This week, Motherboard and MCD Books will publish TERRAFORM: Watch/Worlds/Burn, an anthology of some of the very best stuff you’ve seen on this here website over the years, as well as some brand new near-future tales. What follows—a too-plausible, surreal, and gripping story about the future of work by the great Omar El Akkad—is the first story in the book. It should be pretty clear why by a few paragraphs in; this is everything we could hope to see in short-form speculative fiction. A disturbing roadmap to the future, and at least one way out. Enjoy. -the ed
On my way to cut God’s tongue I pass a long line of slow-shuffling laborers. Men, mostly. The younger ones look beat to all hell with hangovers and barfight bruises, dentin-colored stains on their shirts like maps of imaginary islands. It is a rule at the entropy mill that all laborers must be dressed in reasonably presentable attire, but I’ve never heard of anyone turned away on account of how they looked. The older men in line, they tend to take too much care with their appearance. There’s something grotesque about watching a stooped retiree in his best Sunday suit, hair all dyed and gelled to shining, plead for a day’s wage. They look so much older than they are, these men. The years gorge on them like yeast in a sugar bath. I glance their way as I walk past. I wonder how many of them have spouses, children, grandchildren. I wonder who they’ve left alone and uncared for to be here. I wonder how many of them are mean.
This morning the line stretches for miles and miles and miles. It always does.
It used to be a mega-mall before the great oil crash. The largest mall in the country, I’m told, though that was years before my time. Even now you can still see the phantom outline on the sides of some of the buildings, the places where the lettering was, the names of all the big box stores and movie theatres and parking garages, this congealed mass of commerce the size of a small city. Now the whole thing houses the entropy mill, five-million square-feet of government-subsidized employment. Every day, thousands of people come to this place to churn out numbers for minimum wage, to stir the slop on which God’s tongue feasts.
By the time I get to the front entrance, the makeup of the line has changed. There are more women near the front. They sit on folding chairs, draped in winter coats and blankets. The only way to make sure you get a spot is to show up the night before and wait till morning. A few of the people in line give me dirty looks as I walk past, and one of them points at my laptop satchel and yells, “No bags!” But it’s not until I’m right at the entrance that a young man steps out in front of me and grabs my shoulder.
“Back of the line, buddy,” he says.
I shake my head. “I’m not here for that,” I say. “The hell you ain’t. Back of the line.”
I know that look he’s got, I know it from memory, and I know what’s going to happen next but I try to step around him anyway. There’s no point appealing to reason. You can’t rid a man of the violence that lives in the chasm between the life he hoped for and the one he got.
I’ve never been any good at taking a punch. Glass jaw, they call it. I drop to the ground, a dribble of pinkish spit leaking out my mouth, that familiar mineral taste. He’s got strong hands. I don’t understand how men get strong hands working at the entropy mill.
In my periphery I see a couple of security guards come running over.
“Tech support,” I mumble. “Maintenance call. I’m here on a maintenance call.
Both guards ignore me. Instead they grab the young man who punched me and start dragging him toward the street. He puts up a pretty good fight, arguing he’s been waiting here eight hours, it’s the guy who cut in line that should be booted. It doesn’t look like he’s going to back down, until one of the security guards pulls out his phone and tries to take the man’s picture. That’s when he turns and runs. No one wants to end up on the blacklist.
The guards don’t give chase. They turn and walk back and on the way one of them helps me up. I show her my ID.
“You new?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “First call.”
She shakes her head. “Never come through the front gate,” she says. “That’s just for them.”
She leads me inside and after she checks my name against the maintenance manifest she ushers me through the metal detector and into the massive central rotunda. I’d seen pictures of it, but in the pictures it never looked like this. The workers haven’t been let in yet and the place has about it an almost pleasing emptiness, all the workstations pristine and untouched, the wires and electrodes and number pads arranged neatly at each desk. The only sound is the faint wheeze of the air conditioners and the squeak of our shoes against the polished floor. In an hour or so the rooms will fill with the noise and heat of thousands, but for now the entropy mill is quiet.
We walk through the rotunda and down one of the hallways, past the workrooms. The walls are all glass and I can guess at some of the jobs that go on inside. One room is lined with tall bookshelves. I imagine this is where the word-counting happens. In another room I see headphones on the tables. It must be one of the music stations. That was my father’s favorite. I used to pray he’d get assigned the music station.
