A fiction

The bar light that barely lit the packed shuttle with cold light was out that morning. Usually the workers would murmer among themselves, friends would gossip and last minute phone calls would slowly get wrapped up as they approached the site. That day everyone sat in somber silence. All eyes vacantly scanned the other passengers with indifference or stared straight ahead, they didn’t see the destination, just the work they had to do.

The work happened in queues, each laborer was given a number, a set of tools and parts labeled with their number and area, and they worked until the parts were gone. Each giving their share of sweat to the machines: one building a joint, another installing wires, that one verifying that the other two had satisfactorily completed their tasks. The knowledge that went into the machine’s design was not important to them, just their fraction of a percentage of the labor.

The site operated in fractions, each part was a part of a larger part. The individual workers would often be parts of overlapping teams. Each lead responsible for their tiny corner of the machine. One moment the worker would be installing their parts, the next they could be inspecting another, the next they could be on standby, waiting to be assigned a task as patiently as the tools they operated. The only difference between each was the tools they were allowed to use.

The work was dangerous, but the sense of danger was dulled. One or two might get seriously hurt each day out of the thousands at work. They would be crushed or burned or cut or dissolved, and they would be replaced without comment until they were fixed or reassigned. The machines still got built. No matter if the workers were damaged or not, like the tools, they would wear out eventually. The oldest workers as quiet and dependable as hammers would eventually snap and be retired. Some would still come back, patched together.

Above the leads, behind the inspectors, were the offices, blank windows that looked over the workers. They were filled with more workers, but a different kind. These workers didn’t take the shuttle, they came in private, carefully stored vehicles. They wore clothes suited to workers for different machines, but still as uniform as the wrench turners below. They organized the inflow of parts, they resolved design issues, they addressed concerns. Those teams overlapped less, fewer leads, but still they served the machines.

Beyond them were even more workers. These wore elaborate costumes that were still somehow all as uniform as the others. These workers presented the machines, answered for the machines’ presence, and sold more machines. They were the leads of the leads, the final say in all disputes. They even included the top worker, the commander in chief of the entire operation, yet even the top knew as much about wrench turning as the laborer who only used hammers. They too were unimportant, exchangeable parts like the bolts in the queaus every morning, ready to be tossed aside at the slightest defect.

Beyond them were the supposed owners of the machines. The ones that monitored the site’s performance, who reaped the benefits when the machines performed well. The site itself barely mattered to them as long as its value remained consistent. For the machines were themselves tools in a larger site beyond the one that dark shuttle was approaching. Another nested queue of tools and parts that further workers used and then discarded. Some had overlapping owners within owners, who wore out and were discarded as quickly as the last, no matter how little labor they did. They rusted as surely as a forgotten nut.

The shuttle light flickered on again for a second, revealing the worker’s faces set in resignation, or twisted in anxiety, and dulled with exhaustion, ready for the work day. Prepared to contribute their share of sweat for another day. As they approached the site, they were stopped and inspected by another worker to be sure they were the right parts. That worker had to turn on his flashlight to see the labels they presented to prove that they were needed in the queues. The inspector squinted in the darkness, cursed the shuttle itself, and said they needed to replace the entire machine.

“Outta throw these pieces of shit away” the worker mumbled as another shuttle approached the station.

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