The morning of her first day of retirement, Agnes sat at her kitchen table and let 50 years of labor pull heavily on her body. Steam rose and unfurled from her mug of coffee as she stared at the small, red refrigerator sitting on her countertop. A draft blew from the air vent on the ceiling and stirred a few strands of her white hair, and she gently closed her eyes, her body remaining still. It was a day of grieving; the end of her purpose.
Not only was it the first day of Agnes’s retirement, but it was also the first Labor Day since her childhood that she didn’t work. It was custom in the country of Slantia to celebrate Labor Day by engaging in a 24-hour work day to demonstrate the productivity of the human worker, and on Labor Day, factories were filled with traditional songs and chanting of delighted laborers, singing tunes of the joys of turning the great cog. “I fuel the great machine!” workers exclaimed throughout the day, feeling pride in their handiwork as a mass. Agnes typically wore a red bandana on this day to pay respect to Rosie, one of the great icons and fore-mothers of the labor revolution. Today she wore no red bandana, though, and rather sat at her kitchen table, wondering what her fellow workers were doing at that same moment.
It was certainly a quiet morning at her cubicle complex, and Agnes was probably the only occupant in the conglomerate of boxed housing in her neighborhood because every worker attended Labor Day. Each of the thousands of workers in her city were allotted their own personal quarters in the form of a studio living space, which existed among countless other dwellings stacked on top of each other for miles high and miles wide. This is where each worker slept their scheduled 8 hours of rest and refreshed their clothing in the washing vestibule mounted in their kitchen. Agnes’s cubicle was noticeably devoid of sound, and only the rumbling of the power hummed away, and even that was muted to Agnes’s ears, as she had gotten so used to that constant sound.
She took a sip of her coffee, and the steam tickled her nostrils with warm moisture. Even though Agnes was retired, she still wore the same silver jumpsuit all the workers wore because she had no other clothes except work clothes. Looking down at herself, she felt hollow today, and thought about all the mornings she had drank this same mug of coffee before commuting to the Factory; now, her day was empty and she would provide no purpose. Tonight she would lay down to bed knowing she contributed nothing to the great machine.
In a week, she would be removed from the cubicle housing and exiled to the Desert, which wasn’t actually a desert, but what they called the place where expired workers went to finish their earthly decay. Agnes didn’t feel like her body was weak enough to retire yet, but at age seventy, workers were forced into retirement, and the government had denied her appeal to continue working because she had a bad knee. “I shouldn’t have mentioned my knee pains to that doctor last year,” she cursed herself, fighting back heartbroken tears. She didn’t want to find out what the Desert was like. At least she was given a week before she would be exiled; most retirees had only a day before their transition, but due to a scheduling error, Agnes had a whole week.
“What will I ever do this week?” she asked her kitchen. The power fueling her unit (and all the other units) dully hummed on, giving nothing. Agnes sighed, her chest slumped over the table.
Agnes was in better condition than most retirees, but her body was still a victim of decades’ grinding. She had been a dishwasher at the Factory, and hand-washed every plate, cup, and bowl that the assembly belt brought before her and the other dishwashers. The government did not divulge where exactly these dirtied dishes were coming from–or from whom–but they were exquisite and from a variety of fine china sets. Agnes would sometimes fantasize about who dined with these elegant silverware and what they ate upon these plates; her favorite imagined scenario was that the Matriarch of Slantia herself hosted an international dinner with other world leaders and discussed the terms of a new trade agreement, interspersed with light table talk and pleasant jokes about the weather. In reality, these dishes were used by the Elite, who posed as celebrities and work-motivators of the cause, great patriots of the relentless Slantia, but who were actually merely wealthy and owned the Factories while paying off the government officials. Even then, the Elite were such a small group that their dirtied dishes wouldn’t create nearly enough work for all the dishwashers employed in the nation, so most of the dishes were dirtied simply to give the dishwashers activity; there was a whole sector of workers who spent the work day slapping food waste on dishes.
If a dish was broken by a laborer, they were shamed for doing poor work and docked pay, depending on the severity of the mistake. Because of this, Agnes was able to train her daydreaming so that it didn’t distract her from a firm grip and a constant scrubbing motion, and only the rookie dishwashers and those too aged and worn out usually broke the dishes. A “work-motivator” would come out from their office and reprimand the worker how they saw fit; it often resulted in more severe punishment than just docked pay. “That’s what you get for being a bad worker…” Agnes would think to herself, turning away from the whimpering laborer and back to scrubbing pasta sauce out of a bowl.
The work-motivators were the people who had worked the hardest and proved themselves worthy of reward; although Agnes had never known anyone to be promoted, that was the tale they told–“Work hard, and become a noble work-motivator!” Then one could help motivate others to be good workers, too. Agnes had always thought she was a consistent laborer and secretly hoped for this promotion, yet despite her dreams of ascending to a higher purpose, she had never been selected. Unfortunately, for someone of her financial background, this job title was nothing short of completely infeasible.
For all her 50 years of labor, what she had received were hands practically paralyzed with arthritis, a stooped back from bending over the wash basins every day, calloused feet from standing for several hours at a time, blotches permanently scarred on her hands and arms from the dishwashing chemicals, and an obesity problem from not maintaining an active lifestyle. These physical ailments were common among dishwashers, just as each job had its typical long term health problems that accompanied it. All the other medical issues Agnes experienced were not caused directly from her job, and even the issues she did have, the Factory would never accept ownership for; they were her fault, not the Factory’s.
