Carl Zellneck had been cheated out of existence. He was a man left behind by progress in a kingdom of code, feeding on scraps of data to stay alive. His body had become a relic, analogue, outdated and superseded by technology. A process of unnatural selection had made his muscles and bones prone to degradation whilst automation constantly improved and replaced him in the workplace.
He was old, tired, obsolete. Hungover.
Carl approached the automated factory gates and bared his teeth in a mock smile for the overhead cameras. A huge steel door slid open and he held up two fingers to whoever or whatever was watching, and slouched inside. The factory floor stretched out across a vast unbroken horizon of assembly lines and moving parts, alive with technology. It pulsed like some gestalt electric creature plugging its tendrils of cables and wires into the earth and sky. Roots stretched out, feeding into countless production lines that sang and whined a high pitched note of pure industrious perfection. At the centre, a reflective solar tower stretched out through the roof controlling the city of robotic and holographic sentinels; its pristine body and brain working efficiently in tandem, building the perfect product over and over again, for eternity. The factory was a living entity, the apex of artificial intelligence designed by Japan’s foremost industrial designer and self proclaimed genius, Hideo Okanami.
Carl placed his hands over his ears to dampen the noise of conveyor belts and aluminium stamping machines, reached his terminal and logged in. His first task was to check the data logs. He pulled up the holoscreen and saw that the production schedule was on track and the quality of output high; as always, the factory was a monotony of perfection and engineering. It was constantly micro correcting itself for speed and profit, commanding thousands of automated robots and Halograms. To Carl the factory was the most boring machine on earth – it didn’t need him, it didn’t need anyone. He was just another one of its moving parts, like a barnacle clinging to the body of a whale; a parasite of its success. A tiny human component in the world’s most advanced factory, manufacturing Heito Enterprises’ successful perpetual motion machine, the A1000 automobile. Carl steadied himself against the console and idly performed his routine tasks, trying to distract himself from the effects of the previous drunken evening, but it was no good – he could still feel the acid dissolving his stomach lining and rising in his throat. With a jolt he vomited a pool of orange liquid beside his desk and bent over, clutching his belly. Before he even had time to look up from the floor a pair of snakeskin shoes appeared next to his. “What the hell time do you call this? You were meant to be on quality control half an hour ago.” It was his supervisor, Lewis Kelp.
“So what,” said Carl, wiping the drool from his mouth. “I’m here now aren’t I?”
“Well, from the look of things, half of your body is here…and the rest is over there,” shouted Lewis pointing to the contents of Carl’s stomach puddled on the floor. “For fuck’s sake, Carl. Don’t tell me you’re hungover again?”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry Lewis, please don’t report me. I’ve just been having a tough time lately, you know how it is.”
Lewis remembered Carl’s broken personal life and decided to give him a second chance, relishing the moment of superiority. “Sure buddy, I went through a messy divorce myself when my ex wife bled me dry. Don’t sweat it – I’m on my fourth wife now – I’ll cut you some slack this time, just so long as you sober up and don’t make me regret it. The directors are always looking for an excuse to replace one of us with another fucking machine.”
“Thanks, Lewis, I’ll clean up my act. I promise. I really need this job.”
“Yeah, for the alimony, right…Just turn up sober and be on time tomorrow,” replied Lewis, walking away.
Carl spat on the floor and returned to his console, shouting after his boss. “Don’t worry, no machine could ever replace you, Lewis. They could never invent a robot with a stick up its arse.”
Lewis shook his head and laughed. “Whatever, Zellneck, just get back to work and cover up those goddam awful tattoos.”
Carl wiped the saliva from his console and accessed the quality control logs. His next task was to physically inspect the assembly lines and vehicles along the half mile stretch of factory floor. Feeling nauseous he stumbled to the first checkpoint near the main assembly and watched the mechanised robots gracefully pirouette and weld the outer shell of the A1000 together, then repeat the process. Satisfied with the results he moved on to the next section and temporarily powered down assembly line B to inspect the logs and robots’ welding techniques.
A red warning message appeared.
He examined the joints. They were seamless, practically invisible – except for one. He bent down to compare a previous shell and saw it was much the same; imperfect like an unhealed scar. Surprised by the error, he tapped in the quality control results and recalibrated the assembly line as the robots moved in perfect formation like soldiers in a military tattoo. With a shudder one of the robots realigned imperfectly and halted like it was conflicted between two contrasting directives. Carl punched the corresponding reset commands on his mobile terminal. When it didn’t respond he raised his foot and kicked the machine.
The robot stuttered. Unresponsive.
Carl felt his head shrink and the room spin. His hangover was getting worse and the last thing we wanted to do was give Lewis Kelp another excuse to reprimand him. He kicked the robot harder this time, denting its pristine steel casing until he ran out of breath and sweat poured down his face. It was no use, he would have to manually correct the malfunction and hope his boss didn’t discover they had a quality control problem. He shut down the assembly line then watched the conveyor belt and its mechanised workers fall inert and lifeless like a puppeteer had severed their strings. “You disobedient piece of shit, robot, you’re supposed to be infallible but you’re more fucking lazy than me. I’m going to teach you a lesson,” shouted Carl as he climbed over the safety cordon and raised a fist to strike the malfunctioning robot. But before he could, it straightened up and whirred into life, then pirouetted backwards and dodged Carl’s blow. It docked beside the production line and hissed, expelling smoke while Carl looked on with shock; despite being deactivated, the robot had moved of its own volition. It was impossible. Carl hammered the command line several times, trying to switch it off. No matter, he thought, it’s probably just a glitch, and stepped into the path of the assembly line.
The conveyor belt started to move.
At the far end of the factory, Lewis Kelp inspected the completion of the new limited edition red A1000 models as they rolled off the production line. He examined one after another, checking the bodywork, emission profiles and welding techniques for the tiniest imperfections; priding himself on his attention to detail. With a frown he noticed something odd – a dark red streak of paint stretching from the bonnet to the rear boot of the vehicle. He shook his head at the inferior workmanship and ran a finger through the dark red stain, then licked his lips.
It tasted of salt, not paint.
Lewis stared in disbelief as another tainted automobile crawled off the production line, and squinted when he saw something pink and bloody stamped into the car’s bodywork. He moved closer to inspect the problem and recognised the heavily tattooed arm of Carl Zellneck, who had been cheated out of existence not once, but twice.
He hit the alarm button and vomited onto his snakeskin shoes.
Copyright A.P. Hilton – all rights reserved
Copyright A.P. Hilton 2021 – All rights reserved