The Factory (a Short Story)
"Put this over your right eyelid and wait in the back." the woman said brusquely. She handed me something she called an "eye cuff" and gestured impatiently toward a dimly lit hallway.
The cuff was made of silvery metal and looked a bit like jewelry. It reminded me of an eyelash crimper without a handle, but its base was not a solid piece. Instead, it was actually composed of a number of small sections joined together with tiny interlocking cogs, and it had long, spindly slivers that radiated out from its base, protruding like spiky overgrown eyelashes. Pressing a fingertip lightly against one, I found that it was disturbingly sharp to the touch.
This did not seem like an object that I should put near my eye, but I was afraid to disobey the harsh woman. I wasn't sure how it would stay on my eyelid, but I tentatively placed it there, and when I slowly withdrew my hand, the object did stay put. It felt strange, though not as uncomfortable as I had expected. It was like wearing a fingertip ring for the eye.
Put This over Your Right Eyelid
That weekend, I had been staying with Camila, a friend that I hated. That may sound strange, but that's just the sort of relationship that we had. We maintained a thin veneer of congeniality, but below the surface, we both detested one another. It seemed to be some sort of unspoken game that we played by stubbornly insisting upon doing things together. It's not as uncommon a practice as one might think. Camila was not the first woman with whom I'd played this game, although our match had lasted longer than similar games I'd played before with others.
She had invited me over for the weekend, perhaps simply to give credence to her charade of liking me, and I had accepted, possibly for the same reason. Besides, she had a roommate. His name was Billy, and he hated everyone, including Camila, and didn't try to pretend otherwise. I had a bit of a crush on him. His honesty was refreshing.
Billy was tall, with dark, curly hair, and he rarely wore a shirt. Okay, maybe that was the real reason that I liked him.
After lounging around their apartment all day exchanging catty comments cloaked in syrupy sweetness with Camila, the three of us had finally decided to go out that evening. Well, it was Camila's idea, actually. I guess I should have been wary of some hidden agenda, but I genuinely thought that she had suggested it just because she was as bored as I was.
She had said we were going to a rave. When we reached its supposed location, all we found was an industrial park full of scampering rats.
We may have hated one another, but I certainly didn't think Camila would do something like sell me to the factory. Well, maybe she didn't sell me. I'm not sure. Maybe she just left me behind as a decoy so that she could get away.
I Could Hear the Grating of Metal
I stood in that dirty, dimly lit back room, with the weird hunk of metal attached to my eyelid, waiting for someone to come show me how I was supposed to use the thing. I fidgeted, repeatedly adjusting the eye cuff, until it finally came loose and fell off in my hand. At least half an hour had passed by then, so I gingerly returned to the manager.
"Excuse me, Ma'am, but was I supposed to start working? Because I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do..." My words trailed off under her withering gaze.
The manager, though physically diminutive, was a severe woman with a formidable presence. Her brunette hair was pulled back into a tight, impeccable bun, and she wore a brown leather under-bust corset with metal eyelets over her white button-up shirt and grey wool pants.
"You couldn't figure it out?" she snapped testily.
"No, I'm sorry," I said. "I've never seen anything like this before." I held up the cuff carefully, trying not to puncture my hand on any of its sharp metal lashes.
"You took it off?" she asked sourly, letting out an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. "Very well. I'll be in shortly to show you what to do. Go wait for me. And put it back on."
I waited almost thirty minutes more before the irritable manager joined me at my station.
Hurriedly, she told me, "Depending upon where you move your eye, and what you think about, you will be able to manipulate the movements of the machine. You were chosen for this position because you are bright and quick to learn. Start working, and it will soon come to you naturally."
Then she left me to it.
Her tutorial had been brief and vague, and I still had no real idea of what I was doing. Even if I were able to direct the machine with the movements of my eye and my thoughts, I had no idea what I was supposed to direct it to do.
Almost obsessively running my nervous fingers over the eye cuff to check that it was in place, I began to direct my vision up, then right, then down. I could hear the grating of metal as gears shifted in response to my REM commands.
