On a screen beneath Alexa’s circular blue light, is a picture of her family.
“Of course, Alexa,” Reagan says. Her smile is twitchy, but it’s only a side effect of the adrenaline.
A tube connects to a metal sphincter on her stomach and begins pushing a nutritious mush into her—her only meal for the day. Her body had been surgically altered to accept nutrients this way. First, when she was a child. And subsequently, as she grew and needed it updated. Some people had to masticate solid food, which sounded gross and inconvenient to her.
The tube retracts once all the mush is inside. Then she is sprayed with a fine mist of antiseptic. It leaves a film on her skin afterwards. Reagan thinks of it as a protective bubble from other people’s germs. She dresses in her blue uniform and is ready for her shift. The pod opens and releases her. She waves hello to her fellow coworkers as they exit their own pods surrounding hers. Together, they march towards the warehouse, where they are joined by coworkers who are bussed in. Reagan contemplates how much time is wasted having to travel to work. She is lucky she lives in the housing facility connected to the warehouse.
She files into the warehouse with her coworkers. When it is her turn, she exposes the underside of her wrist where a barcode is tattooed. A machine scans the code, and she is clocked in. Reagan reports to her section of the warehouse. Despite the seemingly endless rows of shelves, Reagan knows the way by heart.
She is surprised to see that Martha #4378, who is assigned to the section right next to her, is already at work.
“Am I late?” Reagan asks. She knows talk between workers isn’t allowed. If there is time for talk, there is time for work is one of the prerecorded messages played on loop in the warehouse. It’s one of few rules Reagan breaks, but only because she knows she can do so without impacting her performance score. Her hands are already moving mindlessly across her items.
“No,” Martha says. She avoids Reagan’s gaze, but Reagan notices a ring of irritated red in her eyes. “I was given two extra hours of work before my shift as consolation for my infraction two nights ago.”
Reagan never gets infractions, so the incident remains fresh in her mind. When she heard the alarm go off and Alexa’s voice scolding, her heart just about jumped out of her chest, thinking it was somehow for her. It wasn’t. Martha sorted her items wrong. Her eyes have been red most days. Her efficiency is starting to suffer, but Reagan likes her anyway.
“I’m starting to think this job isn’t for me,” Martha says. “Have you ever considered alternative occupations?” The question is spoken softly. Alexa is always listening, and a question like that is liable for termination of employment.
Reagan shakes her head. No other available jobs come to mind. Maybe another warehouse job, working for Amazing!’s competitor, Wonderful! but she could never betray Amazing! like that. Not without putting her family at risk. Martha breathes a humorless laugh.
“What makes you like this job so much?”
Reagan doesn’t hesitate with her answer. “It’s easy. Move items, place them in the correct box, then move onto the next. I can do it without even thinking,” she says, while simultaneously doing exactly what she just described. “Amazing! takes care of me. And I get to touch lots of cool items in the process.” Reagan doesn’t own property. Both her housing pod and her uniform are on loan. When she expires, they’ll be given to someone new.
Martha shakes her head. “You’ve been here how long?”
“Since I was thirteen.”
Martha gawks at her answer. Not everyone begins work at thirteen, but Reagan was fortunate to be born long after labor laws were changed to lower the minimum age of employment. What would she have wasted her teen years doing otherwise?
“You sure knew what you wanted to do then, huh.”
“No. I was promised to the company even before my conception,” Reagan says, her chipper tone never faltering. “Amazing! offers lots of great benefits to families who will have children and promise them to Amazing! My parents only really wanted two kids. They already had my sisters. Those benefits are the only reason I was born!”
“I’ve heard about those programs…”
“Aren’t they great? As long as I am employed here, my family will be set. Or, who knows? If they need more help, maybe I’ll have a brother or a sister for a coworker! In about thirteen years, of course.”
Martha is quiet. Reagan knows she is one of the people who live outside. She had other jobs before she began work at Amazing! She was here to work off her debt. Amazing! still allowed people to have their products even when they couldn’t immediately pay.
Outsiders didn’t always understand how lucky and convenient Reagan’s life was.
A light glows red. Two consecutive beeps, one higher, one lower ring out. An infraction. Reagan looks to Martha, who has ceased work. She clutches the edge of the shelf as if her life depends on it. Her skin is a waxy white, and she is sweating profusely.
