Charlie stood on his toes and swiveled his head in an attempt to see the front, or the back, of the seemingly endless line he was currently in. To his right stood one of the many massive warehouses of Amazon Compound 9. To his left stood an ever-encroaching mountain of plastic trash. The smell reminded him of something between rotting turkey and used diapers. Exasperated and uncomfortable in his respirator, he leaned against the concrete wall of the warehouse. A drone flew over the fence that bordered the compound and dropped a Red Bull-flavored Ultimate Crunch Burritadia wrapper onto the plastic hill. Charlie watched the mass shift and slide, inching closer to the line of people pinned against the never-ending concrete wall. A nervous murmur rippled through the line while Charlie fantasized that the mountain, receiving one wrapper too many, would come crashing down and wipe him from existence.
The smartwatch on his wrist beeped and buzzed, startling him from his daydream. He looked down and saw the usual bright strobing flash followed by a blue cartoon smirk that made him feel like he was the butt of someone else’s joke.
“Thursday. March 15, 2039. 1:28PM. Productivity decreased. Weekly wages docked 4%. Please return to work at Compound 7 immediately to prevent further wage reduction,” the electronic voice said cheerfully. Charlie wanted to scream at the watch but knew from experience it wouldn’t help.
“Ever since that Executive Order I’ve thought about taking mine off!” Charlie was being addressed by the person safely six feet ahead of him in line, from their designated socially-distanced square painted on the ground. Like Charlie, they had on the standard company-issued jumpsuit with the smile logo over the breast pocket, and of course, their respirator, also company-issued. The stranger’s mask hid their face, but Charlie swore they were smiling from the sound of their muffled voice.
Charlie, who dreaded social interaction with strangers, just smiled and nodded before realizing the stranger couldn’t see his face very well either. “Uh, which one is that? I have trouble keeping track of them.”
The stranger, puzzled, looked down at their watch. “Company model, same as you.”
“No, I mean, the Executive Order.”
“Which one is that?”
“The time-theft and the productivity-based pay thing. I’ve kind of just thought, what can they do if I take it off?!”
“Won’t they arrest you?” Charlie said.
“I’d like to see them-” But the stranger was interrupted by a loud speaker overhead that he hadn’t noticed before. It began blaring triumphant music that made a few in line cover their ears. Fastened to the concrete wall below the speaker stood a giant screen displaying a waving flag of red, white, and blue. The screen faded slowly to black then displayed three smaller logos in the center of the screen, looming and unmoving: a castle, the stylized letters “P & J,” and finally the ever-present large blue smirk that doubled as an arrow, forever pointing towards the future, towards progress.
Following the logos, like a blinding sunrise, came the bald head and immaculately shaved face of a man half-smiling and looking with large, glazed eyes into the camera. A face known to everyone.
“Hello, Amazonians. Jeff here. I just wanted to thank you all, in-person, for doing your part. This virus has been hard on all of us. This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is most critical. Across the world, people are feeling the economic effects of this crisis, and I’m sad to tell you I predict things are going to get worse before they get better.”
Charlie struggled to pay attention to the voice which droned on in a simultaneously nauseating and hypnotic tone. He fumbled in his pockets in search of his last NoSleep, hoping it might help him focus. But Charlie’s pockets were empty. The emptiness reminded him of his kids back at home, waiting for their lives to be filled with anything, and waiting on him to fulfill it. Luckily, the recruitment manager had designated him a Fulfillment Specialist upon being hired.
“When the Disney sponsored Pfizer & Johnsons’ Vaccine presented by Amazon rollout started two years ago, we made sure to vaccinate high priority people first in order to ensure your safety and care. Now, two years later, it’s your turn, my fellow Amazonians. I want you to know Amazon will continue to do its part, and we won’t stop looking for new opportunities, caused by the economic fallout across our communities, to help. I know that we’re going to get through this, together. Namaste.” The screen went blank.
Charlie heard a beep and felt his wrist buzz.
Forty-three minutes later, while Charlie was wondering if the rumors were true about Jeff’s brain being put into a DARPA bot after the Purity Trials of 2032, two people in dark uniforms riding on hoverboards rolled up and took the stranger in front of Charlie away. The stranger looked panicked, and tried to make eye contact with any other person in line. Charlie knew he should be worried about whether their conversation was what led to the stranger being whisked away, but all he could wonder was why they were called hoverboards and not wheelie-planks or even something more straightforward like people-movers. They were just single-person platforms with wheels on each end. It didn’t make sense. His thoughts began to drift back to Robo-Bezos when he heard a commotion from the people behind him.
