It was another day on the line. The whirring of machinery. The flickering light of an unsteady voltage stream, and all eyes cast down on the task at hand. Never look up.
Sausage. Sausage. Sausage. Grab two, inspect, place them on the tray, keep your hands clear of The Feeder. Two months prior, a woman lost her hand by trying to get the second sausage onto the tray before it went in. It was a lesson for all to stay sharp and do not put your hand near The Feeder.
Morgan didn’t eat sausages. They couldn’t afford to. In the underground city, meat was only eaten by the wealth class, and that was nobody on this line. A packet of two sausages was worth twenty credits. That was more than they earned in a whole day. But the wealth class demanded their meat. Because most couldn’t afford it, it was a symbol for those who needed to define themselves by their luxuries in this hole. If they didn’t have their meat, there would be hell to pay. Roach protein was for everyone else, but it was from the contaminated earth. This meat was imported from off-world, from animals harvested elsewhere and never seen. The company called it Off-World Harvesting. Morgan had visions of intergalactic plundering, and thought of the foreign species as Space Cows. Earth Cows were long dead. Space Cow was said to have a sweetness like pork all the same. The wealthy liked having their meat shipped in freeze-dried from elsewhere in the universe. It made them feel exclusive and powerful. All hail Space Cow.
Grab two. Inspect. Place in tray. Keep hands clear. Grab two. Inspect. Place in tray. Keep hands clear. Stay focused.
There was a sausage with a break in it. Something protruded through the skin. Something small and sharp. Inspect. It was a fingernail. An entire fingernail from someone who had gotten too close to the machine. Morgan stared at it. This was supposed to be reported. Foreign contaminants get reported. But the report would remove them from the line, and who knows what else. It was best not to draw attention. It was always best to stay out of The Company’s attention. But to throw it in the reject box would also draw attention. They did not want attention. There was no way out.
Don’t wait. Keep working. Eyes down. Place it in the tray. Morgan placed it in the tray and watched it disappear into The Feeder for wrapping.
Then the tap on the shoulder. Morgan turned. The Inspector pointed to the path painted on the floor. That was an impossibly short time Morgan thought. Perhaps it’s something else. Walk to the line. Keep eyes down.
The Inspector led. Morgan followed. Soon they were headed away from the factory floor and Morgan understood what that meant. It was time to go to The Office. The Office was legendary because it was never discussed, but The Inspectors came from somewhere. It was mythical in the imagination, and the anticipation of seeing The Office made Morgan nauseas. Keep walking. One foot, other foot. Take two steps. Stay on path. Take two more steps. Don’t look up. Breathe.
Morgan was following the Inspector down the path outlined between two bold yellow strips, and took a turn through a doorway. The whirring of machinery began to fade. Morgan reached up to pull the ear plugs out. The Inspector kept a steady pace, and turned a corner. Then another corner. There was another long hall and the machines could now barely be heard, though they were somewhere in the background. The Inspector turned again and walked down another long hall, took a turn, then another hall. Morgan didn’t know where they were, but it was beginning to feel like the other end of The Factory. They couldn’t tell if there were any more machine sounds. Maybe this is what the Executive Offices sound like. Peace. Maybe they were in the heart, and the heart had a stillness that could allow one to think. No pulse. Just thought.
“Go into this room and wait.” The Inspector told Morgan.
Morgan looked up. There was a small dark office with artificial wood panelling on five slender walls. There was enough room for one large desk and one small chair.
Morgan stepped into the room. The Inspector closed the door.
The chair was right there. Morgan’s feet and legs were burning from standing for twelve hour days. The chair was right there. Perhaps no one was looking. They knew that wasn’t true. Morgan stood next to the chair and pretended it wasn’t there.
The door opened again and The Inspector’s voice said “sit down.” Morgan did. The chair was small.
The Inspector stepped to the other side of the desk and towered there. “What happened?”
Morgan waited for some other person to speak. The Inspector was not waiting for anyone else.
“I had a reverie.”
“What kind of reverie?”
“Just a passing thought. It was nothing.”
“Order 4006 demands that you reveal any reverie had on Company Time.”
Morgan didn’t know Order 4006. There were too many Orders to know.
“It was nothing. I don’t know why I thought it. It was a sunset.”
The Inspector paused. “Why a sunset?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just never seen a real one and I imagine it would be beautiful.”
The Inspector was judging them. Or knew that they were lying.
“I just wanted to feel it. Nothing more. I immediately focused back on my work. I am sorry.”
The door opened again and startled Morgan. They almost turned to look, but stopped themselves. Eyes down.
Something in plastic slammed down on the desk. It was a sausage in a small clear bag. Morgan turned to see The Bringer of the Meat. It was a large man with a distended belly. He was angry and red in the face. He pointed at the sausage on desk.
Morgan looked at it. It was the sausage with the fingernail. They gasped.
“Do you understand quality control protocols?” The Bringer of the Meat asked. The Inspector crossed his arms.
“Yes.” Morgan stammered.
“No! You put this into The Feeder.”
“This is a quality control issue. Do you understand?”
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
The Inspector uncrossed his arms and placed his palms on the desk. “This is a difficult predicament.”
“Very difficult.” The Bringer chimed.
“You have a choice.” The Inspector continued. “Do you understand?”
Morgan wasn’t sure there was anything to understand. “Yes,” they answered.
The Inspector continued and the Bringer of the Meat crossed his arms atop his gut. “You can go back to the line and say nothing, or you can walk out the door and never come back. But silence is mandatory. If we find out that you have breached the Code of Silence, there will be consequences. Do you understand?”
“I understand. I wish to go back to the line.”
The Inspector and the Bringer of the Meat looked at each other in mutual understanding.
“Very well then,” The Inspector stated. “He will guide you out.”
The Bringer opened the door and waited for Morgan to step out. Morgan rose from the chair and their legs and feet shot pain in protest. They moved as required.
Morgan followed the Bringer of the Meat down the long, quiet hallway. What if they had chosen the other option? Would they be free of this? No. Impossible. Some other fresh hell would be waiting for them elsewhere. There was no way out of this city.
The Bringer took a turn, then entered another long hallway. Door after door was labelled in five digit sequences, and revealed nothing about their nature or purpose. They continued down the hall then took a turn down another long hall. The whirring of the machines picked up again and grew louder as they turned another corner. Morgan watched the Bringer’s feet. Clean shoes. Pressed pants. His steps were wide.
Finally the Bringer of the Meat opened one of the doors. The sound of machinery was clearer now, down the end of another long hallway.
“You will go to the other end and find the factory floor. Remember your agreement.”
“I will remember.” Morgan said, then wasted no time down the long corridor back to work.
The machinery whirred louder. For a single moment, perhaps in a flood of anxiety, Morgan turned back to see how far they’d come. The Bringer of the Meat stood in the doorway, arms crossed, watching. When Morgan turned, he broke an arm free and waved them on.
Morgan increased their pace. The door at the other end seemed so far away. The whirring grew louder. The floor began to quake slightly from the movement of the giant machines.
The door was getting closer. Just another moment. Then the floor fell downwards and revealed the machinery below. The Grinder. The Grinder that took all the parts and ground them to mince, and pushed them into sausages.
Morgan barely let out a sound as their feet were liquified first, then their legs. The pain was paralyzing, but soon was over.
© 2023 Christopher Dwyer