Years ago, the union had negotiated maximum shifts of twelve hours, but these limits were rarely enforced anymore. As Lloyd opened his eyes and sat up in the data pod he hoped he had logged an eighteen-hour shift. An eighteen-hour shift meant a larger paycheck and he spent a considerable amount of time at the casino. He shook his head to expel the grogginess and the slight irritation he felt in his frontal lobe. He looked around the datacenter at the neat rows of pods identical to his own. Sometimes he could guess at his shift length depending on how many pods were full. Now, most were. Usually, a full set of pods suggested midday when processing demand peaked. More recently though, because of increasing demand for data processing, even at midnight the datacenter might be full. Everything needed data processing now.
There were no windows, no rising or setting of the sun, ten stories underground. All the datacenters were built this way. Ostensibly, the subterranean construction saved on cooling costs. But everyone suspected that the companies built the datacenters without windows to eliminate the sense of passing time. In the days when the corporations still bothered negotiating with the labor unions, a compromise had been reached to provide sunlight by way of fiber optics below ground. Some of the datacenters complied at first, but more recently built facilities, as this one was, never did.
Electronics, including wristwatches, were prohibited on the processing levels. Workers sometimes complained that the electromagnetic fields irritated their neural links to the data network while management feared electronics slowed processing speeds. Only after surfacing would Lloyd know the duration of his shift, whether he earned enough to clear his debts, whether he would have enough to visit the casino tonight.
He stood and stretched, stiff from the position in the pod. Maybe eighteen hours, he thought. He powered down the pod following the usual procedures. He left the workstation ready for the next occupant. At the far end of the aisle he saw a few more bodies beginning to emerge from their pods, but in the low light of the data room, he could not make out who they were.
He walked to the elevator passing rows of pods, the processors unconscious and plugged into the network dutifully executing millions of lines of code. Lloyd's shift began at midnight the day before. If he worked twelve hours, he would be home in time to bet on the Yankee Sox game. Lloyd considered asking the security guard stationed at the entrance to the processing room whether he knew the score of the game. Patriot Security was contracted to ensure the safety of all TransToledo facilities and worked shifts independently of the data processors. The guard, however, slumped against the wall asleep and Lloyd could not bring himself to wake the man over the score of a game.
He entered the hallway leading to a bank of elevators to the surface. Waiting there already stood three other men. Lloyd recognized one of them, a burly man almost too large for the pods. He wore a red flannel and his beard covered his face. George was a man built for an earlier age, for timber cutting or ditch digging. Instead, he had wound up here in the lowest depths of the earth processing precious data.
"Hey, George," Lloyd said.
George squinted one eye shut and focused on Lloyd's face pausing while Lloyd came into focus. "Oh, Lloyd, hey ol' buddy," he said. "Sorry. Long shift. I think I worked a double."
"A full twenty-four?"
"Possibly. Who the hell knows down here. This is the cavern where dreams come to die."
"That's fucking profound, George."
"I know. I'm a goddamn poet."
The elevator opened and a series of fresh minds emerged ready to begin their day.
"After you, sweetheart," George said to Lloyd.
The four men traveled upwards in silence stopping on three more floors. At each stop, exhausted workers filed into the carriage until there was no room left. The weight limit reached, the carriage sped upwards depositing the men in the surface building. Each man had a locker for possessions otherwise prohibited. Aside from electronics, food, liquids and any writing instruments were banned. The management always feared the workers would sneak out confidential designs. Besides, the thinking went, data processors have no need to write; they can barely think for themselves anyway.
The lockers stood three high, floor to ceiling, in narrow rows. There was a locker for every data pod, and they were assigned each day simultaneously as the workers entered the facility.
George and Lloyd walked together. "It could be worse," Lloyd said. "We could be covered in mud or grease and physically exhausted."
"You ever do manual?" George asked.
"No," Lloyd said.
"Of course not. Too young. Shit. You're only what, a decade younger than I am? I remember manual," George said nostalgically recalling a daydream.
"Aching joints and sore muscles, no thanks. I'll take data processing any day."
"You would say that. I'm sure you can't wait to get to your locker, pull out your little network device, tapping away with your fingers."
"I like staying connected to the world, to my friends." Most of Lloyd's friends were from the network. Aside from George, he knew a guy who sometimes frequented the casino. But everyone he knew from home had dispersed looking for work. Most of them were data processors now spread out across the country.
"When I worked manual, I felt tired at the end of the day, sure. But I felt good too. The feeling of working your body, usually outdoors. None of this air conditioned, dehumidified air."
"I like air conditioning." Lloyd stood in front of his locker. "Anyway, this is me."
"I'm down that way a little more," George said.
"Maybe I'll see you tomorrow?"
"I'm off. I think. Depends how long shift was. But maybe."
George kept walking while Lloyd opened his locker. He brought little with him other than his network device and jacket. Sometimes the company did spot inspections, and there had always been rumors that the guards helped themselves to desirable items.
Lloyd checked the Time on his network device – eight in the p.m.; he'd worked a twenty-hour shift. Wow, he thought, pissed he'd missed the Yankee Sox game but glad to have picked up the extra hours. Hours meant money, and money he needed. He took his coat and wandered out of the warehouse. Ali's Food Vending stood guard at the entrance. Two men stood about drinking water and typing on their network devices.
"Let me have a sausage," Lloyd said, swiping his network device at the cash register.
The automated vending machine responded with the cheerful voice of Ali: "All out of sausages my friend. How about pork roll?"
"Fine," Lloyd said. Lloyd waited by the fence dividing the worker's plaza from the executive office tower. In the higher floors, lights beamed out into the night sky. Must be something important if they're here this late, Lloyd thought. The executive parking lot was half full of helicopters. The pilots stood in clusters much like the data workers huddled around Ali's truck, but without the luxury of stale coffee or pork roll sandwiches.
"Order up," Ali automaton said. The machine handed Lloyd the neatly wrapped sandwich.
"What's with the late night meeting," Lloyd asked.
"Stocks go up, stocks go down, Executives like to have meetings," Ali said. The machine had been programmed by the original Ali and shared the same platitudes and wisdom he had once offered his customers.
Lloyd nodded in agreement.
He walked in the direction of the elevated platform eating his pork roll sandwich. As he cleared the corporate campus, his portable device reconnected to the global network, chiming the soothing seven note hymn and reminding Lloyd he had hoped Te$a would have called or messaged. He took the device from his pocket and checked the video messages. The only message was two weeks old and from his mother. He checked his Bluebook hoping Te$a might have left word there, but the only messages were advertising LiquidAide Sports Drink. The twenty-hour shift had taken its toll on his social status. He had missed the opportunity of checking into the Yankee Sox game nor had he sent or received any messages causing his Bluebook value to plummet.
On the platform, the epileptic array of animated billboards ignored Lloyd as he walked by. Advertisers paid only for customers with high Bluebook social value. Instead of offering enticing discounts, the billboards displayed generic full price ads or worse, public service announcements. He would need to spend some time focusing on his social rank, he thought to himself as the train pulled into the station. Suddenly a crush of workers headed for one of the data centers filled the platform surging out of the train cars. Lloyd fought the current and pushed his way into the car just as the door was closing. The train felt cramped with workers, some headed home, and some headed to a shift. At least none of them smelled, Lloyd thought, at least without manual, there was no stench of an overworked body, no pungent odor wafting from a dusty, greasy bull. He tried to imagine how the car would have smelled then, ripe with bodies. George was wrong about manual, he thought, George was wrong.