We don’t know yet what a body can do. We won’t know until we break it. The overhead loudspeaker repeats this message, followed by three tolls of the bell, signaling the end of morning break. I look at my watch—today’s recovery was seven seconds shorter than yesterday, so coach’s threats were real. We haven’t met the company’s targets. With the holiday season in full swing and the Winter Games drawing near, there’s no time for indulgences. Day shift to night shift, the warehouse thrums with activity. Selectors run the aisles while Slotters stuff and toss to the interminable beeping of our monitor bracelets. The Generators are getting worked so hard the overhead lights stay buzzing hot, bright as sunshine. When you raise your face to it, you can almost imagine blue sky.
I swallow, grudgingly, the last of my drink, stretch sore calves, and crawl out from under the stairwell. It’s a dark, damp corner by the loading dock that no one else has discovered yet, and, as far as I can tell, exists outside camera view. There are no screens here either, just a rough concrete wall that seeps when it’s raining outside. Carlos and I used to come here to eat lunch. We used to joke, maybe to our own detriment, about being a pair of overthinkers condemned to the lowest level of the Pyramid Arena. We barely get enough food, water, and rest as it is! Carlos would say. Makes sense we’re stuck on Physiological Needs. One day we might ascend to Safety, Esteem, or Self-Actualization, but then what would be the point? We would lose access to the loading dock.
That’s the past. Nowadays, it’s just me, and I don’t want to be stuck down here anymore; that is no longer my goal.
The countdown resumes overhead—fifteen, fourteen—OK, time to go. Jogging back to home base is like crossing an odor barrier. In the margins, it manages to smell of plastic and disinfectant, but once you hit the center aisles, it’s like smashing into a wall. What do hundreds of sweating, toiling bodies smell like? That is something the livestream viewers will never know.
Ten, nine, eight. Pick up the pace. As I pivot down Aisle MB, I startle when I see an arm, a leg, flung across the floor. Has someone passed out? I fumble for my key fob in case I need to push for emergency—upon closer examination, it’s the cyclist from Upper Level. I recognize her right away from the livestream. What is she doing all the way down here? In the middle of this aisle? She groans and curls into a ball at my approach. Seeing her like this, like a wet sock all crumpled up, you’d never guess she’s been Top Generator for ten weeks straight.
“I just broke the wattage threshold…,” she mumbles absently, more to herself than to me. “But I had to get away for a bit.” She’s merely speaking in my direction, but I freeze and reposition myself at an angle so the cameras won’t think we’re talking. Article 4. Compassion blunts competitiveness. We can’t make friends with teammates, let alone another division’s asset. This is the contractual clause repeated most often over the loudspeakers these days, the one that terrifies me more than others. Any perceived violation at this crucial time will, without question, disqualify us from the Games. And I can’t afford that kind of risk, not with the baby at home.
Whenever the lights flicker on and off, it usually signals to us that somewhere, on some level, a cyclist has “fallen off the grid” and Med is hauling them out before they get too chopped up by their own pedals. The whole process usually interrupts the generator, which causes the flicker. It’s on a delay though, so the flicker represents an event that’s already long past. I try to remember what the lights were doing half an hour ago, but before I know it, the cyclist is sawing her jaws up and down, as though trying to remember how to laugh. Oh, it’s coming, here it comes. She flings herself forward and heaves: soggy white chunks swimming in the red-orange slime of our energy drink. A champion’s breakfast. You know you’re not working hard enough if you’re not gazing into a pool of this stuff at least once in a while.
I want to offer her some of my water, but I know I can’t. The bell tolls three more times—last call. Must sprint back to home base, late already. But I hope she can see in the way I’m waving my arms that I’m on her side, that I’ve understood.
The other Selectors are in a circle huddle by the time I get there. The Forklifters are deep into a set of power squats, balancing the prohibitively heavy seventy-pound boxes on their heads and bending, rising, bending, rising. I catch myself thinking this every time, but they truly are amazing specimens. Their thigh muscles slip and slide like boas beneath the skin. It’s like a story I read once in school that I’ve never been able to forget. An aging boxer yearns for a piece of steak, but to earn the money to buy it, he must fight a younger, more agile boxer. By the end, he is pummeled so badly he is reduced to mere meat himself. It’s the cycle of life. The appetitive will of the young rises up to consume the remains of the old.
