Inspector 36 stood across from, and alongside, long rows of Somebots inspecting garments. Are the buttons all there? Are there threads hanging off?
Her name was Chantelle, but her lanyard merely said, “Inspector 36,” and she was the only flesh and blood person in the entire warehouse at the moment. The bots, a quarter of which, by law, had to represent a real person receiving a real paycheck, were almost silent. The fabric of the clothes shushed over their plastic and metal appendages.
Chantelle chose to wear soft leather gloves during work because repeatedly passing her hands over the fabrics dried them out. They’d been a Christmas gift from her mother.
The bots were relentless. They inspected three garments each in the time it took Chantelle to inspect one. The flesh and blood people were free to work in person whenever they wanted, but few did. Chantelle was different. The work made Chantelle feel good. She liked the satisfaction of looking at a stack of perfectly folded shirts that she’d folded with her own hands. Shirts that would all be worn by someone. Maybe someone on the other side of the world. The bots were no better at folding than she was. They were just faster.
Every so often an employee would check in remotely. A small green light would appear and signal that someone was on the other side of a screen “seeing” you, but you couldn’t see them. Usually, the ones who checked in were new employees who felt like they should be doing something, when the truth was that the head office preferred employees be involved as little as possible.
“Hey, what’s up, 36?” a woman’s voice asked.
The green light shone on the bot across from her. Chantelle rolled her eyes with little subtlety. “Nothing much. How are you?”
“I’m good, but hey, what was your name again? Charlotte? Crystal?”
“Chantelle,” she said.
“We’ve only spoken once before. I’ll remember now. Chantelle.”
“And your name is…?”
“And what are you up to today, Kelly?” Chantelle asked. She yanked an earbud out of one ear to be polite. Kelly was interrupting the audiobook Chantelle was listening to called The Power of Presence: A life unplugged.
“Oh, just sitting at home, eating some cheese crackers, and watching a series called Gentleman’s Fancy. It’s about a brothel and all the people who come into it. Scandals and all that. You should check it out! You’ll be addicted!”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Chantelle said, trying to keep the extreme disinterest out of her voice, and failing.
“Hey can I ask you something?”
“You can ask. We’ll see if I answer.”
Chantelle filled a crate with exactly fifty folded shirts, set it on a conveyor belt behind her, and returned with a crate of uninspected shirts. She wished Kelly would leave, and was not the least bit curious about what Kelly wanted to ask.
“Why don’t you rent a bot to work for you?”
Chantelle sighed. The new hires always asked this question. “I like coming in to work. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. It gives me some time alone,” she said, same script as always.
“But don’t you want to stay home with your kids?”
“How do you know I have kids?” Chantelle asked, feeling unsettled by Kelly’s nosy question.
“That was presumptuous. I was just guessing. I apologize.”
Chantelle straightened and picked up speed as much as she could. She cleared her throat and perked up her voice. “I have two boys. There’s nothing wrong with a mother working outside the home.”
“Do the rental fees bother you? What if the rent on a Somebot was a little less expensive?”
“It’s not about the fee entirely. I like working. But I am glad not to pay for bot rental. It’s like, half a paycheck. It’s too much. We need that money at home.”
“Ask her about child care,” came a man’s voice in the background.
“Shut up, Steve,” Kelly whispered. “Sorry, my husband thinks I’m hogging all the crackers. Men! So anyway, do you pay for childcare while you’re at work? Wouldn’t you save money by staying home with your kids instead of shelling out money for a sitter?”
“I don’t pay a sitter. We live with my parents. Grandma takes care of the kids.”
Kelly went silent. Chantelle hoped it was over. She knew Kelly was a corporate spy; some rich bitch. Who are they fooling? They think I’m stupid, she thought. They think working class people are stupid. They wish I wasn’t here. They wish I wasn’t human. They’d fire me if they could. Cheese crackers my ass. They’re probably sipping froufrou coffee and thinking of ways to screw us over even more.
Chantelle could see from the corner of her eye that the green light was still on. She kept on inspecting and folding shirts with the little green eye staring at her. Chantelle lifted her earbud to her ear to re-insert it, but was interrupted by Kelly again.
“Chantelle, did you realize that while we were talking, you forgot to put your inspector sticker on one of the shirts?”
A blast of panic struck Chantelle’s heart and she struggled to keep it inside. Any feeling that she was superior to Kelly by virtue of being a decent person evaporated.
“Oh shit,” Chantelle said. She flipped through the stack and found the shirt. She affixed a number 36.
“Do you make a lot of mistakes like that?” Kelly asked.
Chantelle’s heart sped up and her face turned red with shame. She needed this job. She even liked this job.
“No, I don’t usually make mistakes,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm, “but you’re sort of distracting me.”
Kelly’s bot hadn’t stopped inspecting, folding, and labeling shirts at all during their conversation. The world of the warehouse kept spinning with no one to witness or care about Chantelle’s distress.
“Sorry to distract you,” Kelly said. “I was just curious. You’re an odd woman. Or, not odd, unique, I suppose. It’s almost risky to work. Here at home with my cheese crackers and my TV, I never get injured, never make mistakes. I couldn’t possibly get fired. It’s a pretty good system having bots do all the work.”
“I guess so,” Chantelle said.
“And kids grow up so fast. Enjoy them, Chantelle. And maybe kick back and enjoy Gentleman’s Fancy.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Have a nice day.”
“You too,” Chantelle said.
Her heart slowed. She put an earbud back in her ear. Her gloves felt damp with sweat. The green light kept watching.