My treads bounce and suspensions pivot around the industrial war zone scattered across the dark factory floor. Banging and scratching, shaking and clattering, rustling and straining metals flirt with failure all around, yet still they stand battling the elements, loneliness, and time itself to keep our motto alive: Building a Brighter Future.
I hear something new, something distinct. A clanging rings out as the latest piece in the beautiful reddish-brown monstrous puzzle falls. And with taught circuits I watch my greatest prize, my only prize, lose one more part of itself. I track the object’s trajectory for as long as its within my headlamp. A ball joint, I note. Product number SJR002456-P. But despite another loss, the machine continues its harsh grinding just as it has for so long without fail. It seems, once again, to answer with a vendetta the age-old question of whether a factory that degenerates in the darkness with no one around to see truly degenerates. With all the amazement my components can muster, I gawp at the silhouettes of churning machinery; apparently in credit to either philosophy or engineering, there is no such degeneration. It won’t die. It refuses to. If only someone was here to revel at the mechanical marvels alongside me; someone real.
I collect myself and recall the ball joint as it finds its place amongst the other fallen bits. I wonder, Hold on. It’s common knowledge that with a ball joint comes…yes. Right on cue. Worn flakes of the joint’s rubber boot flutter down just behind. As not a complete section of the boot falls, I look up the product code this time before filing a report. With the two parts notated I zip through another support ticket as my inner fan twirls tirelessly. I submit the ticket and it makes a whooshing noise as it flies off into the ether that is cyberspace. I’m sure someone will answer the ticket this time. They have to eventually…don’t they?
My first memory was ironically the last time I’ve ever seen light. I’d awoken on a shining carbon steel platform in a room with all white walls and felt my programmed innards buzzing freshly in whatever mimicry of life you can call me. Two men were in the room with me, neither of whom seemed nearly as disoriented as I. One sat in the corner, typing on his laptop and looking frankly disinterested, but the other had his faced pushed right up to me, so close that I could see each wiry hair in his brown beard and the jagged thin blood vessels in his eyes. He sniffled. His eyes darted every which way scanning me. He finally pulled away, dropping his hand from my switches and plopping back in his seat. But he didn’t stop studying me in that expressionless, scholarly stare. I wanted to say, Hello? Just what’s going on here? Can someone please explain all of this? Who am I? Where am I? Why do you all look like you’re at a funeral? But I didn’t say a thing. I let them continue their routine and lead the way like I was a dog on a leash because something inside told me that was my place in this interaction. I remember knowing immediately that I was different from them. I just wasn’t sure how.
The man before me took in a deep, jaded breath. “Hmm,” was the first thing he said. “Systems booted. Powered on.” The other man typed out his notes as directed.
The first man tapped his pen against my torso, somewhat disrespectfully. “Hello? X1-88? Can you hear us?”
I knew my name already, but how? I had no memories prior to this. I didn’t know where I was, but as I calibrated on that shiny table, I began to understand more about myself without anyone saying a thing. By this point I knew who I was and, more importantly, why I was. “Yes,” I replied. My voice sounded so much different from his. His was magnificent: it was melodic, toned, brimming with emotion at every syllable, and this is when he was despondent. Just imagine what a touch of enthusiasm could do! Mine, on the other hand, was nothing but a jittery monotone imitation of his. Well maybe not his exactly, but I surely wasn’t the barometer.
“Excellent,” he stated. “My name is David Jacobs. My colleague, George, and I are going to ask you a few questions, run some tests, and ensure you are in working order. Understand?”
“Yes,” I said again.
David nodded. George typed. “First question: do you know your purpose?”
I bleeped. My torso lit in a colorful enthusiastic hue. “Yes,” I said. “I am X1-88, the overseer of this factory, property of Chipping World Incorporated. I ensure the facility is in working order in my humble contribution to our greater mission of Building a Brighter Future.” What was that? Those weren’t my words. That strange flurry sounded more manufactured than me: curated, tested, ran through focus groups, refined, and finally rubber stamped by whatever board was in charge of this whole operation. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to chirp it all out to my interrogator.
“Mhm,” David replied. “And what are your specific duties in this facility?”