My thoughts are interrupted when I hear Coach saying to the others—as if I’m not standing right there—Ada’s dragging our team down. Decisions have consequences. You're going to have to work a lot harder than the rest to get back in shape.
My teammates part from their tight huddle, revealing the scale there in the center. Another weigh-in so soon? I straighten up and step on.
Half a pound increase since last week, Coach says. Incredible. I look down, feeling sick. I don’t know how it’s possible. I’ve only had protein drink for a week.
Aren’t you ashamed? Our level is behind because of you. He shakes his head, glancing at his clipboard. You used to be the fastest girl in our compound but you had to throw it all away. He jabs a pen at my chest and says, Don’t those hurt from flapping up and down so much when you run?
This is a gift, I think to myself. Sticks and stones break bones, but words…let them do the work. Words are the cheapest, most efficient kind of fuel. His words float through the air, sink in their claws. The faster I run, the more money I’ll make. It’s a win-win situation. I picture an invisible funnel collecting all of our effort, nothing wasted. The corporation bottles it all up, every drop of sweat and calorie expended, every tear that’s shed.
For the remaining shift, I run the fastest sprints of the group and set a December record for moving the most tubes of toothpaste.
What’s out there? Is it protestors again? I ask the nutritionist who is furiously hammering away on her keyboard. Why’s everyone so tense today? It’s time for my exit exam, but she’s not paying any attention to me. For all this talk about speed, those in Med really take their time. It’s sixty degrees in here and my body is losing heat rapidly. I’m jiggling my legs to stay warm. The paper on the table makes a crinkly sound that reminds me of the rolls of butcher paper the Slotters tear off when they prepare something fragile. Tear, crinkle, stuff. It’s a swift motion and I can do it in 1.24 seconds. I have an image of nestling myself cozily into a cardboard box, the lid shutting over me.
Knock knock. OK, here he comes. Doc is looking at me from the tops of his glasses with an expression of exasperated forbearance.
Overweight and dehydrated, again? Intravenous thing? Sign the waiver. Sure, it’s fine. Ready, needle in. Bright colors. Chemical taste in mouth. Blood feels like slurry? Yes, it’s normal. Oh like blood pudding? That’s creative. About last time. Logged pain in left Achilles, shin splints continue to bother. Yes? No complaints. Tap tap. How’s that? X-ray? Not a stress fracture, just ice when you get home. New nickname! Ada-an-injury-a-day. Ha! So. Business. Ideational thoughts? Not anymore? Recommend you get back to baby. One’s enough. Career suicide you know. Abdomen injection? Ouch! Another needle, arm, leg, one here in hip. Lower, lower. Two bags this time. Two bags before you can go.
By the time the closing bell rings, the day has dimmed to a bruised smear where the horizon abuts the parking lot. In the morning, when we arrive, the sun rises at a low angle to cast a long, pyramid-shaped shadow across the asphalt, but now the sun is on the opposite side. I imagine how it looks from above, the movements of a giant metronome, tick, tock, back and forth.
The locked turnstiles finally open up, and we click through them so fast it’s like we’re a torrent of water. The churning turnstiles are generating something too. A few weeks ago, we were told that each worker should actually push it three times, forward and backward, like a rower, so now there’s a jam no matter what time you get out. After I push and pull the turnstile three times, I wait my turn, anxious. I chart out the exact path to my car and run a perfect race in my mind.
The screens above wink red—yellow—green! When I’m released, I dash to the car and the exit number pings, but it looks like I have about three dozen ahead of me before I can leave. A terrible result. Queuing is the worst part of the day. Sitting here, nothing to do, my body begins to take slow inventory of what aches. The back aches, the hips, the knees, the shin. But mostly, the empty belly aches.
What to do with the wasted time? Forehead on steering wheel, take a short nap. What is there to think about? Think…Think ice cream. Count up all the big ice-cream cones. Think about a line of ants, hauling sticks of candy. Heaving cookies so big they’re boulders of sugar, carbohydrates, butter. Nestle up to the boulder, warm and steaming, cozy up in the goop, take little nibbles. The cookie is so large it will never shrink. The melted chocolate drips over your body, extend a forearm, scoop it up….
You feed baby yet? Ma’s voice resounds from the car speakers.
Hi, Ma. Still stuck at work. Did you see I won the sprints today? Three hundred thousand people watched the livestream.
I come over right now.
No, Ma, I told you; you don’t need to come over anymore. I have it under control.
