Friday, September 27, 2013

2H2K - February 2050: The Slab

“The Falls” at Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, Nevada (2011). [Photo by Michael Light] via Design Observer

[The following is the 2nd short story in a series, the overall project is introduced here; the first story is here; the third is here]
David felt like he had an iron bar passing latterly through his chest. The bar wasn't a romantic metaphor, it was a feeling. Closing his eyes, it took shape; about as big around as his heart, and heavy. David could feel the bar’s weight, as clearly as if it were held in his hand. The most gruesome part of the bar was it’s length. It was longer than his chest was wide. Long enough that the bar extended beyond his body, protruding invisibly through his biceps. Like Frankenstein's neck bolts writ large, he thought. David knew what it was: a chill. In his mind's eye he saw it extending from the sides of his arms as two cylinders. He felt it pulling warmth from his heart, radiating it uselessly into the desert air.

When David had met Little Jo she had made him feel young, believing anything was possible. Striking out for the coast hadn’t seemed like a cliché with her; more like a viable business plan. Starting a family had even begun to seem like less of an absurdity. Sitting in the shade of a disposable tool shed, on a five gallon bucket of “custom milled-and-coated ultra-fines,” he surveyed his kingdom. A cleared concrete slab that had once supported a exurban mansion. A mansion, that had long ago been reduced to rubble and, until very recently, had contributed to the debris field that covered the properties surrounding his. My property, he thought. A five acre share of a ruined development.

But after three long days of work, his property was clear of debris. His slab was swept clean and stacked high with dozens of his five gallon buckets and his corrugated plastic shipping containers. Instant kingdom, just add water.

David had “homesteaded” the slab with Jo. Together they had accepted responsibility for any environmental remediation, as well as a small, but still sizable, fraction of the back taxes. Their real “investment” had been for the yet to be assembled components in the containers and the custom-milled dust in the buckets. David had only opened a couple of the containers so far, the large store-bought ones he and Jo had packed in Chicago with their private belongings, as well as a tools and an assortment of cheap laboreRs.

So far he had unpacked and activated gaggle of cat-sized gardeneRs, even smaller guaRds, and a high-end, toddler-sized registraR that he hoped would be worth the expense. “We could both get two years of unlimited infovis for that amount,” he had argued, but Jo had won out - and she was probably right. Assembling the franchise required specialized laboR.

Of the two dozen containers piled on the slab, twenty had come straight from the his franchise parent group, FactüRæ™. He had opened a few of those crates looking for laser arrays before realizing he had to activate the regisraR. The job of sorting through all those parts, materials, and custom workeRs overwhelmed him. It was those containers, not the taxes or the laboR, which had put him into years of debt, possibly for the rest of his life.

David felt broke, stupid, and bald. “Balding.”

The word was out of his mouth before he knew he was going to say it. The crew of tiny gardeneRs working nearby collectively turned in response to the sound of his voice. The response was part of a eusocial programming package the spindly little domestics had come loaded with. Simple pack/flocking behavior, but it made him feel self-conscious, like he’s been caught by a crowd of bystanders picking his nose in a caR. Which was ridiculous. Like being embarrassed in front of geese, he thought looking at them. Or bushes. They continued to train on his face. Or rocks.

David waved a hand dismissively indicating he wasn’t vocalizing a command. The gardeneRs turn their boxy, faceless heads away in a single smooth movement. With tiny black raccoon-like hands, they returned to the job of picking bits of glass, asphaltum, and paint chips out of the sandy topsoil that surrounded the slab. Unlike the registraR, which was top-shelf custom built and trained laboR, the gardeneRs were pro-sumer kits. He and Little Jo had bought eight of them in the hope that a three or four would survive clearing the property.

Chances now seemed good that all eight would be in working order when it came time to clean up after construction. Buying the gardeneRs had been Jo’s idea, but she had argued for three. David had thought it was a dumb idea and, to make his point, had insisted that they then buy eight. Not one had broken down yet. He had to give it to her, they were a good idea, and three would have been enough.

Beyond the encircling gardeneRs, two large wreckeRs manhandled a big chunk of what remained of a ranch house. Their gigantic forms moved with a certain amount of grace, down what remained of the driveway, and towards what remained of the cul-de-sac, to where he had previously had them position the massive mesh dumpster in the cul-de-sac.

The wreckeRs were wrapped in once stiff and now dirt-stained ballistic nylon coveralls, which had been bright orange when they arrived this morning. The structure of their bodies and limbs had all the elegance of a child’s Popsicle-stick construction, but their movements were uncannily human. David recalled learning that software existed that could scan crowds and identify an individual’s nationality based solely on the peculiarities of their gait. 

