Author : Bill Owens

Shift change is a slow-motion affair. Everything is. They lost the ability to move quickly a long time ago. He’s patient; no sense getting uptight, it only hurts him – they don’t care. They lost that ability too.

The last spot on the line is filled again, his eyes sweep across the room to be sure none have wandered off. A tiny nod, and his assistant, the little sphere hovering silently just above his shoulder, sends a command to the factory. The line starts running. Slowly. Of course.

“Looks good, son.”

He jumps at the voice; nobody on the line ever speaks. “Oh, hi, dad. You surprised me. Yeah, it’s all good.” A thought, a question answered silently by the little sphere at his side. “Ahh, about two, maybe three percent above quota.”

An answering nod, so much like his own. A rare smile, “Can you come upstairs? They’ll be okay for a little bit, and I want to talk to you.”

The conference room door shuts out the last of the sound from the floor. Gestured to a seat, he can’t relax; they never come here. A nervous clearing of the throat, unreadable expression. There’s a small glass bottle on the table – now the tension is tight across his neck. His assistant chirps, alerted. “Umm, dad? Why do you have that?”

The expression changes; he still can’t decode it. “You’re eighteen, son.” A flicker of the eyes to the vial and back. “You can have this any time.” Is it expectation? Fear? Something else.

The cloudy drops will be sweet – he knows that. His friends have told him. It tastes like sugar, disappears on the tongue, floods warmth. Before their voices drift away, they talk about the visions, people they’ve lost, wishes fulfilled, the mother they always wanted, the lover they desired. Their faces relax, eyes lose focus. He’s seen the expression, over and over – sees it every day on the line. They’re happy, contented, they have no worries any more. Life in a dream, as cloudy as the vial’s contents.

If he drinks it, his assistant will know. Change its program without ever moving from its station. Make sure he is fed, cleaned, cared for. He’ll take his place on the line, or in the field, or wherever he’s needed. His body, anyway. It will walk for him, place his hands on the the machine, direct his muscles to pull a rake. He’ll be elsewhere. Dreaming.

He realizes that his father has been watching, doubtless trying to read the expressions he sees. If he’s found something, there’s no sign. His father is one of the few, self-chosen, those who resist and therefore remain themselves. Retain themselves. Only a handful have the strength. Now his only child is staring at that choice.

The vial is open, cap beside it. All he has to do is tip it into his mouth. An interminable moment later, he does. Sweet. Spreading across his tongue, and. . . nothing. A flash of anger at his father. “You gave me a fake?”

Relief. Now the face is plain, finally. Eyes close, a slow, sad shake of the head. “No, that’s full strength. It didn’t work because we’re missing the gene that creates the neural receptor. We’re immune. I’ve tried a hundred variations, and nothing.” Their eyes finally meet. “Now you know why we run this factory.”

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