Charlie turned around just in time to see one of the hoverboards lose control and careen directly into the base of trash mountain. Both rider and board were immediately enveloped, disappearing completely, as Charlie’s prophetic vision was nearly realized. With a low rumble the mountain tumbled down and spread, forming a wall between the fence and the concrete warehouse. The stranger, the dark-uniformed hoverboarders, and everyone behind Charlie in line was now either underneath or behind a giant wall of used takeout containers and surgical masks. A bottle that read “Eco-Juice Cleanz” and a hypodermic needle clattered at Charlie’s feet as the trash slide settled. He had been spared.
Facing forward, Charlie saw that most of the people in line in front of him had already turned back around. There was a tone from the overhead speaker and the line began moving. Charlie moved up to the space formerly inhabited by the stranger. After ten minutes of slowly moving forward, box to box, Charlie could see what he thought was the end of the line. But he knew better than to get excited about something in his future that gave him hope. He turned back to see the plastic wall still there, though smaller in the distance, and wondered if his work-block would be assigned to clean it up. Work-block transfers weren’t uncommon, and he enjoyed the change of scenery, even if it resulted in a wage-decrease due to “time theft” when traveling between compounds.
Charlie again craned his neck, stood on his toes, and squinted his eyes in an attempt to see over the heads of the people spaced out before him. He was convinced the corner of the building lay ahead.
While looking ahead, Charlie’s foot crossed the outside of the square he was standing in, and another alarm went off. He quickly pulled his foot back and tried to look casual. From out of nowhere another darkly uniformed person on a hoverboard showed up in front of him.
“Sorry, it was just for a second, I was just trying to-” Charlie stammered before being interrupted.
“Hey hey, no big deal,” they assured him. “It’s something we’re trying to fix. The uppers had floated the idea of the alarm boxes to keep the people honest but we haven’t been able to turn it off. Anyway, don’t worry!”
“Ok…” Charlie said, unable to stop himself from worrying.
“However, I do need to take your picture real quick. For our records,” the uniform said as they grabbed the tablet connected to their hip and snapped his photo.
“What record? Why record??” Charlie said as he raised his hand to block his face from being photographed far too late.
“It’s just protocol,” the uniform beamed looking from Charlie’s employee number patch to the tablet as they typed, “don’t worry!” Charlie again swore he heard a smile underneath their respirator and wondered why that only made him feel worse.
Beep. Buzz. “Thursday. March 15, 2039. 3:30PM. Productivity decreased. Weekly wages docked 4%. Please return to work at Compound 7 immediately to prevent further wage reduction,” the electronic voice said cheerfully as Charlie covered his watch in an attempt to muffle the sound. He looked at the uniform with an embarrassed smile before remembering again that his mask obscured his face.
“I-” Charlie started to speak but was cut off by the uniform holding up a hand, requesting silence as they listened to their ear piece.
The uniform, Charlie could now definitely tell, was no longer smiling. “It appears we need to interview you in regard to a complication with the line. Please come with me.”
Before Charlie could object, another uniform showed up, and they escorted him out of line. They passed along the outer fence where it looked like people were protesting. The group was small but had signs decrying Amazon’s support of Raytheon’s assertion that if corporations are people, then it’s within their rights to run for President. The righteous crowd was drawing nervous looks from those inside the compound fences. Across from the growing crowd of protestors there seemed to be a counter-protest with people draped in stars & stripes-themed clothing and yelling at the other side.
Although this caught Charlie’s attention, he returned to pleading with the officers. Trying to explain his situation was no help and before long he was brought to a different warehouse that looked identical to the one he had just spent hours leaning against. The officers, on either side of Charlie and holding him by his arms and collar, directed him to a small room inside the massive warehouse. They sat him down in a chair facing another official-looking person behind a desk.
The small room had no windows but had a screen attached to the wall to Charlie’s left with what appeared to be a looping video of a beach somewhere surely very far away from Compound 9. On the wall to his right was a poster for No-Sleep pills that read:
Get more out of the day with No-Sleep.
No side-effects?* No problem.
