Unit 4367

I woke with the familiar ring of the alarm, so loud that the speakers beneath my scalp vibrated my entire head. "Time to start up!" the synthesized voice shouted, "Shift starts in fifteen minutes!"

I opened my eyes and the ringing stopped. I stared at the gray metal of the ceiling. I swung my legs over the edge of my cot and my feet hit the floor with a clang. I pushed myself to stand, metal implants shifting beneath my skin, and moved like clockwork in the same routine as the past four years and six months.

I reached across the short width of the cubicle to shut off the charging station before detaching the thick cable from the connection on my chest. I learned the hard way, as everyone else did, that the electrical discharge from removing the cable first could fry my internal batteries. One per month was free, extras were taken out of your salary.

After making sure that my systems were fully charged, my batteries had shut down on the assembly line before, I detached the feeding tube from my stomach and the evacuation tube from my waist and hung them on the wall in their proper place so as not to mix them up; something else everyone did at least once. I gave my cubicle a once over before heading out in the gray hall with its sterile gray color.

I glanced out the only window on my way, as I did every morning. The sky was a bright blue with the sun only just starting to peek over the horizon. A few birds chirped from the tree outside the factory. Strange, it seemed like only yesterday that it was winter.

I still heard the humming and banging of the factory, even after four years and six months. Others claim they got used to the noise, but it was still a firework show in my head each morning. I marched to my station on the assembly line and removed my right hand and replaced it with the multi-tool attachment. I still shivered as I attached the connector cable from the console into the port at the rear of my skull. Lines of text appeared in my mind. An order from the Department of Defense for ten thousand units by the end of the week, with a bonus for the section that completed it.

"You receive that, Alex?" Jenna asked me from her station across the conveyor belt, "A bonus!"

I smiled. "I know. It will be great to add to the pile." I grinned even more, "Just six more months, and my time's up."

She inserted her own grinding tool onto her hand. "I've only got four. I can't wait to get out of here."

"What are you going to do again?" I asked.

"See the world. That's what I'm going to do, be a travel photographer."

I knew she had told me before, so why did it feel like the first time? "I want to open a bookstore."

She snorted. "People still read books? Isn't everything on e-readers now?"

"There are still plenty of people who like reading from paper instead of a screen. You can't…"

The bell rang inside my head; the talking was over. The conveyor belt came to life with a whine and the first metal rod appeared in front of me. I drilled a hole in the top with the drill-bit on my thumb while simultaneously etching lines around the bottom with the blades on my fingers. Even after six years, I still felt like Inspector Gadget. I dropped the completed rod back onto the belt where it rolled to Jenna, who screwed a handle onto the edge.

I had no idea what we were assembling, I never did, but all that mattered was I was only six months away from my time, six months from living my dream.

I remember that day when I walked onto the stage and received my diploma, my two diplomas. The dean read my name from his tablet and shook my hand. "Alex Dawson, Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Bachelor of Science in Business Administration."

My father smiled at me from the audience and my mother clapped. After posing for pictures with them and my grandparents, we went out to our favorite restaurant. Over our meals of fish and steaks, my grandfather turned to me, "So, let me see if I remember, you want to open a store, right?"

"A bookstore," I answered.

My mother smiled. "You've always been such a bookworm." She turned to my grandfather. "While other kids wanted a video game system or something like that, he wanted some antique book."

"First edition," I clarified.

My grandfather laughed. "When I was a kid, everyone wanted the latest gadget. I guess things came full circle."

"But you're not going to open a store right away, right?" my grandmother asked.

I shook my head. "I want to get into the publishing field first. Save up money, make some contacts, you know, things like that." I had two degrees that would make me a perfect fit in any publishing house, at least, that's what I thought at the time.

The bell rang again. Shift was over for the day. My console reported we had completed a thousand units today, not a bad production run, but at those numbers, we would never reach thirty thousand at the end of the month. I turned to tell Jenna that we would need to speed up production if we wanted to make that bonus but her station was empty. I would have shrugged if the metal around my shoulders allowed it. I disconnected myself and marched back to my cubicle.

After hooking myself back up to my tubes, I laid down in my cot and stared at the dull gray of the ceiling; pale, empty, vacant.

I shook my head clear and grabbed the book resting beneath the cot: Frankenstein. It was my favorite novel as a kid but now I felt some kinship with the creature.

"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…"

I read until the buzz in my skull gave me the one-minute warning. I placed the bookmark, slid the book beneath my cot, and shut my eyes when the weariness of the Ambien and melatonin cocktail overtook me.

I greeted Jenna at our station the next morning. "Let's try to break yesterday's thousand units."

She stared at me. "We did five thousand units yesterday. We did a thousand three days ago."

I stared at her. "What?" I thought back and vague images came to me of standing at my station, reading the five-thousand-unit report.

I shook my head. "Everything's running together."

Jenna chuckled. "The same thing has been happening to me. It's this place. You do the same thing day in and day out for weeks on end. Of course, everything's going to run together." She smiled, "Plus your mind wanders."

I knew that all too well. As I started assembling units, I thought back to a few months after graduation. I was slouching in the lounge chair, mindlessly flipping through the t.v. channels when Mom came home from work. "Hi, honey, how was the job interview?"

My expression told her all she needed to know. She frowned. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, well, being sorry doesn't help," I snapped, "When I got to the bookstore, the owner said the position had been filled, but I'm pretty sure it was by that 80-year-old woman at the counter. Probably his mother or something. Oh, and that publishing house from last week? Yeah, they said I didn't make it to the second round." I leaned forward and rubbed my eyes. "I mean, what the hell is wrong with me?"