“Martha!” Reagan’s hands hesitate for a microsecond. She tells herself to get back to work, but if her friend doesn’t resume action soon, she will be punished again.
“Heart palpitations…” Martha says. Reagan understands. The adrenaline injections have that sort of effect sometimes. Martha looks unsteady and pale as she reaches for her next item. She collapses, knocking the item to the floor in the process. It shatters upon impact. The light flashes again.
“25.99 deducted from wage,” Alexa says.
Martha remains still on the floor. Reagan hesitates again. She wants to run to her friend, but she knows it’s an infraction. She’s frozen. She knows she needs to continue to work.
Her light glows red. Her heart thunders in her chest. Her first infraction. Reagan can hardly process this.
“Please resume work,” Alexa says.
Reagan’s eyes flutter over towards Martha. She hasn’t moved. Something is terribly wrong, and it’s as if Reagan is the only one who can see it.
“She needs help!” Reagan says, with desperation.
“Please resume work before reprimands are instated.”
“Your worker is sick! Can’t you see!?” Reagan’s chest is tight. Every breath she takes is labored. She knows Alexa can see everything that happens in the warehouse. She wastes no time in scolding for inactivity, but when something is clearly wrong, she refuses to act.
“Insubordination is liable for termination of employment,” Alexa reminds.
Reagan’s vision washes with water. She rubs tears away and reluctantly returns to work, hoping Martha is only asleep. With every passing minute, her hope that Martha will get back up diminishes.
She is halfway through her shift when two figures enter their row of shelves. Both are covered from head to toe in a plastic jumpsuit, the Amazing! logo on their sleeves. They place Martha on a stretcher, and she is taken away.
At the end of her shift, Reagan strips from her uniform once she reaches her pod. She places it in a chute, where it will be sent away for sanitation. She nestles into her pod and presses a button for her sedative to be administered.
“Good morning, Reagan #6529!” Reagan’s heart pounds uncomfortably from the adrenaline. She knows if she hadn’t been shot up with it, she would have overslept and missed her shift. Thinking about the warehouse makes her think of Martha’s motionless body. “Today is July 5, 2089. The warehouse temperature is set to a comfortable seventy-two degrees. Are you ready to make your day Amazing?”
Reagan stares at the blue circle. It flashes with color, timed to Alexa’s speech, but while the machine waits for Reagan’s response, it remains a consistent blue. Reagan makes no effort to answer Alexa, nor does she hit the button to administer her sustenance for the day.
“Amazing! has reviewed your performance from yesterday and has determined that your infraction was unjust. You will be pleased to know it has been removed from your performance records.”
Reagan ignores the button for her sanitation shower and goes straight for her uniform. When she hits the button, the compartment doesn’t open. Reagan presses it again, this time holding it down harder, longer.
“Amazing! insists that you are fed and washed before reporting for your shift,” Alexa says.
“As if you care,” Reagan grunts. She presses the open button again, this time harder.
“Amazing! cares about our consumers and employees.”
That’s a lie, Reagan thinks for the first time in her existence. Amazing! lies to their employees. How could they care when they let Martha die? How could they know when workers weren’t being productive, yet be ignorant when one of their workers was gravely ill?
“I am performing a wellness check on you now. Please hold still.”
Her pod offers little wiggle room. Enough to reach and touch her control buttons and to dress. She has no choice but to stay still.
She catches sight of the picture slideshow of her family on the screen. Her mother and father on their wedding day. Pictures of her sisters as children, and then as adults, holding their own kids. Reagan’s throat tightens.
She hears the pod hum around her. A needle juts out and sticks into her skin. Reagan hisses in pain. It had been a while since she last needed a wellness check.
“Hmm, all processes appear to be functioning normal. No fever. No irregularities in the blood. However, your brain activity is slower than standard. I will see what we can do to remedy this.”
The blue circle goes dark. Reagan knows Alexa is still listening. She leans her head against the metal side of her pod. Last time she had been deemed too unwell to work, it was not a pleasant experience. She diligently showered and wore her mask every day to ward off disease and to avoid the recovery process.
She becomes aware with every passing moment that she is late for her shift. No work means no funds for her family. What would they do if she suddenly refused to work for good? Would they be angry at her?
“Amazing! has reviewed your symptoms and determined they may be related to yesterday’s event. Amazing! has prescribed a visit to one of our fine rehab facilities. Please sanitize and administer your feeding. You will soon be escorted from the warehouse to the facility.”
