It’s the end of Jason Evan’s second five-hour shift, and the regulation music in his ear buds is starting to grate like the squeal of feedback.
He glances down at the hangar-sized room where his friends work, a sea of blue-clad workers surrounding assembly lines that run the length of the room. He turns back to the air quality machine and scans the dials. This job is way better than the bone-numbing repetition of the assembly line. Up here on the catwalk he can stand, walk, or sit. He even has time to think.
He suspects he owes his promotion to Jenny’s father, who is one of the air quality engineers, a job he qualified for because he taught engineering at the university.
Jason glances out the windows to see a convoy of double tractor-trailer trucks protected by armored cars cross the treeless no-man’s-land that surrounds the ten-foot chain link fence protecting the factory complex, the checkpoint guards waving the convoy through. Gray clouds are massed on the horizon. The convoy is lucky to arrive before the storm hits. The trucks disappear from sight around the back of the factory where dozens of forklifts will unload barrels of raw materials and crates of vegetables, grain, and meat from the factory farms that fill the Shenandoah Valley.
Jason’s dad skates the loading docks on his hover board, scanning every incoming and outgoing shipment, keeping track of the comings and goings of supplies and products. Since his dad taught philosophy at the university, he isn’t qualified to do much more than inventory. Jason feels bad that he is sometimes ashamed of his father. His father is a good man, he tells himself, although perhaps not a particularly strong one.
The storm races across the bay, waterspouts rising like whirling Dervishes. The wind blows wave foam over the docks and sets the giant chains hanging from the cranes swinging.
He remembers the excitement he felt as a kid when he and his brother Alex were out in the woods running to get to the barn before the storm broke—happy and free and invincible.
As he watches, the storm sweeps over the buildings, bending the trees on the playing fields and whipping the Wellcore flag on its pole. He misses feeling the way he did as a kid. What he feels now is a kind of cottony emptiness. He was happy then. He does not feel anything like that now even though he has every reason to be happy. He has a job that allows him to send money home to support his family and save for his wedding. He is incredibly fortunate to have a girlfriend like Jenny who has wealth and influence. Still, he feels mostly numb.
But, he reasons, maybe feeling numb is part of growing up. Maybe everyone was naturally happy as a kid, but when you grow up, you have to learn to let that go. You learn to do what you have to do. You take responsibility. You get a job. You get married. You learn to accept that the kind of freedom and happiness you felt as a kid is a thing of the past.
The wind sprays water from the fountain across the courtyard, then moves on, raising dust devils across no-man’s-land and pushing like a fist into the sickly trees on the far side. Then the rain hits, and his vision is obscured by the water pelting the building in gusts. He doesn’t remember ever feeling afraid when he was a kid. He would stand outside in the worst thunderstorms, his chest bared to the elements as if he were challenging the heavens. What he feels now is mostly numbness with an undercurrent of dread.
Of course, storms today are more dangerous. He has seen footage of what tornadoes can do, and without the protection of the buildings, without power, without water, they would be exposed and vulnerable. The news is full of images of Army vehicles patrolling the burned-out streets that surround the protected city centers. He is lucky to live where he does.
An electronic clock on the factory wall reads 5:54, the digitized numerals red against a black background and visible to all two thousand men on the factory floor. The factory is a haven of safety from the chaos of the Dark Zones, a wonder of precision and efficiency. The engineers who designed it thought of everything, from the air and water purifiers to the laundry beneath the building that washes linens for ten thousand people. When he arrived at fifteen, Jason was given a tour of the facility. The thing that impressed him most was the huge rollers that dried, pressed, and folded twenty sheets a minute.
He is awed by the foresight of the engineers who built this factory, one of the first of its kind, in Hanover, north of Richmond. With sea level rise, the coast is at its doorstep, making it and Richmond easy to supply. He pictures the engineers sitting at their computers, designing every meticulous part of the complex that feeds, houses, and entertains ten thousand workers. He imagines doing work like that someday, something challenging.
He glances at the factory floor, thousands of hands moving with the precision of robotic arms. He doesn’t see why they can’t design a machine to fold and fill the pillboxes. Every other part of the process is automated. One machine ingests the streams of white powder and spits out a steady stream of tiny white pills, which disappear into a hopper and reappear as sheets of blister-packed pills that roll out of the machine like sheets of paper. The next machine separates the sheets into squares and drops them onto the conveyor beside the flattened boxes. But there is something about the folding and filling of the boxes that is more efficiently done by human hands. And if they did design a machine, they would all be out of a job. He is lucky, damn lucky to have this job. From what he hears, there are waiting lists of hundreds for every job that opens.
