REPLACEMENT

EMMA BRACKETT

[YOU ARE CURRENTLY LATE FOR YOUR SHIFT AT FACILITY #2864.]

Bright red text flashed across Georgina’s eyesight, accompanied by a rough robotic voice.

[YOU HAVE 5 MINUTES TO ARRIVE. ARRIVING LATE WILL RESULT IN IMMEDIATE TERMINATION.]

“Shit, shit, SHIT.” Georgina sprinted down the street, attempting to put her hair up in a company-approved bun as she slammed into person after person. The text and voice had her eyes’ and ears’ full attention, but after taking this route six (more often seven) times a week for the last two years, she trusted her feet to get to the facility. The annoyed glares of onlookers meant nothing in the face of unemployment.

[YOU HAVE 4 MINUTES TO ARRIVE. ARRIVING LATE–]

“I get it, I get it,” Georgina thought as loudly as possible to drone out the microchip’s whining. Down the street was the facility, gray and overbearing, separated from the rest of the city by a chain-link fence. On the face of the building was the bright green cursive logo that trailed off at the end to form a thumbs up. Georgina thought about where that thumb could shove it.

An alarm went off in her head, and yellow text replaced the red moving across her vision.

[CRITICIZING THE COMPANY IS AGAINST COMPANY POLICY. THIS IS YOUR FIRST WARNING. 3 WARNINGS WILL RESULT IN TERMINATION.]

The voice turned into something softer.

[We want to grow better as a company. If you have any suggestions, please do not hesitate to reach out. YOU HAVE 3 MINUTES TO ARRIVE.]

Much to Georgina’s relief, the lights and noises stopped once she stepped onto the property. She stared at the thumbs up, took a deep breath, then walked up to the security checkpoint. She and the security guard stood in silence as she folded her ear, revealing the outer layer of her microchip. It was decorated with a glowing white LED that made her head hot, a bar code, and the company’s logo all in a row. The security guard scanned the code with what looked like a bulky smartphone, and when it flashed green, Georgina was free to go on ahead.

The outside of the facility was all concrete, save for the planters blooming cigarette buds outside of the front doors. Georgina walked past those doors and the management who stepped outside for an inkling of fresh air. She worked her way around the back, past the trucks that would send their products to God knew where, and up to a rusted door labeled “EMPLOYEES ONLY.” She had to shove the door open as the rust tried its hardest to stop her. One of these days she was sure it was going to encase the whole building.

Georgina entered the floor worker break room. It was just wide enough to fit a wall of lockers, one table, a small collection of mismatched chairs, and a vending machine. Along the walls were instructions, notices, and announcements that blurred into a single piece of “who-cares.” At the table sat the one coworker she actually enjoyed talking to: Ron.

“Hey, Georgie,” Ron said. “Almost didn’t make it today.”

“Well, I still haven’t technically made it yet,” she said as she opened her locker and tossed her things inside. “On your break?”

“Yep.” Ron leaned back with an exaggerated sigh. “And loving it.”

Georgina chuckled. Her eyes were drawn to the locker beside her. It belonged to an upbeat guy called Louis. She had never spoken to him, but she knew all she needed to know about his personality by the obnoxious corporate-approved stickers he used to cover the locker. However, the stickers and his name tag were both gone.

“Hey, did Louis quit?” she asked.

Ron shook his head. “Fired. Along with Markus and Jodie and Chase.”

“God, another string of firings? I think Jodie and Chase have kids, too.”

Ron nodded. “It happened all at once just yesterday after you left. Corporate came down and I think just picked randomly.” He shivered. “Terrifying.”

“Man, that sucks. You think they’re going to hire more people?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not. The whole reason they did it was to save money. All it means is more work for us.” A yellow light flashed behind Ron’s left ear. “Speaking of work, I’ve got to get back to it. I’ll see you on the floor, Georgie.” He stood and walked out with a little wave.

With Ron gone and the adrenaline from her sprint fading, Georgina felt heavy on her feet. She had breakfast, a granola bar as she sprinted out the door, or was that yesterday? The screeching of cars and neon lights outside her window kept her up, but they did that every night.

“Just nine hours, that’s literally nothing. A lot of people have a lot more,” she said to herself. “Then you can go home, eat, and sleep.” Words appeared, reminding her that she had spent long enough lounging in the break room. She shook the fatigue out and headed onto the floor.

Her company made packaging materials, and for items that consisted of cardboard and paper, the machines that made them were as loud as engines. They blew steam that filled the room, turning the complex into a sauna, and already Georgina was sweating. She wished she could wear shorts, but that was against company policy. They claimed exposed knees were a safety concern, but she had her suspicions that their reasoning was more in line with a high school dress code.

When she got to her station, several different colored boxes popped up in her vision. One was her efficacy rate, another her pay that went up and down with said efficacy rate, one number she wasn’t sure what it did, a clock, and the last was the number of mistakes she made. Her job was to stack envelopes into boxes for shipping and throw out any crimped ones. Once she was standing in her respective circle (corporate had taken their chairs to “better help employees’ posture”), a conveyor belt started to bring envelopes.