Watching the wreckeRs, David couldn’t help feeling that their bearing was patterned on a particular man; some construction worker - David imagined someone from Eastern Europe or Mexico - who had been hired to cross-train machines to perform the skills of his trade. He wondered what nationality he might have actually been. Or if he was even still alive. The idea that the original cross-trainer was dead, but that his gait survived struck David as somehow horrific. Zombies.

The dumpster had started the day as large flattened circle of rumpled black mesh, but the webbing now bulged with crumbling bricks, drywall shards and twisted lengths of vinyl siding. The rental manageR had assured David that the wreckeRs would have no problem carrying the huge sac back to the dump at the end of the day; but, looking at David found it hard to believe. He was now very glad he had decided against placing the dumpster on his slab. It had slowed the cleanup down a bit to have the wreckers walk so far with each load, but if the sac’s mesh burst, he preferred it to happen on public land, where clean up would then be the sole responsibility of the rental agent. 

I have enough on my plate cleaning this place up once, he thought, looking across his lot at the surrounding waste of the flattened housing tract: the remains of once-costly McMansions littered the desert as far as David could see, but nothing stood much higher than David's head. What a dump. David thought of the work still left to be done, and felt exhausted. 

Part of his homestead agreement was to clean all debris on his lot within the first 7 days of taking possession of the site. Additionally, he was supposed to entirely decontaminate the site down to 30 feet within the first 21 days. The cul-de-sac, however, was not his concern. “I hope it does break.” This time none of his gardeneRs stopped their work, which annoyed him almost as much as their mistaken attention had earlier.

His annoyance was cut short by a fat winged termite landing on his arm. David froze. Early in the day he had used the registraR to find a case full of miniaturized laser arrays buried in one of the shipping containers. It would be a few more days before David would be ready to begin slaving together hundreds of them, and a couple more weeks after that, before the networked arrays would be ready to start fabricating test parts. But in a month - if all goes as planned, he thought wearily - those tiny lasers arrays should be printing large compound caR parts out of clouds of custom milled-and-coated ultra-fines. His own “high capacity selective laser sintering” publishing house. But right now he had unpacked those arrays to kill bugs.

After a short, but desperate search, he had been able to find an app on a hunting site that weaponized the miniature industrial arrays. Hanging next to him, from a pole he had salvaged from site and jammed into the ground, was a pair of the now-deadly sintering arrays. He had wired them up to a battery pack and added them as a peripheral to his phone. Using his phone’s passive sensors, the laser were now set to kill any and all winged insects. And there were lots to kill. 

David wasn’t a sadist, and wasn’t especially easy with the idea of killing bugs with lasers, especially since the termites didn’t bite. But after only a few minutes after arriving on the site for the first time, he an Little Jo, swatting frantically, were forced to flee. As they killed the dozen or so termites that had managed to follow them back into the refuge of the caR - mostly caught in Jo’s hair - David had realized he had no choice but to take drastic measures.

Every few seconds a termite exploded, mid-flight, with a little “crack” of superheated chitin. He hadn’t expected any of the bugs to make it through to his bare skin though, and wondered what the app would do. He had no idea what, if anything, it was programmed to to do in this circumstance. If it killed the termite while it was on his arm it would be like lighting a match directly against his arm. That’s gonna leave a mark.

David weighed swatting the termite; however, before he could make up his mind, the termite made a decision of its own and took flight. Zapped by the invisible deathray, the insect left behind nothing but a tiny puff of ash hanging in the air beside David's elbow.

The assessor had sold him an insured guarantee that, beyond the termite supercolony that had depopulated this exurban development in the first place, there were no nasty underground surprises, by way of subsurface oil spills or other liability blooms. “No Indian graveyards” David had joked, but the allusion had been lost on Little Jo. Sleep with babies and you’ll get peed on, David remembered one friend warning him.

Sewage, power, and the trunk line were all estimated to last for thirty years, barring Acts of God, between his cul-de-sac and the county line. The water main was only guaranteed to last ten years at the absolute longest. But that assumed there was no re-habitation of any kind, David was betting that other manufactures would homestead the surrounding developments, but even if they didn't ten years is plenty of time. Should have been plenty of time, he corrected himself. They had had a plan. Still, even if, in ten years the area was still abandoned, and the main failed, the franchise would already be three or four generations out-of-date anyway. His plan had always been to sell the franchise long before then. For us to…

“Bitch!” This time the gardeneRs froze, but did not look up. He wondered what line of code covered profanity. After a short pause, they resumed quietly picking and sifting the soil for anything and everything that might possibly count as a “contaminant.”