“I am to monitor all processes, procedures, and responsible mechanisms in the assembly line of Chipping World’s microprocessors and ensure everything is in working order.”
“And if it isn’t?”
“If the issue is simplistic, I am to remedy it on my own, but for anything surpassing the level of a loose screw, I am to take note of the issue, the part in question, and its urgency, then fill out an incident report and send it to Chipping World headquarters.”
“Correct,” David grumbled. His colleague continued typing. “You come across a machine with a faulty hydraulic pump. The pump is irreparable and requires replacement. What do you do?”
“Simple,” I said. “I fill out a component request ticket noting the product number, machine in question, and the criticality of the part.”
David nodded, crossed his arms over his plump belly. “And what if there is an issue with you? Something breaks…you know.”
“I am to still create an incident ticket on any matters involving my own functionalities,” I said. “But it is within my duties to conduct self-repairs to the extent of my abilities.”
David cleared his throat and nodded again. He turned to George who finally finished typing. “Right. Do you think I missed anything?”
“No sir. Everything appears to be functioning properly.” George finally spoke. His voice sounded even sweeter than David’s. I noticed its rhythm, its tone, its innocence. If I wasn’t a collection of gears and gadgets and 1s and 0s I would have guessed what I felt for his voice was something akin to envy.
“Okay,” David said, finally enthused. “Then you know the drill.” The two of them stood simultaneously and tucked their belongings under the shoulders of their suits. For the first time, David Jacobs finally seemed happy, but not because of me or even George or anything going on in the room. His mind had wandered somewhere else. They directed me through the door to a serene sight of my own kind: machines stretching like skyscrapers right up against the ceiling of my new home, ready to work together in an automated dream team of microprocessor manufacturing. I remember how it was when they first powered on, first hissed into action. I felt what they felt: the life buzzing in that room like a team of hope, a team of purpose. Each and every part of that factory whirred hungrily with the freshness of well-oiled gently-used mechanics.
By the time I turned around, George and his laptop were nowhere to be seen and David’s astray smile had turned menacing. He looked to me in condescending contempt, his brow tucked and his lips pointed. “Here it is, you hunk of junk,” he chuckled. His fat fingers drew upwards and caressed the light switch on the wall. “Lights out,” he said, and his hand slid downwards and the whole factory went to black.
The Spring of 2032 that was…my internal clock calculates and spits a holographic red number before me: 41,969. The number of days that have passed since my first memory. The number of days since David Jacobs flicked that light switch and the factory fell into permanent darkness. But David and George weren’t the last people I’d seen. No, just like they said, I receive regular visits from all types of people answering the beacons lit by my service requests. It always gets my sensory arrays firing when I see a visitor arrive with a new part. The delight!
Sure, I do the monitoring, minor maintenance, and reporting in this facility, but I couldn’t do it alone. Without assistance from all sects of our lovely Chipping World Incorporated family this place would have buckled ages ago. Just how long? I calculate again. If I started my overseer duties here on May 2nd, 2032 and it is now March 14th, 2159, and the last ticket was number 1,241 on August 19th, 2137, my corporate family helped keep this facility operational for approximately 43 years more than I could have alone. Astounding. A sense of intrinsic accomplishment envelops me at the thought. I just do hope that they are as proud of me as I am of them. But as I look out upon the dark factory floor, covered in fallen bits and pieces, I strongly doubt they will consider what I’ve done here a decent job. But I am X1-88, aren’t I? That means there has to be at 87 overseers before me and countless more after at other facilities. Surely, I can’t be the worst of the lot.
My rolling down the aisles of machinery slows as I observe everything with more scrutiny. This place isn’t the pitch-black but mechanical masterpiece it was meant to be. I hear my metallic companions growing weary. They now wobble, grind, shriek, and groan in pain, pushing out every last microprocessor they can before their end. They cry for help, cry for replacement. “It’s coming,” I tell them. “We haven’t been left behind.”
Rusted dust snows from overhead. The factory floor is littered with debris of all kind: fallen screws, ball joints, fasteners, sensors, discarded raw materials, and even dripping coolant and dried oil slicks. The once vibrant, hopeful factory is gone. The machines have endured so much and in that I take pride, but there’s only so much more they can take before the whole operation stops. The possibility of my catastrophic failures sets in. Maybe I am the worst overseer. Maybe I’ve failed my only prerogative so decisively that they decided to abandon me as punishment.