Why I get alert then.
Must be a glitch. Did you try turning Senti on and off?
You never feed baby, why? So many alerts this week! You need me to take you back to psychology doctor?
Sensing my heart rate, Senti clips the call.
Senti, block mom for twenty minutes. And show me baby.
Ada, are you taking care of your feelings today?
Senti, show me baby.
In the screen above the steering wheel, a staticky image comes through on an atrociously scrambled signal. It looks like it’s…it’s a package of toilet paper in the bathroom.
Senti, damn it, show me b-a-b-y. Baby. My baby. God, I’m sick of this!
Oh dear, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I will do better next time. The camera roves around the apartment, zooming in, out, locking, releasing, and eventually finds baby sleeping in her crib. The image is from a distance, at the threshold of the room.
Have I corrected my mistake? Senti asks.
Send error report now, Senti. You can’t keep doing this. I want you to remember what she looks like, do you understand? You made me very upset.
Oh dear, I got it. I am so sorry for your loss. I will always remember your baby, Ada. As for you, Ada. Are you taking care of your feelings today?
The working conditions didn’t seem so bad, not at first. After Impala Athletics merged with corporate, we were given a choice: we could accept our buyout or join the new team. The buyout was low for what we were worth, as we were young and in pristine physical condition—no injuries. The share package, though, had seemed a good investment. Besides, we didn’t know how to do anything else.
Try telling an athlete to quit anything. After all the contracts were signed and the remaining vestiges of Impala dissolved, corporate sent a memo saying we would have some time off before they implemented some slight restructuring. We learned only then that instead of basketball, baseball, football, swimming—or whatever sport it was we had spent our lives perfecting—we would now need to learn the package throw, the conveyor-belt stack, the cellular-tower scramble. We runners had a more seamless transition. Selectors would run races measured in aisles and items delivered. We had to run while wearing heavy backpacks. That took some getting used to, but it was nothing too complicated, almost like wearing sandbags for strength training.
Of course, Ma found the program repulsive. My participation in athletics has always disappointed her, even when I was a professional runner. She thinks it’s terrible to be instrumentalized this way, to view athletics not as a pastime but as a job. In her day, sports were played “for fun,” as games; she remembered skipping rope at recess for no reason at all. I have to remind her that the original marathon was equally utilitarian: in ancient Greece, Pheidippides ran the twenty-five miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message. He ran so hard that after he delivered the message, he dropped dead. See, he was delivering something too.
I have since read how, not so long ago, a city’s mayor had scandalized his constituents by conducting the morning’s business while pedaling on a stationary bicycle. His critics believed that work time and leisure time ought to be delineated with clear boundaries. Despite the outcry, the mayor kept up the routine, insisting that a fit body was a productive body. I tend to agree. It makes less sense to fritter away one’s effort without channeling it into something useful. When I consider his case, the truly inexcusable part might be the cavalcade of SUVs that escorted him from his mansion to the gym, or the stationary bikes that used electricity.
On this, I have asked Ma: Looking back, doesn’t it feel like sheer profligacy to do anything without a dual purpose? At least I have the benefit of knowing that every hard sprint is saturated with purpose, point A to point B. The more I deliver, the more the company grows, and the better I’m recompensed later. Even if my bones ache, I know what it’s ultimately for.
All I want is to stick it out long enough to earn my percentage. Win two more races, that’s all I need. Then I’ll be able to stop. I’ll sit back and watch my share grow and grow. Imagine all the balconies atop all the oceans I’ll look out from, watching the tides come in and out. For once something else will be moving that’s not me.
Open the fridge, close the fridge. Open the fridge, close the fridge. I keep doing this as though a new food item will appear. Each time it’s the same old jar of pickle juice, the same crusty nub of cheese.
Stir two tablespoons of Hi-G protein powder and drink it down. Gulp. Six different kinds of pills. Gulp.
What now? Uneasiness. Should I call Ma back…try to read something?
Turn on the screen, scroll the updates. Look, I was right about earlier, there were protesters on the compound blocking the way. Reporting vans were stationed outside the fence.
Another day, another story.
I watch a clip, then turn off the screen. The protestors hold up signs decrying our treatment. They claim to care for our welfare, but what alternative is there? We have lives to live too.
Before I go in to feed baby, do I have time to tell you another story?