The words were followed by fine print that Charlie was convinced could only be read with a magnifying glass. Above the text was a picture of young healthy people smiling and lounging in a park he’d never seen before. The person behind the desk cleared their throat, seemingly impatient to get started.
“So it looks like you were involved in encouraging vandalism of Amazon property,” they said, looking at the large flat screen atop the desk.
“I had nothing to do with that guy, he was the one talking about taking off his watch.”
The person behind the desk tilted their head in confusion then began typing, “I see. Yes, we are interviewing that person right now. I was referring to the destruction of the waste storage system, but I’m flagging you to be questioned about that as well.”
“The trash mound?”
“So you did aid in its collapse?” they said while continuing to type.
“No, I’m just saying, it’s just a bunch of trash. It fell when that guy on the hoverboard crashed into it.”
“It’s being reported that he was pushed.”
“Pushed?! By who?”
They kept typing. “Well, it looks like you were the only person nearby on the vidfeed.”
“No, I mean, who reported that they were pushed?”
“The uniformed officer.”
“Well, it’s a mistake, I didn’t do anything.”
“Unfortunately, failing to assist an officer carries a similar punitive measure as encouraging vandalism since they both fall under assault.”
“I cannot believe this… it’s… bullshit. This isn’t fair.” Charlie said, half enraged and half worried of the consequences of seeming enraged.
The person behind the desk seemed offended. “Please try and understand home-office’s position. Even this conversation is costing money.”
“No, I-” Charlie began to protest before being interrupted by a beep and a buzz on his wrist, followed by that familiar statement of docked wages. This time Charlie didn’t try to muffle the sound, instead he allowed it to play completely, then let out a deep sigh.
“Is there a superior I can speak to?” Charlie knew this could upset the person behind the desk but he thought there must be someone who could understand this was a mistake. The person behind the desk stared at Charlie for a few moments without responding, then tapped a few things on their office screen.
“That can be arranged,” they said as two different uniforms came into the room and removed Charlie just as roughly as he was brought in. Though he was being physically handled and forced to walk, he began to feel relief. He was brought to a smaller room than the first where there was only space to stand and face a kiosk built into the wall.
Charlie was immediately dismayed to see a run-down plastic and metal robot with the words BossBot 3d-Vx scrawled across its chest plate stationed inside.
“PRODUCE IDENTIFICATION,” BossBot 3d-Vx interrupted.
The official nature of the bot made Charlie straighten up out of a learned fear and in a clear voice, he said loudly, “Stafford D-5-7-4-0.”
“S C A N N I N G………” the bot’s head turned slightly back and forth as it searched its database, “CITIZEN NOT FOUND.”
“INITIATING RENATURALIZATION PROTOCOL. ALERTING DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND CULTURE & CITIZENRY ENFORCEMENT.”
“What?! There must be some mistake!” Charlie’s voice cracked in frantic distress.
“No, no! I just want-”
“ALERTING DEPARTMENT AGENTS OF HOSTILE.”
Shortly thereafter two Department Agents arrived in suits, masks, and sunglasses to escort Charlie to the small idling bus awaiting him outside. They requested he sign paperwork containing information about his renaturalization and where to be tomorrow.
“My kids are at Compound 7 Dormitory C-6, they’re expecting me, I need to go there first,” Charlie said, appealing to the stoic Agents.
Without looking at Charlie, the Agent to his right replied, “Copy that, the children will be temporarily held until reunification, after you have completed renaturalization.” The Agent then repeated these words into his watch, seemingly relaying the information to a superior. “The children are at Com 7 Dorm B-6.”
“C! C-6!” said Charlie desperately.
“Correction, C-6,” the Agent said into his watch.
Once Charlie was aboard, the otherwise empty bus pulled out through the front gate where the protest was now face-to-face with the counter-protest, both crowds starting to confront each other. Among the counter-protestors, Charlie saw armored members of the Keepers of the Flaming Cross, and an elated couple in cowboy hats and flag capes getting married among the throng of yelling people hurling objects at the other side. Charlie watched the scene outside of the barred windows, feeling tense despite being within the metallic confines of the bus.
The street was packed and small skirmishes were beginning to break out where the crowds met. He turned his watch’s volume down, ignoring its cheery warnings about low amplification fines as the bus rolled through the now parting crowd.
