Working in an Infill factory was a difficult job for many but not so for Joseph. He had spent so many years in so many terrible places that to find himself in a warm building with a separate place to sleep and wash was almost unbelievable. Out of the 168 hours in a week he was required to work only 98 thereby leaving him, after sleep, a glorious 14 hours leisure time, more if he slept less than eight hours a day. The first year of his employment he woke every morning into a strong bath of gratitude for his new situation. Of course, after a few years, this feeling of gratitude had diminished but not entirely. Now, rather than manifesting itself in a feeling of physical effervescence as it once did, it had become a quiet surety of place and comfort.
InFill factories were automated. The Big Screen, a six by six screen in a room full of mess and wires, controlled the processes. When he is on shift this is where you will find Joseph, seated on a milk crate, its checkered holes filled in and softened by a filthy cushion. Workers in InFill factories were not allowed to sit, thus the milk crate. It brought Joseph, in a seated position, below the level of the observation camera. The computer which monitored information on operators seemed to deal only with positive information. That Joseph was nowhere to be seen did not seem to matter.
An InFill factory is a noisy place. It is composed completely of metal and the movement of the machinery, the vibration of the great maze of parts and processes, create a constant buzzing hum overridden now and again by violent screeches and the blowing out of pressure horns. It took Joseph some time to get use to all this. He had spent much of his life outside in the wilderness, or near wilderness, where there was quiet - sometimes deep, deep quiet. But after a while the noise became background just as once the quiet of the wilderness was background. He even began to like the noise in the same way a mother might grow to enjoy the racket of her bickering brood.
There were deliveries to the factory at the back but Joseph had nothing to do with them. Computer operated machinery brought whatever and computer operated machinery unloaded it. He had never been in the back. Apparently, at least on the odd occasion, a technician came and fixed, installed or adjusted things. Or at least, Joseph thought, they must, for otherwise how would things go on working year after year? All that jiggling and banging would surely throw things out of whack. Yet, then again, possibly there was no need. Perhaps this section of the factory had cybernetic maintenance. Perhaps there were little fixit, maintenance robots built into each machine which went to work as soon as they closed down for the night. But then who fixed the fixit robots? Maybe they fixed themselves. Maybe they were like the human body which, at least in many cases, fixes itself.
Once a month a small door opened on the wall adjoining the delivery area and ninety frozen meals were dropped into a waiting basket. Joseph pushed the wheeled basket into a room close by and stored them in a freezer. There was no signage on the meals so at first Joseph had to guess what was what but he quickly came to recognize the shapes of lunch, breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was three eggs, four strips of bacon, two toast and hash browns. Lunch was two grilled cheese sandwiches with coleslaw and pickles. Dinner was pork chops, beef steak or chicken drumsticks. A cup of fruit was attached to the dinners by a flap of plastic wrap. These meals were composed of excellent materials and quick frozen in such a ways that texture and taste were captured handsomely. Granted the breakfast toast was limp but he resurrected it somewhat by leaving it for ten minutes on the housing of a hot machine. Besides the frozen dinners there was a bag of dried apples and apricots. These he boiled on a hotplate in the control room. They were very tasty.
Before he came to the factory Joseph lived in a village some miles up river. The factory, of course, was on a river. All factories were on rivers for otherwise where would they dump their waste? Why have expensive, computer operated machines come to carry away the waste when the river did it for free? Joseph thought his old home was upstream on the river the factory was on but he wasn’t sure. It was some river, of course it had to be some river, but if it was this one exactly, who knows?
He had lived there in a village of fishermen. He didn’t fish himself but built wooden furniture. In the summer it was a good life but in the winter food was scarce and many people starved or sickened. So when the factory recruiters came he signed up right away. A warm place to live and food as regular as clockwork, sounded to him like a perfect dream. Then they were on an air transporter traveling all night and then at the factory.
“Do I get a vacation?” Joseph asked the recruiter before he left.
“No,” the man said.
“What does the factory make?”
“None of your business.”
Three years after Joseph still didn’t know what the factory made. Just as deliveries were at the rear, shipping was at the front. Here computer operated trucks came and took something away but Joseph had no access to this section of the building. At first he was curious but after a while he ceased caring what the factory made. What did it matter? It was warm. It provided him with food and shelter. Whether it made bombs or plastic plates didn’t really matter. Besides, the recruiter had told him it was ‘none of his business’ in a tone clearly informing him it was better if he didn’t know. It was the kind of knowledge better not to have.