It was mundane work that she somehow still needed a college degree to apply for. She counted her debt as she counted envelopes, a routine habit. At that point, she couldn’t even remember what she majored in, not that it really mattered.

The numbers in her vision counted up as she slid boxes down a separate conveyor belt. The faster she went, the faster they went, and while she loved to see that pay number go up, it made her a little dizzy. She glanced down the line of other stations to focus on something else and found no one.

“Am I the only one here today?” she thought. “Or did they all get fired, too?”

A red light glowed and reminded her to

[KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR WORK AT ALL TIMES.]

Her mistake counter went up by one. She cursed under her breath.

[SWEARING IS PROHIBITED.]

Another mistake.

Georgina focused back in on her task, one box, two boxes, three, six, eleven, twenty, twenty-nine. She fell into a rhythm as the clock ticked away, but the heat and numbers started to get to her. She paused to massage her aching wrist. Her productivity plummeted, dragging her pay along with it. She frantically shoved boxes down the line and while her productivity did go up, it wasn’t as high as before, and her pay stalled. “Maybe,” she thought, “it will reset after my break.”

Sweat ran down her back, seeping into her clothes. Her arms and legs were stiff from standing in the same position for so long. She was starving but her stomach stayed silent as if conserving its energy. She ignored the clock in her side vision. She learned long ago that checking it was more painful than a slap in the face.

She moaned in relief when

[YOU MAY NOW START YOUR 10 MINUTE BREAK.]

and a timer appeared in her vision. She trekked back to the break room.

[8.23 MINUTES REMAINING.]

She slumped into one of the plastic chairs and debated what bag of chips to get from the vending machine. As she thought, a notice decorated with a big exclamation point popped into sight. It was a reminder that her monthly microchip maintenance and implantation fees were due soon. She scoffed at “maintenance,” and was reminded of when an outside wire got loose, shocking her intermittently.

[6.15 MINUTES REMAINING.]

Georgina requested she be looked at by the company’s engineers, only to be denied since the chip still functioned properly. She paid out-of-pocket to get it fixed at a third-party shop.

[5.39 MINUTES REMAINING.]

With a huff, she stood and walked over to her locker.

[4.16 MINUTES REMAINING.]

She opened it and searched through the jungle of garbage in her bag.

[3.25 MINUTES REMAINING.]

She thought about her options as she stood in front of the vending machine. Something sweet, something salty. What she really longed for was a home-cooked meal, a luxury that she didn’t have the time or energy for. Her fridge back home was stuffed with microwaved meals that ended up making her feel more hungry after eating.

[2.11 MINUTES REMAINING.]

She eventually gave up on options and hit a random button. The machine whirled.

[1.23 MINUTES REMAINING.]

The bag dropped and she picked it up.

[0.57 MINUTES REMAINING.]

She slumped back into her seat just as a yellow light flashed before her eyes.

[YOUR MANDATORY BREAK IS NOW OVER. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR WORKSTATION WITHIN THE NEXT MINUTE.]

Georgina held back tears as she climbed out of the chair.

Georgina returned to her spot before a check was put on her file, and the second her feet entered that square, the moment of peace she somewhat felt vanished. Her hands reached for the envelopes on their own as her eyes focused on the numbers. Her pay, the clock, the suffocating heat, it all swirled in her head. She dreamed of the chips shoved in her locker. If only she had been a little faster. She lost track of what number she was on. In fact, all of the numbers looked like squiggles. Her stomach twisted itself into a knot and stayed that way for who knew how long. She tried to stop for a moment just to catch her breath. Another mistake appeared.

Georgina kept going, breath after breath and mistake after mistake until her pay teetered on dipping into the negatives. “Making up for lost profit,” the management would claim. She bit her lip and tried not to cry. She just couldn’t take it anymore.

“I should just fucking quit,” she mumbled.

A message slammed into her view, covering anything else. It read:

[LEAVE YOUR STATION AND SEE THE FLOOR MANAGER IMMEDIATELY.]

It vanished once she had read it and was replaced with a red arrow. On shaky feet, she followed it through all the machinery, past the sparse employees, all with their heads down and working. It brought her to a flight of metal stairs at the back of the building. Above her was an office, or at least that was what she assumed it was; the windows were frosted.

Georgina climbed up the stairs. Still feeling fatigued, she grabbed onto the railing. Tiny spikes of paint stared up and greeted her hand. It looked like no one bothered sanding the metal down after building the thing. She winced, pulled away, and kept climbing.

The office door was unassuming, but that made Georgina feel more unsettled. Directly in her eyesight was, “FACTORY FLOOR MANAGER: RICHARD SHEFIER.” She had never met the man, only caught glimpses when executives came to tour the facility. Strange how she couldn’t conjure the face of the person who decided if she would have a roof over her head. She knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a voice that sounded like any other.

She opened it and found a plain office. Hardwood floors, filing cabinets, light blue walls plastered with screens portraying company propaganda. On one of the walls was a photo of the founder of the company, dressed nice with a large white mustache. Next to that photo was another of the following CEO, the founder’s son, then the founder’s grandson, then the founder’s great-grandson, who had changed out the suits for a hoodie and a dress shirt, and then the current CEO, a line of code.

