Clock in, clock out—that about summed up my workdays, since I lost track of everything else that occurred in between.
Historians claimed people of the early 21st century expected advancements such as flying cars, settlements on Mars, and cures for cancer. Worse, the world found a way to expedite production by subjugating people’s minds to the control of artificial intelligence, to recuperate from abundant losses of not only populations, but also cities and resources after World War III.
“How was work last night?” My partner, Jamie, asked during breakfast. We rarely saw each other during the day or night. “You really going to take tomorrow off? We have bills to pay, you know.”
“I’m not too exhausted.” I lied to placate Jamie’s worry. “But I’d like a break. Maybe we can take a trip to an underground metropolis? New Chicago?”
Jamie smiled. “Okay, Peyton. That sounds refreshing. Anyway, please tell me Emblazon isn’t still threatening your team with layoffs again?”
I looked away. “You mean Demand-Azon? They are, they always do, before we’re put under.”
“Is everything okay?”
“My arms and legs are a little numb. Who knows how hard they worked us last night?”
Jamie huffed, poking at their food with a wooden fork. “So, you lied? C’mon, Peyton. Do you even know what they’re asking you to do? It’s seemed awful lately.”
“We don’t,” I replied sharply before downing a glass of purified water. “The holidays are creeping up. We’re probably boxing and shipping mechanical body suits for the Upper kids. They’re pretty cool, you should—”
“Or,” Jamie interrupted, “you’re building weapons. Again.”
I eschewed eye contact. The topic of weapons capable of planetary devastation always riled Jamie up, and I couldn’t blame them. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Emblazon is the wealthiest company in the world.”
“I don’t like it.” Jamie stood, picking up their plate and placing it in an automated dishwasher. “We don’t need another World War. I’m leaving for work. Please do not forget to take your pills.”
The pills were already on me. Before taking them, I liked to play with them in my hand, snug inside my pocket. I had to swallow three pills, two required by Emblazon and one encouraged by Jamie: a stimulant infused with artificial substances that increased energy levels, another pill that served as an acute mental illness inhibitor, and a heart-shaped multivitamin.
After swallowing all three pills, I rose, and out the door to Emblazon I ventured.
* * *
My team wore white jumpsuits trimmed with gold embroidery. We stood in a horizontal line before our team leader, Lewis, promoted by Emblazon to survey people in our section of the warehouse. He fixed his thick-framed glasses while turning through pages of weekly updates.
“Peyton,” Orion whispered.
“Take your pills today?” He snickered ingenuously.
I sighed. “Orion, what is it?”
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“No, I think Jamie and I are going to New Chicago.”
“Yuck, New Chicago? You should work. You know what they say: Work enough Sundays and join the Uppers for some fun days!”
“Don’t be delusional,” I checked to assure Lewis was still distracted. “We will always be fated as the worst of three social classes, below even AI.”
Orion snarled, shaking his head. “If I’m inferior, then so are you. I just don’t see why anyone would want to go underground. If it weren’t for Emblazon, then we’d all still be living in places like New Chicago.”
Clearing his throat, Lewis finally observed his team, peering left and right to weed out workers who appeared lethargic. “Good morning everyone.”
“Good morning!” We all repeated with vigor.
“First order of business, the demand for manufacturing is burgeoning. We expect to see you all here tomorrow. This is mandatory.”
Nobody showed resistance. My palms grew sweaty, my body amped up on pills failing to mask any apprehension or bitterness. I never asked for a day off, but it had been years since Jamie and I explored the remnants of the U.S. Some areas were safe, others inundated with radiation, cesspools of indescribable organic mutations, or dead zones.
“I can’t come in tomorrow,” I grumbled.
“I said I can’t come in. We normally have Sundays off anyway, so I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“Follow me,” Lewis ordered, waving his hand. “Excuse us for a minute, everyone.”
We walked to an adjacent room containing the beds warehouse workers lied on before being put under. I trailed Lewis to my assigned station, and he turned to me with spiteful eyes.
“We need you here tomorrow,” Lewis admitted. “Our asses are on the line here! You know this!”