Mom just sighed. "It's not just you."

I never knew how, after almost a year of applying for jobs and going on unsuccessful interviews, that was supposed to make me feel better.

Mom continued as she pulled things out of the refrigerator for dinner. "The economy is terrible." She paused and then said, "I know you don't want to hear this, but you might need to take a job outside of what you went to school for. You know, at least, until something opens up."

"Then what was the point of going to college?" I asked, "I spent fifty grand on a degree that I'm never going to use!"

Mom ignored my outburst and then said, "Well, you need to get a job. We let you live here for free while you were in school, but rent's due soon."

After a quiet and awkward dinner, I did the same thing I did every night since graduation: search for job postings and check my email for any responses. It was becoming more and more of a desert, but a message caught my attention: Need money for your life-long dream? Work for five years and make a lifetime of income. Join us at Razor Corporation. Click on the link below to start the application.

The alarm rang again in my head; another shift finished. I zoned out for the entire shift again, but the console reported that I finished five thousand units.

Jenna called to me. "Good night." When I didn't answer, she said, "Are you okay? Do you want to see the diagnostic department?"

I shook my head. "No. I mean, I'm okay. I just zoned out for the entire shift."

She laughed. "And that's a bad thing? It just means you can count one more day off your sentence, heh. I'll see you tomorrow."

I just nodded. Yes, one more day down, only… only…. How much time did I have left? Right, six months. How could I have forgotten?

I returned to my cubicle and pulled out Frankenstein.

"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I…"

Didn't I read this already? Hmm, I guess not.

After shutting down, I dreamt of owning my own bookstore and woke with a smile on my face for the first time in I don't know how long.

That smile remained on my face until I glanced out the only window on my path and was greeted by a field blanketed with snow on a dreary, overcast sky. "Wasn't it summer yesterday?" I asked Jenna.

"Summer?" she blinked. She closed her eyes, "No…no, it's been three months." What little color there was drained from her face, "Three months…"

I shook my head. "No, it can't! There's no way that…" My internal systems reported the date, three months since Jenna and I last spoke. Three months of us at our station every day without a word, without a thought beyond our function in the factory.

"Something's going on," Jenna said, "Something really weird."

"Should we send in a diagnostic report?" I asked.

She shook her head and gestured to her implants. "It's these things, they're doing something to us."

"Let's ask if any of the other workers are going through the same thing?"

She shook her head again. "The only person I even remember seeing the last five years is you! They don't let us see anyone else."

I wanted to deny it but I shivered, despite my centralized heating. She was right, I've never spoken to another factory worker since starting here. Why didn't I ever realize that before?

I swallowed. "Well, um, if it's been that long, then you're almost done, right?"

She blinked and her face brightened. "Y-yeah, only a few more days! How could I have almost forgotten?" She looked at me, "And you're down to three, right?"

I nodded. "Yes, three months…just three months to go."

The buzz shot through the connection to my console and I started assembling units. What was happening to us? Was anything happening to us or were we just imagining it? We were doing the same job every day for five years, waking up at the same time every day, taking the same path to our station every day. Our minds couldn't be designed for that.

Just three months to go, just three months to go.

I remembered meeting with the Razor Corporation representative. It was a quick meeting, not even an interview. "First thing," the woman said, "This isn't a job in the traditional sense. It's more like the program the military ran a few decades ago. If you served for a set amount of time, they paid for your college tuition. So, if you work for us, you'll get paid but you don't get it until you've finished your term of service."

"And how much is that?" I asked.

"A million dollars for five years. If, at the end, you want to keep working, you can sign up for another five years."

I must have looked as desperate as I felt because she slid a stack of papers towards me. "Go ahead and look through the contract, though, I must warn you that there are some…conditions stringent upon employment."

I heard the way she stressed 'must,' and figured it had to be a legal thing. "Like what?"

"Some robotic modifications," she explained, "Just to make things easier at the job." Since I didn't say anything, she leaned closer, "But think about it, one million dollars for five years of work. We'll provide the living arrangements, including food. Not a bad deal, huh? Especially in this economy where even fast food positions are hard to come by. Just five years of work, and you'll be able to do what you've always wanted."

I stared at her for another moment and then glanced at the stack of papers. I took the pen from her hand.

I heard the buzzing in my head again, followed by the familiar words, "Wake up! Wake up!"

Wake up? I was at my station, how could I…?

No, I was in my cot, staring up at the same gray of my cubicle ceiling. I lost time again; I wasn't even asleep! My internal clock said it was a week later.

"Wake up! Wake up!"

I didn't want to wake up, I wanted to lay here until I knew what was happening to me!

No…no, just three more months, just three more months. That's all I need to do and then I can leave, then I can do what I want for a change, then I can finally start my life!

I marched to my station. Unit 1256 was attaching herself to her station. I greeted her, though I could not understand why. She returned my greeting with cold, empty eyes. "I suffered lost time again but I was in the middle of our shift when it happened."

"How long was it this time?" Unit 1256 asked.

"A week. I will be happy when my term of service is over. I only have…have…"

Strange, the time left would not recall from my memory. I asked her, "Your term of service is almost complete, yes? What is it you wanted to do again?"

"Term of service?" she asked, "I have no term of service."

"What? You wanted to...wanted to…" What was it that Unit 1256 wanted to…

That was not her number! She had a name!

She stared at me. "Are you malfunctioning, Unit 4367?"

No, no my number is…my name is…is…

No! I'm not a number, I'm not a machine! I'm more than a function in a factory! What is my name?! What is it?!

Then I heard the ringing in my ears and our shift began.