The strangest thing about all of this was that the manager had been right. As I began to utilize the eye cuff, what I needed to do quickly became clear to me. I was soon shooting off commands as rapidly as my neurons could fire.
We Are All Required to Wear Corsets
I don't know how long the factory has been here, but the building is very old. The women apparently toil here without end. Everyone is female, and we are all required to wear steel boned under-bust corsets over our work clothes, though no one knows why. Perhaps it's some old regulation from centuries past that still remains on the company's books.
There is a hierarchy among the workers. The ones of dull intellect use their feet to work the pedals that make the turbines spin. Like coal shovelers, their labor keeps the machines going. The average ones work with their hands, punching out and hammering metal pieces, for the machine must always be growing. The brightest ones are assigned to overseer positions. They stand off to the side, away from the others. Equipped with the metal piece that sits on the eyelid like a fingertip ring, we are like orchestra conductors who use the motions of our eyes to direct the actions of the machine's many individual components. Yes, that is the best way to describe our work. The overseers are the conductors of the machine.
The lowest caste, the pedal workers, are regularly beaten by the managers. Middle tier workers are rarely hit, but are subjected to an almost constant stream of verbal abuse. Overseers, on the other hand, are usually left alone. In fact, the managers rarely even speak to us.
The term "overseer" might be misleading; we have no more power or authority than any other non-management class. The title simply describes the work that we perform, for we oversee all of the machine's operations through our ocular apparatus.
Though using the eye cuff has quickly become as natural as thinking, it does take a physical toll. My right eyelid feels heavy and bruised from constantly supporting the weight of the eyepiece, and my eye has become painfully dry because wearing the cuff inhibits my capacity to blink freely.
When the accident happened, in the confusion of the moment, a manager placed a hand upon the shoulder of one of the other overseers. As if we were one organism, we all fell into a line together, shoulder to shoulder and, in chorus, began to chant. As if it were completely natural, I joined in with the rest. I have no idea how I knew the words.
"We, those who oversee, do not partake, in physicality," we chanted rhythmically, pausing after every few words. "Ethereal work, requires, ethereal workers. It is a crime, to touch, that, which is not, of this world."
The factory was in chaos, several work stations were on fire, and yet everything stopped while we spoke. Even the managers stood stock still and watched us. Touching an overseer was apparently a very solemn matter.
I had not been there long enough yet for my appearance to have changed much, but all of the other overseers were ghostly white, and most were completely hairless. Their cheeks were sunken, and their hollow eyes looked as though they were made of pale amber-colored crystal. Every overseer wore the same far-away stare; it made them look as if they could see off endlessly into the distance, into eternity itself.
When the Factory Has an Accident, It is No Small Matter
When the factory has an industrial accident, it is no small matter. A fire caused by a cask of molten rods carelessly overturned by a clumsy pedal worker quickly escalated, spreading to areas of the factory that were prone to combustion.
A pulse was emitted from our building and swept across the city, killing all residents within a five mile radius. The pulse radiated out in a circular wave of stroke-inducing psychic energy. Camila and Billy, no doubt, were among the casualties. Ironically, when the three of us were cornered by malevolent managers with whips, they had left me here to die, but being here actually saved my life. We workers were safely inside of the circle. So I'm unharmed, although enslaved, strapped eternally to the great machine, directing the actions of the contraption that owns me.
We Are All Slaves to the Machine
We are slaves to the machine, but still, at least we find solace in the fact that we work with purpose. We are part of something far larger than ourselves, living cogs essential to the machine's functionality.
My pigmentation is now long faded; all color has drained from my flesh. My skin is almost translucent, and I can see the thin blue veins beneath it twisting, one over the other, whenever I turn a wheel or pull a lever. But mostly, I just stand still; only my clear amber eyes move, flitting back and forth, weaving stories, telling truths, and constructing lies.
The factory remains dank, dingy, grimy, and rusted. It always will be, for it can never be renovated. It must never pause in its production.
The factory constructs dreams. It is an ancient industry.
And now I, as its servant, have found my purpose -- as an overseer, directing the course of those dreams.