His ignorance was abetted by his self-sufficiency. He had spent years alone in the wilderness and for the first three years of living in the factory he spoke with not a single soul. If he opened the door onto the side alley and stepped out onto the small balcony he could look down the hill onto the town below. It was a rough looking place as ugly as the scarred cement walls of the factory and designed, as it was, bare bones functional. The buildings were of unpainted logs cut from the forest. They were scattered about as if a child had thrown his box of blocks across a section of his playing yard. The streets were gravel, deeply rutted in summer, frozen solid in winter. There were no street lights. There were no public buildings. The buildings ran for a kilometer along the river and then sputtered out into the forest beyond. Around him, on the hill the factory was built on, like raisons in a loaf of rising bread, were other factories, some smaller than his, others bigger. There were perhaps two dozen in total. Directly down from the hill on the riverbank were three long Jetties jutting out into the river at an angle pointing downstream. These were the factory piers.
During his first three years Joseph never left the premises. He sometimes felt a need for human company but he did not act on it. So much of his energy was taken by his long hours of watching the Big Screen and doing it’s bidding. “Go to 4A and replace assessment valve, Part #260-456” would suddenly come onto the screen in flashing bold blue letters. Joseph would replace the valve and come back to the screen. “Order 70342734 completed” would be flashing, then, “Pump FGHTYU-21 transfer column about to come loose from clamp. Adjust. Replace clamp, Part # 260-4567A.” Off he went again, and so on for fourteen hours a day. There were times when the Big Screen gave no orders for hours on end but these were infrequent. Often he ran the whole day and fell into bed at night so tired he was asleep almost immediately.
But after two years he had learned to work the order system so that he wasn’t so harried. He would take a piece from a replacement part kit, discard it and claim the kit incomplete. This threw the Big Screen into a searching frenzy through its digital records until it came up with a part number for the missing piece. While it was doing this Joseph sat on his milk crate and had a cup of coffee and read his book.
One month after he began occasionally using this strategy, a message appeared on the screen headlined, ‘Manager Inquiry’, short for the boss is asking - “Why so many missing pieces replacement part inventory should not be answer immediately.”
“Don’t know,” typed Joseph. “Do not supply part packages thus have no control over quality.”
“Manager Inquiry” popped up again. “Should be only 1.3% defective packaging inventory. Last month 6.7. Unsatisfactory read disciplinary code 3602-7991.”
A side bar gave him the complete 3602-7991 – “Operators neglectful of or damaging to company property will be food ration reduced, incarcerated in a penal institution, forcefully psychologized or eliminated at the discretion of the appropriate officers of the company. In all cases year credits are unrealizable either by the Operator or his next of kin.”
“Fuck you!” Joseph said under his breath but he kept his face neutral for he was standing and thus on camera.
Manager Inquiry – Answer?
Joseph – A blip?
“Possible,” said Manager Inquiry. “Tracker app applies. Work diligently! Respect company property!
True, faithful and obedient service is its own reward!”
Joseph was not a dumb man. After being given this information he calculated the number needed to stay near 1.6. He upped this so he would be between 1.6 and 2%. This and a personal program to replace certain valves, switches, etc. which needed regular replacement while he was already working on a unit started playing dividends in a less frenetic work pace.
One day, on an early summer morning, he sat out on the balcony and looked down on the little town. He could see a few people moving about and a sailboat moving slowly up river. On one of the company jetties there were what looked like two young boys, fishing. When he lived up river he had been a devoted fisherman partly because he loved to fish, partly for food. He once lived with a woman, who later died of dysentery, on an island in the river for two years. They ate very well for he caught fish all year round (cutting a hole in the ice during the winter) and she was an excellent gardener and fish smoker. The food delivered every month never included fish.
One day he decided he would cut a pole from the trees at the bottom of the hill and go fishing. He had not left the factory for three years two months.
