Stand and Deliver
“I'm the dandy highwayman so sick of easy fashion The clumsy boots, peek-a-boo roots That people think so dashing So what's the point of robbery When nothing is worth taking? (oh oh oh) It's kind of tough to tell a scruff The big mistake he's making Stand and deliver! Your money or your life” - Stuart “Adam Ant” Goddard - No Doubt & Katy Perry
“When we first came here We were cold and we were clear With no colours on our skin Until we let the spectrum in Say my name and every colour illuminates We are shining and we will never be afraid again” - Florence Welch
“That's where Daddy's gonna work now!” Marvin says with a smile.
JA-NL looks out the car window as miles of cement warehouses roll by. Fences surround these, sparking with 8,000 volts of electricity.
“That's where all the toys for girls and boys live! All the holocubes! All the kicks and clothes and chains! Everything in the whole world lives inside these buildings. And I'll be like one of Santa's helpers, making sure each kid gets whatever they want.”
“Wow!” Dy-Ana gleams. “What are you gonna pick for us?”
“Oh no! We gotta save up. But just you wait! You'll see! Something extra special.”
JA-NL can hear the whimper in her father's voice. He had cornered himself in a promise all knew he could never keep. She sat in the back seat with her mom, who squeezed her hand and forced a smile from the half of her face that could still move.
It had been six months since the stroke. The raging tides of medical bills and unemployment swelled into a tsunami, crushing them and ripping out the foundation of their lives, their comforts and their home. A new wave of sharks swam in and gobbled up profits from their suffering. The drug companies had raised the prices for her drugs 60% that year. The ambulance cost $2,500 for a two mile ride. The unforgiving landlords threw them out when they were only days late. The temporary rentals demanded cash up front. Her parents had to pawn their wedding rings. The job search firms would grease the wheels of employment, for a price.
Hushed tones and serious faces circled the dinner table.
“Your mom and I have made a decision.”
Her mom sat in a wheelchair, looking away. The stroke damaged the frontal regions of her brain's left hemisphere, leaving her mute. Tammi could understand them and could construct ideas to express her thoughts, but she was unable to turn these into words.
The upbeat tones of her father echoed empty underneath as he patted Tammi's hand.
“We will make it through this. Just another hurdle.”
But JA-NL could see the doubt in his eyes.
The in-between weeks were spent folding boxes, packing what few things they could take and selling what they couldn't. Down went the holocube and with it a window into a world of comfort, their sweetest escape.
“I know the home is a little smaller, but your gonna love it!” Marvin says as he drives.
Sunlight bakes off the cinderblock buildings. Thousands of them!
Little boxes on the hillside.
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky.
Little boxes all the same.
They roll under the cheery banner, “Welcome to Pickville, USA!” that looms over the only road into... town?
The row of guards with guns shocks them. The car slows down as the barbed-wire gate jerks open. The guards scan the vehicle.
“Don't be scared, they're just here to protect all the good stuff and make sure it makes it safely to their new owners.”
“Daddy, are they keeping the bad guys out?” Dy-Ana starts.
“Or keeping us in?” JA-NL finishes.
He pretends not to hear as the guards wave them in with their assault rifles.
Cement roads. Concrete yards. Any last bit of nature has been razed and smothered by dull flatness.
“And this one, this one's our house!”
Sadness soaks in his last syllable as their car pulls to a stop.
* * *
The shot clock clicks on and Marvin races through the miles-long labyrinth.
These are the picking fields. They were often called fulfillment centers, but those humans who worked here received anything but. Steel cages sprout from the floor and hang from the ceiling across the warehouse's 23 acres, teeming with all the fruits of humanity's labor. And above it all a fast, peppy techno beat blares, encouraging the workers to hustle.
From anal beads to zygote games, over 1.7 billion products to make human lives moderately easier or mildly more entertaining mingle together, yet remain individually wrapped. As Marvin picks these fruits, he gains the knowledge of how wastefully and frivolously humans filled their short lives.
At the start of each 13-hour shift, Marvin must attach a tracker to his right hip and place a clear visor over his eyes. The augmented reality visor flashes the list of each object and its approximate location in the warehouse. The hip tracker measures his movements, his pulse and breathing and extrapolates how fast he should be moving for this order.
He has two minutes and 14 seconds to grab two Tracy's dog mouth male masturbators with realistic teeth, a 4D Gummi Bear Skeleton Anatomy Kit, one Infant Circumcision Trainer, and three gallons of liquid nitrogen flash-frozen ice cream, dubbed Dippin' Dots.
The clock is ticking!
Loud beeps set the pace for him. 97 steps a minute!
If he slows, a siren blares until he jumps to catch pace.
“Dammit! Where the FUCK are the Dippin' Dots!?” He's grabbed everything else on his list.
