Kergan looked over the floor. He stood before it and his desk that hugged its edge. Screen in it showed the robots were finishing lunch and would be plugging themselves back into their stations soon. The first of them were filing in through the doorways.
I know it seems odd to think of robots eating lunch. But they really don’t eat and they’re really not even robots. They were engineered just like the majority of the labor here, part animal, part human, part machine. It was easier to think of them as robots. You can’t really feel sorry for a machine. Even if they do feel pain and exhaustion.
But, they really didn’t look like robots either. They really didn’t look like people.
Except for their faces. The estate of the late Kathi Lee Kowalski had sold the rights to the actress/songstress bon vivant’s facial features to offset the cost of her decades of rehab. So, each robot bore her face, except an extra set of eyes in the back, so as to see pallets of merch rolling in to process.
Three pairs of arms, one set for heavy lifting, another for fine precision assembly, the last for flipping through screens with data. Information that wasn’t yet downloaded into their mind-chips for their jobs. They used that set too for swatting flies and picking off leaches where they knelt.
They recharged with a slurry of synthetic sardines, quinoa, and a blue kale pate. Washing it down with a couple liters of electrolytes. Then back to work.
The Team was unstoppable.
Kergan checked his watch.
El Presidente was late.
Below the watch display in the lower left corner of his usable conscious was a list of the day’s workorders and incoming emails. He red flagged the one that said his guest was five minutes out. He then commanded the robots to step things up as production was only 12% above nominal. 12%! 10,000 or so smiles from Kathi Lee Kowalski’s heads beamed back at him, and they picked up the pace. Other floors throughout the facility were probably doing the same. He thought of some of his counterparts, fellow Project Managers, that he got along with: AnnaJill, Tauren and Billy 5.
Poor Billy 5.
Billy 5 got sick, same as his workers, when a fly carrying Zerki infected them first, and later that same day his own nose fell off. Billy was rebuilt pretty fast and the workers were recycled, but he was working a second job now at a Tavern, turning tricks, to pay his medical expenses.
AnnaJill had that infectious laugh. Too bad she was on her twenty-third marriage. Maybe he could catch her before 24. What was he thinking? He was being monitored!
Tauren was like himself. All business and ready to crack at any moment.
The rest of the staff across the South Eastern quadrant of the state he only knew by their statistics.
Silence. He could feel space pinch, taking his breath away. The lights dimmed. Then, the whole room shuddered as El Presidente and his entourage arrived, hovering above. Kergan was chosen to showcase his product. He should feel honored, proud. Instead he was rather intimidated, felt nauseous.
Showcase his product.
Even his superiors were surprised to be left out of the loop. Kergan now was front and center. His superiors took a collective deep breath. Surprised. But not really; they had thought disparaging thoughts on Sputter and had re-posted less than flattering commentary on Spacebook. Stories of El Presidente and his Regime. Not good. They were lucky to be alive. But they were needed and thus tolerated until they could undoubtedly be replaced.
Kergan didn’t make waves. He went with the flow and kept his mouth shut. And his mind closed.
And just what was their product? There was that which they produced and the residual waste that it yielded. Well, that waste, that was the prize all along.
The corporation had padded a few politicians of course. Had them cook things, so that, for the most part, they got a blank check. Blank, from their subjects, ready to high five, jump off a cliff, whatever it took, with the Corporation, only having to make a few promises. Jobs. Well, they got around that by employing laborers that were just human enough to count. But not so human that they needed to live somewhere or sleep. Or be paid, other than their slurry.
Were they conceivably out foxed? Conned?
At first there were people. People like Kergan, but they built the system to replace themselves and most of them disappeared by attrition: disease and short telomeres resulting in death and dislocation. They came and went – and mostly went.
The product. What was the big deal with the product?
It started out as flat screens for entertainment monitors and surveillance, cell phones and vehicles. That was what they said. But everyone knew they would be obsolete in no time. They said they needed water for the manufacturing process and so a few more politicos were bought. The compact that said the water was to be used for the ‘general public’ only – it was now a ‘thumbs up’ instead. For their commerce. Yes, they would use a lot, but Lake Michigan was big. At least in the beginning. The Corporation also got waivers to reroute rivers and streams, fill in wetlands and the politicos were only too happy to help them out.
“Goody,” they were heard to think.
El Presidente entered the floor and all Kathi Lee Kowalskis turned their heads in adoration. Still working. Now at 15% above nominal. 15%! Kergan held out his hand but his guest didn’t bother with it. He had some chocolate cake for his excellency and a double wide chair for him to sit. Red velour with a vent in the middle, just as his handlers specified. He wheezed heavily and spit something into his shirt sleeve before speaking. The governor accompanied him, but he was forced to remain standing.
“It’s a lovely operation you have here Kergan,” the mammoth praised and then coughed up a tooth. His handlers scrambled to pick it up, however it impacted the governor’s shiny bald spot and he fell to the floor in a pool of albumen.
El Presidente waved his hand and sneered.
The world’s largest factory. And what a world it was. The state’s single largest investment in a foreign corporation. Ever. Any corporation. The nation’s single largest investment in a foreign corporation. Any corporation. Right here in a state known for a culture of debauchery and cheese. Some say it must be the water.
“While making the flat screens here” Kergan pointed, “this is where they strip the lepton bonds, and strangeness for smoothness. And, of course, so the byproduct, water, can have the space between each individual atom virtually eliminated.”
The governor now was getting to his feet and quipped, “And we can fit a one hundred million gallons of Lake Michigan water (that goes into screen production) into the container of a one liter bottle.”
Made right here from recycled silage from the dairy industry.
Kergan continued, “And we can reconstitute afterword…”
“As we have done to supply water for Colorado River Reservoirs, replenishing most of the Southwest,” the governor interrupted. Dollar signs showing in his eyes.
“And we produce this by making flat screens,” Kergan beamed, “The patented process with the so-called unexplained loss of water that doesn’t make it back to the treatment plants.”
El Presidente with a mouth full of cake blurted, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the domestic implications of your product, your byproduct, your flat screens that have been replaced by little hologram projectors and brain implants.”
A handler fans him as the chair begins to give.
“What I care about is: are you going to be able to produce enough liter size bottles of water for my joint venture with the Chinese and the Russians terraforming Mars for my latest resort and golf course?”
Top illustration by Jeff Worman
Jeff Worman lives in Walworth County, Wisconsin where there is water and a crisp, cool night sky conducive to the creative process. He has been drawing and writing since he was able to hold a pencil in his hand. Worman started out as a high school intern at the Bugle-American, an alternative newspaper in Milwaukee, and was a founder and long standing contributor to the Crazy Shepherd which emerged from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is published currently as the Shepherd Express. Worman’s column The Hourly Why was conceived in 1982, published broadly in underground newspapers over the decades and can be found online today at www.thehourlywhy.com. He has a great love of the outdoors and champions charities by riding those long distance centuries on his road bike to raise funds. Contact the author.