm running late, though you were informed I would be here today...?"
The girl blinked the sleep from her eyes and nodded in affirmation. As an afterthought, she stuck our her hand and offered her name, Milly. An unfortunate name for a sweet-looking woman, I couldn't help but think. Tired, but sweet.
"Very well, this shouldn't take too long and then I'll be on my way." She escorted me to the production floor, showed me the generators, the factory machines, a sample of the product right off the lines. My instruments swept over and through the machinery giving nothing but clean readings, not even so much as a sub-sentient class 5, a spirit class that's popular due to its energy efficiency and cleverness, which can sometimes trip a sensor. No, everything here was neat and tidy, by the books.
So why was Milly being so hostile?
That thought took me by surprise, but when I turned to study the girl more closely it became apparent that there was something wrong. She was holding herself with an unnatural tenseness, she kept trying to casually peek over my shoulder at my instrument readings. Her replies were too prompt, her face too hard, with a barely-hidden scowl. And her eyes - she kept looking at... not, that's not right. She was trying to avoid looking at something.
"Alright, that's about it! Everything here seems clean." She looked only mildly relieved, s it couldn't be anything on the production floor. The next logical thing, then. "Now, it's standard procedure for us to check the staff areas, too -"
Ah! That was it. The poor thing turned white as a sheet. And she had been trying so hard to hide... whatever it was. I almost felt bad for her. Well, it really wasn't standard procedure to scan the personal affects of the staff - far too invasive to do something like that on a regular basis - but we could if we felt it was needed. I wanted to know what she was hiding. A weapon, most likely; those were becoming unfortunately popular these days. There was also the new illegal fortune devices fad; supposedly tapping into the "great knowledge" of the undead. (Milly didn't strike me as the superstitious type, anyway.) Or maybe -
"Hmmmm," I said thoughtfully as I stepped into her personal quarters, Milly shuffling in behind me, like a sulky shadow. For a moment I was worried she may become violent, but a glance at the girl revealed she didn't have a violent bone in her body. She was chewing her lower lip and looking as if she was going to cry.
"Hmmm," I repeated as my instruments started getting excited. The Sniffer led me to a small writing desk. As I got closer, the detector on my belt squawked and a blurry humanoid shape appeared on the screen of my ID unit. Fully Sentient-class, no doubt about it. I reached out my hand to touch the... watch? It was just a plain pocket-watch, quite clearly not a weapon or a fortune unit. Why have a Sentient imprisoned inside? You barely needed any power at all to run a simple pocket watch. As I let my fingers graze the cool metal of the casing, my detector instantly fell silent. The ID unit suddenly showed only a faint, irregular waveform. The Sniffer still eagerly pointed at the watch, though.
"Don't take him!" Milly squeaked, hovering just behind me, clearly too terrified to snatch the watch from my hands, though dearly wanting to. "Don't take him, they'll hurt him!"