Charlie flinched as bottles and debris thrown from the crowd shattered against the bus. After making it through the mass of people, the bus began to pick up speed on its automated route. Charlie turned to look out of the back window. He could see that the counter-protestors and the Keepers of the Flaming Cross had been joined by the police, now in a phalanx of arms swinging and batons falling, mostly obscured by clouds of tear gas. The protestors scrambled and fled, some fighting back against the three-pronged group in vain.
The bus turned a corner and the protest was out of sight, though munition explosions could still be heard blocks away. Charlie used the drive to look over his paperwork. The process seemed anything but painless. If renaturalization was successful, Charlie wouldn’t be able to keep his job, which would mean uprooting himself and the kids to whatever new housing dormitory they would be assigned. There was no description of what constituted an unsuccessful renaturalization. After reading through most of the documents, and understanding little, he was sure that the legal jargon was used to intentionally confuse those signing on the dotted line. Just as he was about to put the paperwork down he found one small clause he knew he had to try to understand.
Charlie and those he lived with, as part of the protocol for “new citizens,” would be given free access to the vaccine. Also inside this vaccine would be nanobots described as “scrubbers” that work inside your body to “increase effective use of time.” No exact description was given about what that meant and when he was reading the next section on “Global Network Linking” his attention was drawn away by the loud noise of a tank rolling down the opposite side of the street towards the direction in which he came, likely headed to the protest, he thought.
Charlie shrunk back as the tank slowly passed an undisturbed trap-yoga studio. The people inside barely looked out the window as the tank roared by. The thumping of its tracks on the concrete matched the bass from the song booming inside the studio. Once it passed, Charlie resumed stressing about his current situation. He fantasized over finding the perfect words or that elusive statement that would persuade someone along the chain of bureaucracy to help him sort out this mistake, knowing that it was too late for that by now. Too many signatures approved and too many dollars had been spent pushing Charlie down this path.
The bus passed high-end shopping centers and boutiques, filled with distracting advertisements he let himself absorb. One, a deepfake of Gandhi, promoted Jordan Peterson’s new best seller:
“‘Synergize Your Hustle Chakra: Becoming a Successful EdgeLord in the Free Marketplace of Ideas’ published by BootStraps Press.”
After Gandhi’s visage faded, an ad for GOOP Soma boasted deep relaxation, 100% natural ingredients, and an increase in effectiveness when used in conjunction with rose quartz. The bus rounded another corner and began heading towards a massive building he knew to be his destination.
Over the next hour, Charlie was ushered by armed guards through door after door, had his blood drawn, his fingerprints and picture taken. Demoralized and exhausted, he was finally brought to a room that looked like it was half operating room, half personal theater.
“First, I’m going to give you the vaccination,” said the person strapping Charlie down to the table, “then you’ll watch a film about what it means to be a new citizen, and lastly,” Charlie opened his mouth to argue, but the person squinted, probably smiling behind their mask, and put one finger to their mouth to silence Charlie and then continued, “lastly, we’ll be giving you a prescription, instructions on the prescription, and a new watch!” The person squinted even harder in a practiced way and tightened the last strap around Charlie’s head.
“This is a mistake,” Charlie said, watching his new future tumble towards him like an avalanche of trash. “I-” he began before being interrupted by a beep, a buzz, and a proclamation coming from his wrist.
The voice behind him ignored him completely and spoke in an official tone, “RENAT Log 3-15-2039 at 18:12. Citizen: Unknown 32K7d. Charges: Private property destruction – Accessory to vandalism – Failing to assist an Officer. Status: Noncitizen/Criminal. Dependents: 2 at Com9 Dorm B-6.”
Charlie felt a flash of desperation but his shoulders slumped and all the fight within him gave out as a needle pierced his skin and sent a cool calm throughout his body.
“Noncitizen 32K7d will be permanently linked into the Global Network under Article 9 of the Commission for Re-education’s ‘New Social Contract.’”
He knew he should feel angry and try to resist, but the years of meaningless existence had worn him down to a state close to something like peace, a peace that promised it would all be over soon.
As Charlie drifted out of consciousness, he found a final comfort in the knowledge that his children would have access to nanobot blood-scrubbers that would extend their productivity timetable by “up to 50 years.”
walter moon has been lost in books since birth and bookselling in one way or another for almost 20 years. living in portland with his partner, Nat, and their companion, Mishka, he strives to find the key to immortality but has trouble locating the key to his house.