Vector and I were taking high tea at the Empress Hotel, discussing what an Atari-created version of the videogame “The Human Centipede” would be like, and if it would play better with a trackball or a joystick, when the headwaiter brought over an unopened telegram.
“What the hell is a telegram?” Vector asked.
“It’s like a fax, but with more manual labor,” I replied:
“What the hell is a fax?” Vector asked. “Is that related to the dial-up modem era?”
“Quiet you young punk,” I said, tipping the headwaiter with a small stone I had kited from one of the hotel’s outdoor fountains. With some polishing, it could hold some small financial value. I like to make my gratuities interactive for both the consumer and the server; it enhances the capitalist experience.
As the sour-faced headwaiter departed, I slit open the envelope with a scone knife and perused the flimsy sheet inside.
“Finish your Earl Grey,” I told Vector. “We have an assignment. A journalistic expose of the supposedly reformed working conditions inside Apple’s ‘iFactory’. We’re booked on the next flight to China.”
“Have you ever been there before?” Vector asked as he drained the contents of his teacup and reached for his top hat.
“Once, as an operative of the Nixon administration,” I told him, signing the bill with Vector’s name and room number. “I was posing as a member of the international press corps, and I–”
“Who the hell is Nixon?” Vector asked.
I sighed. “That’s the problem with you young people. You have no sense of history. Never mind. I know what I need to know about China. Besides, I played a lot of ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ back in the day.”
“If we’re to go to China,” Vector mused, “as your attorney, I advise you to purchase a translation app, and at least two-dozen rolls of good quality two-ply toilet paper.”
I was about to argue, but it occurred to me that not only was his proffered advice actually reasonable, it was also true that in certain Central American republics, Vector is an attorney.
* * * * *
Fifty-six hours later, we were on the rooftop of the Apple ‘iFactory’ building in China. Vector was dressed in traditional ninja garb, in spite of my protestations concerning the relative distance between China and Japan. I was dressed in the garb of a Yuan Dynasty textile magnate, in spite of Vector’s protestations concerning the relative distance between the current year and the 14th Century.
“Enough bickering, you swine!” I hissed. “We’ll just have to adapt the plan I created for getting us inside and gathering the intelligence we need to write our Pulitzer-worthy expose.”
“We have a plan?” Vector asked.
“Well, I have a number of goals listed, and the start of an outline,” I mumbled. “Now, let’s look through our packs and take inventory of our assets.”
A few minutes later, we looked at the pile of our assets, which consisted of the following:
- 5 carabiners from various Microsoft software events
- a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition
- a small carbon steel crowbar
- 2 towels from the hotel we were staying at
- a replica trepanation saw in surgical steel
- 2 dozen rolls of 2-ply toilet paper
- 36 miniature Snickers bars
- 3 cardboard shuriken
- several tablets and smartphones, all with varying levels of battery power and sketchy cellular capabilities
- fruit leather (assorted)
- a CompTIA “Security +” rubber truncheon
- a Nixon administration-era “suicide pill” (although I wasn’t certain about it, I admitted to Vector; it could be a Contac-C)
- 2 cans of root beer
- a foam rubber rat from some forgotten dot-com
- a string to swing it on
“Who the hell packed these things?” I asked, shaking my head.
“I’m pretty sure we did,” Vector said, “although the word ‘packed’ would imply that some method was employed. In future, we should probably outsource this function. Now, how are we infiltrating the factory?”
I looked around.
“Did you see a door somewhere up here when we were rappelling over?” I asked.
Eventually, we were able to find a rooftop door, and with some skilled work with the trepanation saw, breached the lock and made our way inside. From the stairwell we cautiously made our way into a service corridor, and followed it until we found a door leading out onto a catwalk that overlooked the factory floor. It was the perfect vantage point to view what was going on.
We slowly situated ourselves in a darkened corner of the catwalk, and looked down at the workers and their supervisors on the factory floor.
We looked at them, and what they were doing.
We looked at them for a long time.
After awhile, we slowly got to our feet and left.
* * * * *
Later, Vector and I sat in the hotel bar. We didn’t look at each other much.
“What were they?” Vector asked. “The supervisors. The ones overseeing the workers. The workers were bad, but the supervisors–what the hell were they?”
I grunted, and signaled the waiter for two more.
“We have to tell people,” Vector said suddenly. “We have to let them know what’s going on here. We have a responsibility to inform the rest of the world–”
“The rest of the world doesn’t want to know about this kind of thing,” I snapped. “The rest of the world wants gadgets that look and feel like magic. What are you going to tell them that is going to change their minds?”
“But… their eyes,” Vector shuddered. “And their hands. You saw their hands. Were they hands? Were they?”
“I know. I know,” I said.
We sat in silence for awhile.
“Look kid,” I said. “I know what you want to do. And I’m telling you, that telling everyone what you saw tonight will accomplish absolutely nothing, except get you drummed out of the civilized world. Even if people believed you, they would still cast you out. Because, they don’t want to know where this stuff comes from, or who makes it, or how they live, or what they eat. All people want is the new stuff every year, with the year-over-year stock gains that accompany it.”
Our drinks arrived, and the waiter took the old glasses away. I nodded my thanks, and gave him a two-inch cube of modeling clay.
“So, that’s it?” Vector said.
“That’s it. It doesn’t sit well. It’s not supposed to. But, that’s how it is.”
“I like new stuff,” he said quietly.
I lifted my glass, and clinked it against his.
“Me too,” I said.