There’s entropy mills in all the big cities now but this was the first, the original make-work project in the years after the crash wiped out a third of all the blue-collar jobs in the country. Every day, three and a half million people come to the mills to churn out numbers. It’s the easiest work, anyone can do it. You don’t need a degree or references or previous experience. Depending on the day you might be assigned to the biometrics unit, and have a machine dream up numbers based on the topography of your fingerprints or blood vessels running across your retina. Another day you might be told to swallow a small capsule that sits in your stomach and sends back a real-time count of the bacteria in your gut. Another day you might be told to put on an electrode helmet and listen to Mozart, as all the while electrodes measure the changes in activity across the right side of the frontal lobe, the places the music sets on fire, and from these bursts of intensity generates a stream of digits. Most of the time you just sit there, let the wires pull the numbers right out of you; a strange, corrupted dreaming.
In an endless stream all these billions of digits the workers generate are funneled down to the box in the basement, down to God’s tongue. And from these numbers God’s tongue forms its own secret language, speaks unpredictable things.
As stipulated by the Great Recovery Act, any company that uses random numbers must purchase them from an entropy mill. Academics, cryptographers, drug-makers, anyone whose business demands mathematically pure uncertainty. Every bank in the country is a customer, as is every casino. There’s a video game studio whose vast, procedurally generated universe feeds on these numbers. Somewhere in the math department at a university upstate there’s a server that queries God’s tongue at the rate of two or three billion digits an hour, part of a quest to find the new largest prime.
In reality, the numbers that come out of the entropy mill are not completely random. There is a determinism to it, no matter how difficult to decipher. In reality, a gram of cesium would do a better job than these broken-down men and women ever could. But a gram of cesium won’t feed three and a half million families.
I’ve wanted for so long to see it. My father spent thirty-one years in this place. Showed up hungover and barfight-bruised, left in his Sunday suit and his gel-shined hair. Thirty-one years, and he never saw it.
I follow the guard to the restricted area, past a set of vault-thick doors and into the electrical and mechanical rooms. We take a service elevator down to the basement.
The doors open and there it is, a modular cube of black disk drive-holders and winking green-and-red diodes. It’s a little bigger than the simulator we used in training, the room a little warmer, the smell of ozone a little thicker in the air. I feel a kind of distant nausea settle in. It’s just a gaggle of rectangular servers. I wanted it to be something more than this. Childish as it may be, I wanted anthropomorphism: a face, an expression. I wanted for a fight.
I remove my laptop from my satchel and kneel by one of the input ports. I plug my machine in. I enter the password, my password. They’re going to know it was me. It doesn’t matter.
The guard stands nearby, bored, checking her phone.
“So what’s wrong with it, anyway?” she asks.
“Yesterday it spit out a string of nineteen fives in a row,” I say. “That triggered a service call.”
“So it’s broken?”
“No. It’s not broken,” I say. “It’s not anything.”
I skip past the diagnostic menu. I find the code repository, the thing you’re taught never to touch unless all hell breaks loose. I upload my changes, the new dialect I intend to make God’s tongue learn. I imagined there’d be some failsafe, some impenetrable wall. But it’s easy, it takes no time at all.
“Ninety-six-trillion,” I say.
The guard looks up from her phone. “What?”
“Ninety-six trillion, give or take. That’s how many numbers my father fed this thing.”
She looks at me, uncertain. She doesn’t know. She’ll piece it together later, when it’s too late. “Did you have a good childhood?” I ask her.
“Sure, I guess.”
“That’s good.” I unplug my laptop. “That matters.”
We leave the server room. When we return to the rotunda, the workers are just starting to stream in. They take their seats and begin their busywork, their invisible shedding. I think about this time tomorrow, when God’s tongue adopts my language and turns mute, when all it can utter is an endless string of zeros and all the industries reliant upon it come to a grinding halt. I imagine the sound it’ll make. A choking.
A long time ago, on one of his good days, my father told me about a workstation they used to have at the mill. Two people at a time were told to sit and talk to one another about anything at all. A microphone listened in, and it was never quite clear what the machine was listening for. Some of the workers guessed it counted phonemes or syllables, or perhaps the length of pauses between words. It seemed at first a good addition to the rounds – all the workers had to do was talk to one another, which they mostly did anyway. But soon it became clear that when expected to converse, many of the men became awkward and self-conscious, and too often ended up getting into arguments that sometimes turned violent.
“You can’t do that to a man,” my father said. “Rub his face in it like that.”
I didn’t understand what he meant back then, but I think I do now. It’s important to do work of which you can be proud.
I pack up my laptop. The guard ushers me back to the main floor. On our way out we pass the same workstations, now filling with laborers. Through a glass wall I see an older woman reclined in her chair, headphones and electrode cap in place, eyes closed, smiling. In my head, I can almost hear the music.