He glances at the clock. 5:55. He scolds himself for looking at the clock more than once every two minutes. He takes a deep breath, breathing in and allowing the air to fill his lungs, lifting his rib cage. Then he exhales. Work is a meditation. Work is freedom from conflict or thought.
He would like to make things better for people although he isn’t sure of how he might do that. He’d like to be an engineer, but he can’t afford to take time off to go to school. And anyway, it takes connections to get into Wellcore University, connections his family doesn’t have. Besides, he needs to keep working to keep sending money home and saving for his wedding.
Jenny’s dowry will pay for the down payment on an apartment, but once he has a wife to support, there will be no taking time off to go back to school. But it’s good, all good. He couldn’t be luckier. Jenny is way above anything he has any right to hope for.
He tries to maintain a positive attitude, but it’s hard not to feel the creeping fog of disappointment. Tomorrow is his nineteenth birthday, the day he will legally be an adult, able to sign contracts, vote, enlist in the military, and drink. Something should mark this milestone in his life, but nothing in his life will change. If the Violence hadn’t happened, he would be going off to college, living on his own, meeting girls.
As it is, his birthday means nothing at all. All the rights he gains are moot points. There is only one party that has any power, so his vote makes no difference. Since he has a job, he has no need and no desire to join the military, whose main function is to protect the city centers. And being old enough to drink won’t matter since alcohol is banned in the factory complex for obvious health and safety reasons.
His eyes flick back to the clock, 5:57. He straightens as the voice in his ear buds announces, “Shift change in three minutes.”
Workers dressed in identical blue smocks and shower caps enter the factory through a wall of doors. Each holds his communicator up to a sensor to clock in. Men stream onto the factory floor, each taking his place behind a seated worker.
A man’s voice counts down the last five seconds before the shift change. “Five, four, three, two, one, rise.” The workers rise in unison, step aside, and new workers take their place. It is more efficient not to stop the conveyor belt.
Jason holds his wrist up to the sensor as he exits and pulls off his shower cap, stuffing it into his pocket and running his hand through a shock of dirty-blond hair. He is one of a stream of workers carried forward on a tide. Unlike most of the others, he removes his smock, wadding it into a ball as he crosses the immense atrium filled with palm trees beneath a transparent dome. The storm has passed, and the sky has turned sulfurous yellow, the low clouds underlit by the lights of the factory.
The sight of the palms and the fountain spilling water over an enormous chrome W reassure him that they are in good hands. The shops that line the mall are filled with the latest fashions. Anything anyone might need is here.
The mall is full of chatter as the blue-clad workers are joined by a stream of pink-clad female workers ending their shift in the communicator assembly plant. Jason envies them the greater challenge of their work assembling the intricate workings of communicators, but female hands are smaller and more deft than men’s.
As he rides up on one of a line of escalators, Jason fits in his ear buds, and rock music takes over his senses. He smiles, transported, bobbing his head to the music. Two girls, still wearing their pink shower caps, glance back and smile. He turns off his music, removes one ear bud and overhears them commenting on the electronic advertisements that line the wall beside the escalator.
“They’ve got twenty percent off at Maxx and buy two get one free at One and Only. Where do you want to go first?” The girl looks down as she speaks, her fingers busy texting on the virtual screen projected from her communicator.
The shorter of the two girls glances back at Jason.
He must pass the appearance test because she looks again, closely enough to see that he does not have a gold communicator or four hundred dollar shoes. Despite that, she continues to look, giving him a quick, sly once-over.
Go ahead and ask me, he thinks and gives her a smile.
“Do you have a card?” She asks shyly.
“Of course.” He holds out his wrist and taps send. He has given her access to his file, complete with photo, physical report, his test scores, his potential quotient. Not that anything will come of it. He isn’t sure why he has given it to her, except for bragging rights. His friends keep score of how many cards they have given out.
Jason puts his ear buds back in, listening to his music as he rises up past electronic advertisements for clothes, high-end leather bags, and silk scarves, none of which he can afford.