With Little Jo gone, David's debts once again weighed on him. When they had met he had felt paralyzed by his debt burden, but she had reassured him, told him they could handle it. That it was going to be OK. I could move again, he remembered. She had freed him from the lethargy that had gripped him, had frozen him in job he had hated. "I feel stuck; petrified." he had admitted to her early on. "You're not." she had told him, and she was right. But now the feeling was back, that he couldn’t move. He felt locked to this fucking slab; in the middle of a desert so clouded by termites that caRs could hardly drive.

David had no experience running a business. He had worked at a custom publisher’s back in Chicago; trouble shooting builds, some maintenance. The one perk of the job was that he’d been able to print his own designs at cost - when things were slow. That’s what had gotten into Little Jo’s head. Seeing the things that he had made for himself in his apartment - the chairs, flatware, light fixtures, toys, and whatever else. Jo had decided that David was an unrecognized design genius. That all he needed was to move to a place with more opportunities. A place where his designs would be valued. So you quit a good job and put yourself into 30 years of debt to buy a geodesic dome kit and a two year supply coated aluminium powder. And moved to a place where you know no one. The bar felt cold, it seemed to crowd out his heart and pin his arms to his sides. “Bitch!”
The work continued around him as if nothing had happened. Hunched over, David pressed a fist against his lips. The air was hard to breath - as if it were thick.

Like the bar, the debts seemed like an actual thing as well. But unlike the bar, his debts were closer to the scale of the concrete slab they had bought him. The cost of the decisions hung over him. Not like a cloud. That, he supposed, he could live with. What weighed him down now felt huge. His engineers’ licensing, membership to the publishers' guild, and now the franchise and all the cost of making the move out here. Its that fucking slab. And just as the bar made him painfully aware of his heart’s labor, the slab made every breath a labor.

David looked at the slab, the stony white footprint of what must have been a six room, eight bath manse. He imagined himself scratching away at the sandy termite-laden soil until he could crouch under an exposed lip of the concrete. He felt himself tensing as he pictured himself, on his hands and knees, back braced against the rough underside of the concrete foundation, trying to lift the slab from ground. Jesus he was going to fucking cry. How much more pathetic could this get?

Around him the small gardeneRs continued to pick and sort tiny bits of crap only they could see. The wreckeRs, meanwhile, moved with an uncanny synchronicity down the sandy drive. Their dusty coveralls were streaked, and in more than a few places, almost entirely torn away, exposing chromed steel joints and cutouts of some sort of dense composite sheet material. With the exception of the fluidity of their movements, they looked cheap and jury-rigged. Pieced together like plywood dinosaurs, or bugs.

They worked in almost total silence. He listened. The occasional crack of a termite body exploding was the only noise of his work site to noticeably rise above the sounds of the surrounding desert.

He could easily distinguish the rubbing sound of the wreckeRs coveralls and the dry, almost woody, sound of their turning joints above the almost inaudible put-put of their tiny toy-like diesel motors. The gardnerRs, with their electrical powertrains, were entirely silent. He’d have to max-out the gain on his earings to hear them at all.

He looked around and wondered at the work he’d managed to get done. Day four and his site was clean. Tomorrow he’d be unpacking his crates.

The wreckeRs had positioned themselves next to the dumpster’s two huge handles: his cue that his time was up on the rental. The sky was beginning to grow dark; and, while it remained dry, the air was starting to cool down. Below his bare feet, David could almost feel the hum of the supercolony that had made this exurbia back into a desert waste. Billions of workers silently laboring like miniature versions of his garderneRs and wreckeRs. “Drones.”

He had said the word towards the wreckeRs (at them really), they seemed to have understood that, and accepted it as a dismissal. With a beautifully coordinated clean-and-jerk motion, the wreckeRs lifted the dumpster sack high. And, once their load was balanced, they began to move away. The two-wrecker/dumpster ensemble looked to David like a knocked up alley cat, two-stories tall and pregnant with a litter of construction waste.

Watching the mess being walking out of the cul-de-sace, David realized that the slab no longer felt so big; or that he no longer felt so small. He felt enlarged. Like he was the homestead and his body encompassed not just the slab and the acre and a half it occupied, but all the workers - machine and insect. That they weren’t just his; they were him. He imagined himself rising, off his knees, his back bent, and impossibly, the slab, his workeRs, the buckets, and the shipping containers, all balanced on his shoulders like Atlas. He pictured taking a heroic step, slow and faltering, then another, this time sure. He couldn’t help but smile.

Without really knowing when it had started, David felt good. He took a deep shaky breath. The chill of the bar was still there, and so was the weight of the slab, but they seemed a bit smaller, a bit more manageable; burdens he could bear.

1 comment:

  1. Having a little trouble with the blogger code. I wrote these stories as Google Docs. Since Blogger is a Google product I had hoped copying and pasting from one platform to the other wouldn't be screwy, but it is. If anyone has any advise I'd love to hear it.