“No disrespect, but my partner and I need a break. C’mon, Lewis, you know what this job puts us through. You were in our shoes not even a year ago. Just give me one day off!”
“Peyton, do you see these walls?” He turned and pointed with both of his thumbs, avoiding confrontation. “They’re noise-proof. Nobody can hear us.”
I remained silent, attempting not to look confused by his senseless statement.
“So, why do you really need a day off? It’s okay, you can tell me. Please don’t tell me you’re journeying home again, or to New Chicago.”
My brows furrowed at his insinuations. “I’m telling you the truth, Lewis.”
“I see. Well, you’ve always been smarter than you look. I’m sure you already know this, but I’ll tell you anyway: World War III didn’t conclude because of mutual destruction. It ended because of an external force invading us after initial worldwide annihilation. It’s no coincidence. We were being monitored, and for many decades.
“The Uppers posited that this occurred through human surrogates, people covertly implanted with extraterrestrial technology to be used as pawns. To this day, we cannot verify when these events occurred, but we’re guessing they happened sometime during the 2000s or 2010s. However, controlling individuals with our own encrypted technology limits exposure and vulnerability. We want to maintain some form of confidentiality down here.”
I couldn’t help but cringe. Lewis complimented my intelligence to only offend me. His scripted speech or scare tactic didn’t resonate any truth with me. It was a simple ploy to coerce people into working, people like Orion.
“You don’t believe me,” Lewis detected.
“Aliens? They might exist. Hell, statistically, they should. But until I see them, I won’t believe your fabricated story. Why are you spewing that spoon-fed shit to me?”
Lewis nodded with a smirk, glancing at the floor. “Okay, well why don’t you lie down? Let’s kickoff your Saturday and then you’ll be free to go tonight. I’ll make adjustments. Maybe a few people will stay a little longer.”
“Of course. You’re right, you deserve a day off. I’ll put the others under after you.”
I climbed onto the bed, rested on my back, and closed my eyes. Hearing Lewis start the machine to invite artificial delegation, my body calmed as if receiving a sedative. The process seemed simple and took a matter of seconds before my body succumbed to the apparatus.
“Any issues?” Lewis questioned.
“No, I’m good.”
“Decent. They need this break, too. We all need a break.”
Lewis remained silent.
“Right?” I asked.
“Yes. Like you said, I know what Emblazon puts us through. Our bodies can’t handle this long-term.”
“Well, maybe I’ll receive a promotion like you…”
“Maybe. Okay, Peyton. You should fall asleep right about—” Lewis sighed softly. “Now.”
* * *
“I solved the problem. Only one person believed they merited a day off.” Lewis confirmed over the phone. He sat in a regal chair in front of vast windows beholding a section of an Emblazon warehouse, watching his employees work at unusually fast rates.
What did you do? What is this person’s name?
“Adjusted the code to work the individual overnight and for the duration of Sunday. That person will come to Sunday evening.”
You didn’t answer my second question.
“I’ll handle it, no need for your interference. This person will work. I guarantee it.”
Then how will your actions today mollify future resistance?
“It may not. But we need to maintain this production pace. They’re demanding ten-fold the amount of provisions this time. Anything less and they’ll get rid of us. Right?”
Correct. Just giving you something to think about. Don’t disappoint me, Lewis. Fortunately, I don’t sense as much uncertainty from you as I did a few weeks ago. Quit empathizing with these pill-popping peons.
If I feel an AI can do your job better than you again, then you’ll be popping pills, copious amounts rather. Do you hear me?
“Loud and clear, boss. I won’t let you down.”
Great. They’re invading another planet soon, so let’s make sure they have all the equipment they require. Get to work.
The phone left Lewis’ hand as his boss hung up. Taking another glance at his unit, he thought of the once jocund Chicago, his former spouse, and enjoyable dinners with Jamie and Peyton in the city. He recalled his prior ignorance of the unprecedented, and ruminated of his inability to change anything, knowing he probably couldn’t have. Life became an endless economic duress for many, and the fate of humanity depended on it.
This story was originally published by Asymmetry: Short Speculative Fiction.