“There you are,” said a man sitting behind a desk. He motioned for Georgina to sit in a large, black, puffy chair. She teetered on the edge of it to avoid being swallowed up by the leather. She crossed her ankles and clasped her hands together. The man in front of her, who had yet to look her in the eye, looked so strangely normal. There was no blinking light in his neck, not even a scar. There was nothing special about him, good nor bad. She had joked with co-workers before about management being robots or demons, the usual stuff, but seeing that they were human, that made her skin crawl.

Richard broke the silence. “So, Ms. Attwood, how has your day been?”

“It’s been fine, I guess. And you can call me Georgina. No one really uses my last name,” she said.

“We like to keep it professional here. So, Ms. Attwood, it seems like you’ve gotten into a bit of trouble.”

Georgina’s stomach twisted into a knot. “Trouble?”

“Nothing too major.” He read off his computer. “Unauthorized criticism of the company, decrease in performance and arriving for your shift late. Can you tell me why these things are happening?”

“I… Well, I’ve just been so exhausted that it’s hard to keep up on the floor and I was only late today because I slept through my alarm.”

Richard shook his head. “Now we don’t like excuses here, Ms. Attwood. But we understand that life is difficult so we are willing to extend to you a second chance. Normally, we have a three-strike system, but given that these are your first offenses and that you’ve been with the company for so long—says here five years—we will give you a fourth strike.”

“Thank you, I guess. But I promise I wasn’t making excuses, I was telling the truth,” Georgina said.

Richard narrowed his eyes at the computer screen. “One last thing before you can get back to work. I see that you have been having thoughts about quitting?”

“I’m sorry?” she said.

A sound file began to play, filling up the entire room. “I should just fucking quit,” it rang.

Georgina gawked. “How did you… Do these things record us?” She pointed at the microchip lodged into her head.

“Of course they do. They have to be on at all times to be prepared for user input and record everything for quality assurance. That was laid out very plainly when you were hired,” Richard said.

“You mean that behemoth of paperwork I was given? I couldn’t even get past the first page, it was all in lawyer-speak!”

“I think we’re getting off-topic, Ms. Attwood. So, tell me why you’re having second thoughts about working here.”

Georgina was so baffled that she couldn’t speak. Every day, she and countless other employees compiled a list in their heads, demands and complaints to shove in management’s face if one of them was ever lucky enough to get the opportunity. The opportunity was staring her down, and her mind was blank.

Richard sighed, “Ms. Attwood, we pride ourselves on our relationships with our floor workers–”

“Are you joking?”

Richard was taken aback at the interruption. “I beg your pardon?” he said.

“Have you ever worked on the floor? I mean, I don’t see a chip scar so you must have just been placed in this position by some uncle or college buddy. Have you ever looked out there?” Georgina said.

“I assure you I inspect the floor on a regular basis.”

“I didn’t say ‘inspect,’ I said look. Have you looked your employees in the eye and asked them if they like working here? No, fuck that, because we’ll just lie to you because we have to keep this nightmare of a job. Ask them if they had an opportunity to work anywhere else, same bullshit pay, if they would take it.” Georgina’s vision was covered by flashing warning signs, shouting at her that she was going too far, but she continued on. “I have chronic back pain from being hunched over that assembly line for nine hours a day that I can’t get looked at by a doctor because I can’t afford insurance. Your upper management just bought a branded rocket ship; why the hell was that money not spent on getting your employees benefits?”

Richard opened his mouth but Georgina raised her hand. “I barely have enough for rent and food working full-time. Every day is a goddamn crapshoot of ‘Will I be able to afford to live?’ And I know I’m going to lose that gamble when I’m old and exhausted and this is the one thing on my resume and you hire the next generation to replace me.”

“Actually we are looking into robotics–”

Georgina stood. “Bullshit, I know people are a lot cheaper. Especially when you control every part of our fucking lives! And you know what, I feel bad for you because even if you think you have a cushy office job, staring down everyone below you, someone one floor higher is doing the same thing to you, and so on and so on and goddamnit I’m done. I don’t care if I get kicked out of my apartment, I don’t care if I have to crash on couches or skip more meals, I’m done.”

“This is all entirely inappropriate–”

“Shut up, I quit. Now take this stupid thing out of my neck.”

At this point, Richard seemed willing to do anything to get the encounter over with. “Well,” he said, “there’s a removal and disposal fee, and you’ll have to schedule an appointment.”

Georgina rubbed her face and sighed. “I’ll just take it out myself.”

The lights still flashed in her vision. Strike twelve appeared. Paperwork for her leaving appeared in front of the infractions. It cluttered her sight; she had to guess where she was going as she walked towards the door. It was all red, the same rusty red. It blurred together and burned her eyes. She felt the doorknob. She couldn’t wait for it to be gone, even if she had to take it out with a pair of scissors. Maybe she could find someone cheap who specialized in it. She opened the door and stepped out. She decided to find Ron and tell him what exactly went down. Maybe she would find those who got fired, too. She was certain they were all full of the same rage she was boiling in. She smiled and slammed the door behind her.