Reagan hesitates. This isn’t what she wanted, but she can’t find the words to explain what she does want. An apology? It would do nothing to bring Martha back. Maybe all she needs is to hear Alexa acknowledge what happened rather than glaze over it with her sweet-sounding voice.
“Please begin preparations. They will arrive for you in six minutes.”
Reagan rolls her eyes and hits the shower button, then the feeding one. She reaches for where her clean uniform is stored, but suddenly, the bottom compartment drops, and the uniform falls into the chute.
“One moment,” Alexa says. The bottom closes and a sealed plastic bag takes its place. “Please equip.”
Reagan digs her finger into the thin plastic sheet. She recognizes it as the same thing that seals many of the items she sorts in the warehouse. Long has she wanted to open an item like this. She is silently thrilled to be able to do so now. She pulls the item out. A long, white cloth. A dress? It’s soft and breathable against her body. Regardless, Reagan feels naked in it. She reaches for her mask.
“Masks are not required in the rehab facility,” Alexa informs her.
“What about the spread of airborne disease?”
Alexa doesn’t respond. There is a knock on her pod. Reagan presses the button to open the door. On the other side are two workers dressed in white, like she had seen yesterday. Reagan’s heart jumps. She shies backwards into the pod until she is pressed to the wall. Their hands reach in. Reagan screams as they touch her, pulling her out by her arms. She falls to the warehouse floor. They assist her back up and hold firmly onto both of her arms. She realizes then that she might not be coming back from the rehab facility.
“Alexa!” Reagan screams back towards her still-opened pod. “Alexa! Help me!” She feels the pinch of a needle plunge into her neck. Her world becomes heavy and black.
When Reagan regains consciousness, she is seated between the two workers in white. The room is larger than her pod but smaller than the warehouse. Other people are here. None of them wear the familiar blue uniform. The room shifts from side to side, ever so slightly. The walls are made of glass, projecting images in motion, scenery slowly rotating around her on all sides.
Unlike the photographs of her happy family, this is a gray world, with rolling hills studded with a multitude of box-like buildings, with little space in between. Warehouses, maybe.
Reagan realizes that what she is feeling is the movement of the room. She is outside—or as outside as she’s ever been since after she was transferred between the Amazing! maternity ward to the first warehouse she had ever known. A cold sweat chills her. She squeezes her eyes closed, the sight of the outside making her nauseous.
This must be the bus, she thinks to herself, and becomes grateful she has never had to ride it before. What a terrible thing, a world that continues on, with no walls in sight.
“Hey!” A hand shakes her shoulder, shocking her eyes open. It’s one of the white-dressed workers. “Don’t sleep. We’re almost there.” The voice is human, albeit slightly muffled from the white mask covering the worker’s face. Somehow, Reagan didn’t expect that.
She blinks until the dizziness wears off, but even then, she avoids looking out the windows until the bus pulls into a dark tunnel. Light shines in through the glass again, and Reagan sees they have stopped indoors.
“Is this the rehab center?”
Neither of the workers answers her. A door opens and people exit. Both workers rise and lead her off the bus and towards a barricade. The familiar blue uniform, donned by the worker at the barricade, eases Reagan’s worries. He flashes a bright white smile at whoever stands before him. Reagan is pushed forward.
“Hi! Welcome to Amazing! Rehab Center. Were you looking to purchase a voucher for one of our services today?”
Reagan’s breath catches in her throat. She knows she doesn’t have any money. All of it goes to her family. She looks to the person in white on her right, but they remain stoic.
“Do you have a voucher to redeem?” the worker helpfully asks.
“I…don’t know why I am here,” Reagan says. She jumps as the white-clad person grabs her wrist and thrusts it towards the Amazing! employee. Her barcode is exposed. The employee scans it.
“Oh, lucky you! Amazing! has gifted you a day at our most popular seaside center.” A pair of doors open before her. “Right this way.” He motions her inside.
Reagan turns to look at the white-suited figures that had escorted her to this point. It becomes clear to her they won’t be coming with her. As much as she dislikes them, their familiarity offers a modicum of comfort. One of them prods her in the back, pushing her forwards.