Agnes finished the rest of her coffee and discarded her plastic mug into the waste disposal box next to her clothes washing vestibule. These boxy contraptions sat on her countertop next to her miniature fridge, and were each about the size of a large microwave. Only the wealthy used real ceramic dishes, and all the laborers consumed their food and beverage from plastic, disposable containers for the convenience of their work-centric lives. They simply tossed their used plastic ware into the top of their waste disposal box, which was hooked up to a larger machine at the heart of their cubicle complex, and where it was converted it into energy to fuel society; workers were twofold happy about never having to wash dishes and to be able to contribute this metamorphosed energy.
Besides, the laborers received their food and beverage from their refrigerator. It was called a “refrigerator” because of its form, a word leftover from prior to the work revolution, but it was actually a machine that produced a variety of pre-programmed dishes and drinks. A laborer would select which meal they wanted to eat—-pasta, egg-sandwich, or rice—-and then opened the refrigerator door to discover their food already steaming hot and provided on top of a plastic plate. Agnes had worked hard over the years to save up enough money to buy an additional food program upgrade for her fridge; her new unit offered her fried chicken and pizza on top of the basic options. It was her prized possession.
Most laborers could not afford much more than their rent. Although the laborers were required to live in the cubicle complex—-not that there were any alternative options—-the cost of rent was astronomical, which was ironic given the minimal time workers spent at their homes. Of course, the narrative the workers lived by was that they should desire to work hard to fuel the great nation of Slantia and therefore feel a higher sense of purpose to give their lives meaning, and rent was high merely because this standard of living was so luxurious, what with the refrigerators and state-of-the-art technology. The laborers valued hard work over everything, and happily accepted that if they wanted more out of life, they simply had to work harder and better for it; never mind that they government was always dangling the carrot just slightly out of reach for them.
In fact, if the laborers had any idea how fundamentally corrupt their government’s system was, their brainwashing was so thorough that they probably would not even believe the evidence if it were plain and indisputable before their eyes. While the citizens of Slantia believed that their nation was the greatest among many great nations in the world, Slantia was actually a great country among many poor countries on the planet, and held resources over foreign country’s heads in order to maintain power. So while countries like Lan and Ines were desperate for water, food, and electricity, Slantia only shared their resources with them in exchange for military dominance in their region and compulsive human labor, which many people used to refer to as slavery. In addition to oppressing global citizens, Slantia oppressed its own citizens, but while the rest of the world could plainly see the menace of Slantia’s reign, its own citizens were under an entirely different impression.
Once the population of Slantia had reached 5 billion people, the government was faced with an issue: what do we do with all these people? Millions were impoverished and homeless, loitering in the streets while sophisticated machines accomplished society’s basic functions. Thus began the labor revolution, a massive societal overhaul. The government funded the construction of thousands of mega factories across the nation, and schools began reciting the rhetoric of, “Hard work is good for the soul and the nation.” Suddenly there were millions of available jobs and everyone wanted to join the work force to contribute to Slantia’s great legacy. The government discarded billions of robots that were programmed to do tedious tasks such as staple packets of paper and put stickers on deodorant and made whole careers out of them. They also created “Rosie,” a fictitious icon to encourage the laborers to feel a higher sense of motivation for these tasks.
And to find out that all of their efforts were merely busywork, or a cog in a great wheel of corruption. Slantia kept its workers blind and busy, and therefore they were the happiest, if not also the saddest of Slantia’s victims.
Agnes retreated to her prep room. Each cubicle was a square, with a curtain hung down the center, so that there were two rectangular spaces: one a kitchen, the other the prep room, where workers “prepped” for work. The prep room contained a bed, a screen, a small human waste box, and some hangers for proudly displaying one’s work jumpsuit. In the cubicles, laborers didn’t shower; they used sanitizer clothes to wipe themselves down of sweat and dirt. Agnes’s prep room was standard, except on her wall she had a gold jumpsuit hanging up: another prized possession. She had worked extremely hard to purchase this deluxe worker’s outfit; only a handful of workers were able to achieve ownership of this, as it was very expensive, and only available selectively. There were not many, if any, stores near the cubicles or the Factory, and so Agnes had had to arrange a special, if not somewhat illegal, delivery of it. Then she was able to display her extreme patriotism and pride in her workmanship with a little extra vanity.
She sat down on her bed, looking around her plain cubicle, her eyes resting a little longer on her gold jumpsuit, proudly hanging on the wall beside her bed. She would have worn it today, had she worked this Labor Day. Instead, she was here, sitting on this bed, a worthless citizen of Slantia. “One day of rest erases a hundred days of work,” her teacher used to tell her, when she was a kid still in training school. She said this quote to herself and cursed her weak body again. She just wanted her life to have meaning, and now that meaning would be erased.
… To be continued, next Friday!
Thanks for reading! Although this was an arguably morbid topic, I had a lot of fun writing it this week. I actually conceived of this story idea nine years ago, when I was much younger and often wrote science fiction short stories. Since then, I have mostly switched to realistic fiction, so finally seeing this concept through is a blast! Looking forward to adding more in part two!
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12 thoughts on “I Fuel the Great Machine”
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Hi there! First, thank you for your readership! Second, unfortunately I am not aware of other websites that do exactly what Slanted Spines does; however, if you are interested in short stories, my friend has a literary publishing site he recently launched called camelcoatpress.com. I’ll let you know if I discover others! Thanks again!