The rumors about the undercover robots started circulating last year, after which Article 4 began to be enforced with increasing ruthlessness. The International Athletics Commission had decided to sanction regulated doping, but the unanticipated result was that all our times plateaued. The records weren’t getting broken anymore and viewership waned. There was a sense that we had reached the end of what a human body could handle, doped or not.
Suddenly, some of us began running faster, jumping higher. Records were getting broken again, and certain teams were under increased scrutiny. Viewership rebounded. The rumor in the warehouses was that there were robots among us.
The possibility was credible, nothing too crazy or unheard of. At the start of the new century, Tour de France cyclists would sometimes crash out and knock themselves unconscious, but their legs would keep pedaling entirely on their own. After another decade it was widely acknowledged that those pained grimaces were an elaborate masquerade to hide the fact some cyclists were electrically assisted. Apparently, most of them had been tampered with without their own knowledge. Shadowy figures in the night, performing clandestine operations, that sort of thing. Once that seed of doubt was cast, the entire sport crumbled. Viewers could no longer believe what they were seeing.
I remember talking to Carlos around this time, during one of our last lunch breaks together. So, what do you think? You think there are robots among us, and they’re the ones breaking all the records? Nancy for example?
Carlos came from a long line of athletes and liked to study philosophy in his spare time.
Who knows. The easy answer is that the winners are robots so the payouts aren’t really paid to us, but funneled back into the company, right?
That would be demonic! We’d be working for nothing.
My main question is, why isn’t this work done by robots already? What can we possibly do that a robot can’t, cheaper and with more efficiency?
Maybe nobody would want to watch robots doing sports.
I think people like watching us because we show them what a body can do through training and hard work. The viewers project something on to us. We’re like a goal for them, an ideal for their own bodies.
Or the customers like to see that their orders are being fulfilled by real humans. Certified organic robots.
Or maybe the boss himself likes to watch us—it pleases him.
Or maybe it makes him feel more powerful to watch humans doing his bidding rather than machines.
But you want to know my personal theory?
I think they put the robots in here not to win, but to watch us, so we can teach them something about suffering.
Why would a robot need to learn about suffering?
Without suffering, there’s no meaning. Without meaning, there’s no intrinsic motivation. It’s the last frontier for them.
I didn’t know what that meant and I never got to ask for clarification, because the break ended, and then the next day, we were all given nondisclosure agreements to sign (or not sign) and we were reminded that we couldn't make friends with teammates.
Before he jumped, Carlos had pulled me aside to tell me he finally learned the name of that spindly tree growing next to the dumpsters. It’s called the tree of heaven. It’s kind of a famous tree in literature. The tree begins its life as a black fleck. The seed catches a drift and digs down wherever it lands, even a toxic pile of dirt in between paved places, and you see what a vigorous thing it becomes. I think it’s called the tree of heaven because it seems to thrive on air alone.
While I was checked in at the institution, I was reported to have said, Why was I born? What am I here for?
Ma’s answer: You were born to make me happy, to make my life worth living, just like your daughter will be born to make you happy and your life worth living.
I take the changing pad and go to the room where baby is. I feel a shiver pass through my whole body, because I know Carlos is gone and Ma was right, and I should have stopped when I could. I shouldn’t have waited so long. I shouldn’t have ignored the broken bones, ignored the period I lost of years, years, years, years. All my life, I have only ever tried to be the best, and the best is how I got here.
Baby’s eyes are wide open, pupils rolled back into her head. White milky orbs. Her mouth is frozen in a contorted, hungry scowl. The operating manual had warned me about this moment, and there were so many alerts to feed her, please, please feed her, her deafening cries as shrill as sirens. But I ignored them all.
I have known all kinds of pain and I have persevered. I have worked harder than anyone I know. Why am I being punished for being so good?
As I drift off into unconsciousness, I seem to recall having a dream, which I can’t quite articulate because the moment I wake it will be wiped from my memory. But if I could have put the dream into words…
You’re a robot, Carlos told me, that’s why you’ve always had such strong willpower. Actually, it’s not called willpower in robots, but code compliant. You do what you’re designed to do and you don’t deviate too much.
Only those with free will can possess virtue. One must choose to make the right choice to be able to take any credit for it. Eve had to eat the apple to prove she had free will to prove she had true faith to prove she could override her programming to animal obedience.
Did you ever have a choice?
I look down at my legs which are supple, strong, and slim, and beneath my skin, the bones of pure titanium. They are shapely and hollow. I weigh nothing.