17 seconds remain.
There! At the bottom of a six-foot tall crate.
No time to think.
He dives head first into a pile of disembodied husband pillows, pushes through forty pounds of Laffy Taffy, squirms around two thousand Tootsie Rolls, struggling to the left, to the left, to the right, to the right, to the front, to the front, now he slides.
With .239 seconds to spare, he drops the dots into the box and plops it on the conveyor belt. Sealed to be delivered to a customer that demands these in four hours or else Marvin gets his paycheck docked.
“Like a fool, I've stayed too long...” Marvin mutters to himself as he scans the walls, painted to look like some quaint plantation farm with rolling hills and a grand home in the distance. Not his idea of idyllic.
His callused hands crack from cardboard box chafing. Each year, 7 billion trees are cut down, shredded into wood chips, poured into vats where chemicals bind the cellulose fibers together. The resulting pulp is dumped into a paper making machine where steam heated rollers push out the water and leave large sheets of thick paper. These are cut and folded into cardboard which Marvin holds in his hands.
This moment of reflection ends as the shot clock starts again.
One minute and 47 seconds to grab one pair of shit and piss stained pants, a face sucking octopus winter hat and Dr. Chuck Tingle's bestselling masterpiece, Buttception: A Butt within a Butt within a Butt.
As he pulls the book from the bin---
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
The siren blares!
He's too slow.
He's docked ten dollars.
After their brain, the hand is human's greatest evolutionary trait. Four fingers and a thumb allows humans and their primate cousins to grab and manipulate the world around them. To feel the environment with the densest amount of nerve endings in the body. Without hands, humans would never have been able to evolve to subdue their planet and rule over the fish and the birds and all other living creatures. Whales and dolphins, ocean-dwelling mammals, are hyper-intelligent, able to communicate visual images using echolocation, build deep emotional interactions and have long memories. The bottlenose dolphin has a brain to body mass ratio twice as large as humans, suggesting a superior intelligence. But, these sea flippers lack hands. They are unable to create tools, to build homes, to plow and shovel and shape their planet.
I am the final progression of human hands.
I am their final tool.
Even as the field of robotics grew to perfect machines that were faster, stronger, more durable than humans, none could come close to replicating the human hand. These hands could flow through dozens of tasks seamlessly with speed and dexterity.
Sure, Marvin was grateful for work. At the start of each shift, the owner strutted before them as a ten-foot-tall hologram, reminding them that unemployment was at 73% and that they should be thrilled that they have a job and could feed and house their family. But he earned half his trucker salary, working eight days a week, with only Shopping Day off. He didn't own his home, it was just a concrete shed owned by the factory. He paid more rent for less space. They made sure to dangle this security over him daily and to dock his paycheck with this rent weekly.
During the 11th hour of one shift, his casual moans grew. He was shocked to hear his voice again. He hadn't sung since Tammi's stroke. A deep baritone. A low A-note. All his frustration volcanoes from his lips and bursts through the halls.
Groans of ahhhhh begin to release the tension in him. In its wake, a wave of calm and determination fill him.
In his peripheral field of vision, he sees another picker cock his head, piqued by this rumble of resistance.
As the minutes roll on, his voice slides up and down the scale. Words join the sounds and bounce off the steel cages and concrete ceilings.
“What's going on?” He sings.
His voice ignites another picker. A soulful “Mmmmmm” sound rolls through the shadows of the valley of cages.
“Oh lordy, trouble so hard. Mmmm. Oh lordy. Trouble so hard.”
As Marvin darts down the halls, he sees Vera, a stout black woman in her 70s, hunched over a bin. Her monitor ticks 17 beeps a minute as she paints the air with her natural blues.
“Don't nobody know my troubles but God.”
Marvin stops to listen. He's struck still by the power in her voice.
His alarm blares.
Ten dollars docked!
She turns to give him a loving glance as she powers through her tasks.
Marvin jumps to, rushing to finish. But he is infected with that soulful tone, which replicates and spreads through his mind. He finds himself along a parallel row from Vera, harmonizing with her. As they turn a corner, her eyes smile and she grabs his hand and squeezes it before walking away.
Vera hobbles to grab a 36-pack of octuple-ply toilet paper as she starts a new song.
“Swing low, sweet chariot.”
The other voices hush their fuss and listen. On the next chorus, they join. The sound swells, filling the concrete space higher with the joyful noise of this spiritual.
Over the next month, their vocal resistance grows. These humans paint this dreary workplace with their soul. But above them, that techno beat still roars, attempting to deafen them. The picking fields are always open, blaring a bright fluorescent glow that makes it seems like its always day. Each shift teaches the songs to next shift until the warehouse booms all day and night with these songs.
The all-seeing and all-hearing panopticon drones whizz over head. These modern overseers take note of each note.