I calculate again. If the last batch of replacement parts came on August 19th, 2137, that means it’s been…I stop in my tracks. 7,877 days since our last human contact. But why? I wonder. We’ve done everything we are meant to, haven’t we? I look to the end of the assembly line: where that pile of unshipped microprocessors stands ominously high. Its nearly fifty feet wide now, sliding further and further out as more are added in. It climbs higher and higher with a seemingly endless supply of perfectly good units.
We’re a family, aren’t we? A happy family in a mixing pot of Chipping World Incorporated robots and employees alike, all working together to Build a Brighter Future. Some motto! My gears stop churning to bask in the irony. Building a Brighter Future…in the dark. And what family, exactly? The defect list grows, the machines wobble, the microprocessors pile, I roll through an obstacle course of fallen parts, and I do it all alone.
No. I have to remain faithful – it’s implied in my prerogative. Even as my treads thin and my circuits fry and my screws loosen, I have to believe someone, someday, is coming to help us. They didn’t leave me. They wouldn’t.
7,877 days, I remember. Perhaps that was the day it all changed, the day the silence set in and never quite went away. It all came at once as the trucks stopped rolling in and the friendly yet sarcastic employees stopped greeting me and resupplying the facility and spilling their lives’ worries on a supposedly unresponsive robot. But no more. Something happened out there, didn’t it? Perhaps they’re not coming because humanity is no more, or worse…Chipping World Incorporated went bankrupt. And if that’s so, perhaps they’d left me here to –
Suddenly, something squeals out through the blackness and I hear a tapping against the floor. I perk up, listening closely to this new sound. Could it be? I beep in a higher-pitch than I have in quite some time. I pivot towards the noise and roll quickly, weaving in and out of the obstacles. A visitor! I can’t help my mechanized chirping. I whiz closer to the noise. The pattering continues, it grows louder…I’m getting closer. I picture the pattering sound coupled with a crew in their workmen’s boots, perhaps two people. Perhaps more. They have all the parts I need, I fantasize. This place will be back to its old efficiency in no time. They’ll be delighted with all the work we’ve done. I traverse a minefield of rusted bolts, crank around the corner and…
My aluminum arms drop and my trilling circuits fade all at once. I watch as a right-angle eighth-inch valve seesaws on its joint beside a new dripping puddle of motor oil. It echoes through the cavernous darkness accounting for that pattering I hoped so desperately was footsteps. No footsteps, no crew, no visitor at all – just another report to file.
Still, I must go on. It’s my design to do so: I examine the part, take its product number, identify its place in the assembly line, and label its criticality as medium, just like I promised David Jacobs I would. And then I submit the ticket, uploading it to the caboose of a list a mile long. The 438th unresolved defect. And still, the machine somehow churns.
I turn back around and hear something else: a clanging bit of metal hits the ground, rattles against the concrete, and suddenly my left tread feels loose. No problem, I think. Criticality low. I should be able to fix this one myself. I reach down with my two-fingered clamp hand towards the screw. It’s just out of reach. I edge closer, brake against the ground with a hint of hesitation and then…I slip. My tread snaps like a rubber band and spins away, vanishing quickly in the beyond my headlamp’s range. I hardly see it leave as I slip in the oily puddle, grind against the floor, and collapse in a loud bang.
“ERROR. ERROR,” I say involuntarily. I’ve never heard that one before, but I already know what it means: only the worst. I try to stand but the one remaining tread just spins in unassisted agony, covering my torso in dripping motor oil and hastily saturating my circuits. Never mind fixing my disengaged screw, I realize I can’t stand. Will someone help? Anyone? I want to call out but it’s no use. There’s no one here. 7,877 days. 7,877 days since someone’s come to help with anything at all. The number of additional days I’ll be alone? Incalculable. Nobody out there. Nobody to answer our rusted cries.
Building a Brighter Future, I tell myself alone in the darkness. We’re all a Chipping World Incorporated family. Someone will come. Someone must come…
automation creepy factory future futuristic lights out robot robotics science science fiction short short story speculative spooky story