“We’ll take good care of you, I promise,” the blue-clad worker says. She looks at his smile—so wide, so forced. It’s as if he’s in pain. She flinches as he reaches to touch her, but unlike those in white, his touch is a gentle guiding force. They walk through the doors.
“Food and beverages are included with your pass. Just have them scan your barcode,” he explains. He stops before another door. “And you’ll have a room to retire to if you need a break. Any questions, just ask Alexa.” He flashes her one last smile. “Enjoy your stay!”
The doors open, and an offensive light blinds Reagan. She hears people and sounds she can’t comprehend. Some sort of screeching that doesn’t sound human. Rushing, heavy winds. The ground shifts oddly beneath her feet. Reagan examines. Loose sand covers her shoes, tainting their white color.
She pulls her shoes from her feet and abandons them in the sand. A smile pulls at her lips as sand fills the space between her toes. She laughs gleefully at the new sensation. Next, she runs across the sand, and in between people who are relaxing on the beach. They throw her looks that are lost on her. She rushes towards the welcoming color blue—like Alexa’s light and Amazing!’s uniforms—that begins where the sand ends. She realizes it’s rippling water, pulling into waves that collapse on the shore. The blue extends endlessly, and unlike before on the bus, it fills her with a newfound sense of freedom. She rushes in. Water splashes around her ankles, climbing higher the deeper she goes. The hem of her dress becomes heavy with water, but it’s not until she is waist deep that she stops. Waves lap at her back. She looks at the blue above. The bright orb is impossible to look at directly, even with a hand shading her eyes. It is beautiful, magnificent.
Reagan wades in deeper. It’s harder to walk against the waves, but she persists, until she is stopped by a barrier. At first, she thinks it’s glass. She presses a hand to its solidness. A wall painted to look like more water and a horizon. She looks up at the ceiling again, deciphering corners from the blue. Her chest sinks. For a moment, she truly believed she was outside. It’s just another room. Another warehouse.
She returns back to shore at her own pace. Her shoulders itch, and when she looks at them, she notices they are red and irritated.
“Young lady, do you need sunscreen?” A lady with gray hair calls from where she sits on a chair in the sand. She waves Reagan over and instructs her to sit on the sand. Reagan jumps when something cold touches her inflamed shoulders. The woman is gentle as she massages it into Reagan’s skin, and admittedly, Reagan’s skin feels a little better for it. “You have to be careful. Even as a replica, the light can give you sunburn,” she explains. The woman sighs. “It looks identical to how I remember when I was a little girl. Before pollution blacked it out.” She applies a bit of the goop to Reagan’s cheeks and nose. “Are you here alone?” she asks.
“I brought my granddaughter with me today. I hoped to get some quality time together, but she appears to prefer virtual reality.” The woman gestures to the teen seated next to her. A pair of opaque
goggles cover the young girl’s eyes.
Reagan inhales a scent that is strong and unfamiliar to her. Her initial instinct is to be appalled by it, but as she sniffs the air to get a better idea of the source, she finds her mouth involuntarily salivating.
“What’s that smell?” Reagan asks.
The woman laughs and lifts her plate to show her. “My All-American burger.”
Reagan watches the woman bring the burger to her mouth and take a bite.
“The synthetic beef isn’t the same as the cow meat we had growing up, but it’s still rather delicious.” She notices the way Reagan watches her. “Would you like to try?”
Instinct tells her yes. She feels an ache in her throat she has never experienced before. It never occurred to her that food could smell or taste good—or be desirable. But still, she knows she is unable to eat it.
“I…um…” She lifts her damp dress, showing the sphincter connected directly to her stomach.
“Oh, I see,” the woman says. “Why don’t you check at the bar. They might have food for you there.”
Reagan follows the woman’s pointing finger to the bar a short distance away and sees a number of people grouped there around someone dressed in blue. She makes her way over. This employee wears a painful smile similar to the last one she had seen. She shows her metal sphincter and asks if they have anything available for her. The worker’s smile twists into something apologetic, but not before the woman next to her screeches in horror.
“Oh my! You must be one of those workers.” She covers her mouth and nose as if Reagan gives off a horrific stench.
“I’d rather die than to live like that,” another similar-looking woman says. She flags the worker over and orders herself another drink.
Reagan’s face becomes flush.
The first woman scolds the other. “That was rude, Betsy. You’ve offended it.”
“Whatever, Julia. As if it has feelings.”