Early morning and evenings are the best time for fishing. When work ended there was still two hours of daylight and carrying with him a bag of fishing gear he had found in his things, he started off down the hill. When he reached the trees he found an excellent pole and cut it from the tree. When he reached the jetty the boys had been fishing on (the middle one) he baited his line with a piece of stinking cheese and tossed it into the river. He caught six fish that evening. One he ate before going to bed. The other five he placed in separate water filled bags and put in the freezer. After that he went fishing twice a week and ate fish once a day, some days twice.
The company had a money script which it claimed was universally accepted but this was untrue. The farther one got from the company towns the more discounted the script became until when you came to a certain point people would not accept it at all. What they wanted was the old aluminum coins, some of them worn down to the point where you could no longer read the writing – weird phrases left over from the old empire. One evening Joseph met an old man on the pier who offered three of these old coins for a pump valve casket kit. Three days later Joseph brought him the kit but took only one of the coins in payment. Three were too many.
The old man didn’t fish but he liked to sit on the pier and watch other people fish and think his own thoughts. He was a silent man. He spoke only when spoken to and then only what was strictly necessary to answer the enquiry. Over some time Joseph got the old man to tell him what the factory made, or, to be more accurate, grew. The answer surprised him somewhat but not entirely. Even people who lived in the wilderness had heard of such things in a filtered, distorted sort of way.
“Who are they for?” he asked the old man.
“Them,” said the old man, jabbing a not very clean thumb downriver.
“And who is them?” Joseph asked.
“The ones in the Big City of course,” said the old man.
“But the Big Screen says there is no Big City. It says all stories about the Big City are mythical rather than real.”
“Ha!” said the old man. “That’s what they want you to think. If that were so then where do these factories come from and who are they making things for?”
“Well,” said Joseph, “for everybody all over the world.”
“Well that too,” said the old man, “but they also live in big cities.”
That was all he could get from the old man that day. He suddenly clammed up and sat staring at the river as if asking it for forgiveness for abandoning his laconic habits.
Two days later the Big Screen flashed another ‘Manager Enquiry’ - “All Operators subject to the Seditious Conversations law promulgated Second Infill Factory Peace and Good Order Convention. Is the Operator aware of content?”
“No,” Joseph typed.
A black bordered section of text suddenly appeared on the screen. “No Operator or any other employee or officer or family member of such or indeed person of any description, will engage in conversations injurious to the interests of the company. Failure to comply will result in reduction of food ration, incarceration in a penal institution, forced psychologizing or elimination depending upon seriousness of the offense as decided by the officers of the company who shall not be named in this document or any other for such a naming would be an infraction against the very injunction here cited. In all cases year credits are unrealizable by either the Operator or his next of kin.” After a moment or two Manager Enquiry asked – “Did the Operator read and understand?”
“Yes,” Joseph typed.
Manager Enquiry – “Then he will conduct himself in accordance with the law forthwith?”
“Yes,” Joseph typed.
Two days latter, when the old man came walking up the pier and sat on the deadman beside him, Joseph slipped him a note. “We can’t talk here. Is there a place we could meet away from the piers?”
it said but the old man, realizing the import of being slipped a note, stuffed it into his pocket without reading it. Three days later the old man approached him on the pier and, most uncharacteristically, embraced him as if he were a long lost brother. He slipped a note into Joseph’s pocket.
Joseph read the note on the way up the hill to the factory. It was light enough to see his way but too dark to read so he slipped off the path into a small copse of trees and read the note by flashlight. “After fishing turn left off the pier and follow the road two hundred and thirty full paces. The cabin on the left overlooking the river is mine. On the porch will be a lantern turned down to a low flame.” Joseph lit the note with his lighter and let it burn to ash on the bare ground.
The old man was seated at a table in the one room but, after making coffee on the gas burner, they went out onto the back verandah overlooking the river to drink it.
It was mid summer and, after a very hot day, new air, cooler and accompanied by a light breeze, was moving in. The two men sat silent for some time, the relief of the cooler air, the gleam of the river under starlight, the rustle of the leaves in the overhanging trees more than enough to fill all the spaces between their sips of coffee. After what seemed many hours but was in reality only ten or fifteen minutes, Joseph asked in a thin voice which seemed so vulnerable, so human in the midst of the lush, velvet surroundings they found themselves in, “Why do they do this?”
“Because they are mad,” the old man answered. “Because they have lost their way.”