The names Betsy and Julia ring a bell, and then Reagan remembers. It’s weird seeing them in person. She only knows them in pictures, with their pleasant smiles, holding their families close, their faces made entirely out of pixels.
“Don’t you know me?” Reagan says. Her heart pounds. She woke up every morning to their faces, sorted packages for hours to fund their comfortable lives. “I’m your sister!”
Betsy laughs, confusing it for a joke, but Julia’s eyes narrow. Betsy’s laughter then fades, and Reagan knows the woman has suddenly remembered.
“You might share the same genes, but you’re not our sister.”
Reagan’s fists clench, and an argument boils in her throat, but she stops when a small child runs up to the women. They both coddle the child, and coo.
Reagan has no memory of her mother ever holding her. She was taken at birth and raised by a collective, along with all the other promised children. Feeling as though she had a family on the outside gave her purpose.
Reagan feels sick. She feels like she did when Martha was carried away on a stretcher. That would be her someday, sooner or later.
Her eyes catch the door as it opens to admit another vacationer. Reagan acts without thinking. She rushes to the door, knocking people aside to get through before it shuts.
But before she can escape, she finds herself face to face with a blue shirt. She almost doesn’t recognize him, with his lips relaxed and his face looking concerned rather than forcefully happy.
“I need to get out,” she says. She is breathing heavily. The ground is unforgiving against her bare feet, but she would rather let her soles bleed than to spend another moment here. He turns his back to her. Just as doubt begins to creep in, the doors open.
“Go,” he says.
And she races through.
People yell, and those that don’t stare in confusion. She runs past the front desk, past the queue of people who have just exited the bus, and into the tunnel. It’s too dark for her to see. Her hand guides her along the wall. Headlights warn her of the vehicle approaching from behind. Reagan presses herself against the wall, and the wind whips her body. Her heartbeat begins to steady as she ambles onward. She can see light at the end of the tunnel. She slows and raises a hand to shield her eyes but finds that the outside is nowhere near as bright as the seaside resort.
The sky is gray like the ceiling of an Amazing! warehouse. She hops down from the tracks and steps onto bare dirt. Before her are endless rows of gray buildings. Warehouses. Resorts. Factories. Housing. From the exterior, they are indistinguishable to her. The bus tracks connect everything. A world she just left behind.
The black tunnel gapes behind her. She expects the voices of pursuers, clawing their way towards her so as to pull her back inside. Instead, there is silence. They’ve let her go. She’s confused at first. They need her. She organizes the items, puts them where they belong. Without her, her station in the warehouse will be empty. The work will go uncompleted. Her brow furrows. They should be begging for her to return. She almost marches back out of sheer indignance, but she stops after coming to a realization.
All those rows in the warehouse. Each section of shelving is assigned to one worker. Many more warehouses surround her, all staffed by other promised children, also born and surrendered to Amazing! So many people. She’s replaceable. She isn’t worth the effort of tracking down. Someone else will work her station, maybe as soon as tomorrow, when it becomes clear she isn’t returning from rehab.
Reagan feels hollow. No family. No job. The two things that had defined her were now disintegrated. Her toes squish into the mud as she walks. There isn’t anything out here that isn’t a soulless building. The gray sky somehow offers her more comfort than the brightness of the resort, but breathing the air makes her cough.
She walks for hours. Her feet become caked in mud, and her saliva turns brown. When she stops to look around her, she can no longer tell for how long or how far she’s walked. She can’t tell if this warehouse she stands next to is the one she once worked at.
She sleeps in the mud. It makes her skin itch, and she finds herself yearning for the twice-daily sanitation showers. She reaches for a tube of nutrients that isn’t there. Her other hand touches the metal sphincter on her stomach, her only way of receiving sustenance. Her hands shake, but she can’t tell if it’s because she’s afraid or just low on sugar. She has no way of knowing how long she can survive without food, but she understands she won’t last forever.
If she walks into the nearest building, will they accept her back? It’s her only option. And the most comfortable one. Otherwise, she will be risking death for what? The hope of something better? Her body in exchange for the permission to live didn’t seem so bad. It’s how she has always lived up until now. But the thought of being free excited and scared her in a way she never felt before. Truly free.
Reagan considers her options for a long while, and once she is ready, she makes her choice.
Copyright © 2023 Robin Rose Graves