I WONDER WHAT LIFE would be like if the world wasn't one big field of cotton.
In the days of hope when there was choice, overseers rode the rows with whips and chains while we picked our cotton real good. We wanted so badly to please.
During the course of our labors we received regular programming. Sometimes airborne cotton flurrying about in the midst of the pickings would stick to the sweat of the ear and thereby impair regular programming reception. Then as the laborer became aware and productivity necessarily slowed, some roving overseer upon perceiving the irregularity would proceed inflicting such punishment as befitted whims before allowing the laborer the freedom to yet again pick more cotton in the sizzling and relentless sun, or be shot in the face and ground into burger.
Everybody knew what went into burgers. But who was going to say anything? Nobody wanted to get processed. You just kept your head down and chewed.
Then one day a fellow citizen who happened to be near me deep in the vastness of the fluffy white field seemed to slow somewhat down in his pickings. I didn't dare look too closely. Not focusing on collecting lots and lots of cotton could only lead to trouble. And yet, I couldn't help but see. This guy seemed to have uncovered something. I could tell he was staring at it in the dirt. From the corner of my eye I saw him scoop up a dark object and stash it somewhere in his clothing.
I had put the incident out of my mind until when on the conveyor belt back to sleeping quarters I recognized said citizen. Jostling by the endless fields I watched him whisper to the figurine. Just very gently. Effectively imperceptible to casual observance. But I could see that the find had made his day.
Hovering helicopters scanned. Everyone on the conveyor belt pretended not to notice. A butterfly lit on the handrail, multicolor iridescence flashing in fluttering wings. Slowly, my hand reached for it. Assuming a defensive posture, the butterfly revved up and demanded what I was doing.
"I was trying to touch a butterfly," I said. "I didn't know you were a drone."
I had to give them my name and number. They seemed unable to accept my wish for the insect to light upon my outstretched finger.
"Haven't you ever heard of All Quiet on the Western Front?" I said, knowing of course that they hadn't. The drone might have been controlled by someone on one of the helicopters, or just as easily from any other part of the planet. I gave a few seconds for the other side to pull up the gist, then watched while the drone took off like an overseer in hot pursuit of an escaping citizen.
Sometime thereafter in the main cafeteria nearest the quarters I saw said citizen again shuffling in line for sludge, and was surprised when he sat down and asked why I was following him.
"I'm not following you," I said. "I saw what you found in the field, that's all."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do." I spooned some sludge, green in color. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"Yes," he said, in a natural manner as a couple of overseers, huffy and uptight, sauntered nearby, "it sure feels good getting in an extra shift picking cotton."
"It's backbreaking work all right. It's great."
"All right," he said, "if you were going to tell, I guess you already would have by now."
"It's a stone idol, isn't it?" I said under my breath.
"I'm dedicated to picking even more cotton tomorrow than I did today," he said aloud. And then, "There must have been a house on that spot. Long time ago. Someone who knew the old ways was there."
Someone who knew the old ways. My mind stopped at the thought. I couldn't understand why. Part of me wanted to imagine what the hand that once held the idol looked like, and how the voice of the bearer sounded when sending summons. But the attempt made my mind feel muddy.
"Does it work?" I asked this while chewing and staring straight ahead. In the same casual manner to throw off suspicion he replied that it did.
"I've been making calls," he said. "And I'm not the only one."
Thermal resonance imaging ever under consideration, I did my best to keep nice and calm and placid. No point calling attention. This was made doubly difficult however when the overseers sauntered closer with burgers in their hands.
"Well," I said, finishing my sludge, "like I always say, I'm here to pick cotton and I'm damn proud of it."
"You talk too much," my coworker said, scraping his tray. "Less talk, more cotton."
One of the overseers said something I couldn't hear as he took a big bite, and the other one laughed as we left. I knew what happened to people who got caught trying to contact the outside. I hoped that wouldn't happen to me.
Under my breath as we parted I told my coworker to count me in.
For the next several days hope helped immensely. All of the regular programming was running like usual but none of it worked on me anymore. Helping to make a call was all I could think about, but with the eyes of the slavers always watching, we would have to operate underground. Gaining information bit by bit through surreptitious conversation in passing, I learned the time and place that we would conduct the next attempt.
The thought occurred to me, without ever actually entertaining it, that I might be prudent to back out completely, conceivably even consult some automated agent of the slavery system and confess. I could say I saw the light. I looked through the crack of drab closed curtains and tried to imagine, but my thought was interrupted by the antique rotary dial ringtone of my phone.
"It took me a long time to realize just now I've been staring around the room in fear." I recognized the voice of my friend with the graven image. "Even with a loud fan on, I can hear the mice squealing in the walls."
Through the phone I could hear the squealing, too. "You're lucky it's not cockroaches," I said. "Put traps out."
"I caught a big one in a spring trap a few days ago using sludge."
"Hey, that's cannibalism, isn't it?"
"About ten percent so, probably," he agreed. "I also catch myself wringing my hands," he added, "literally rolling my eyes around the room as the mice move around the ceiling and the walls, wondering if they might not suddenly spill right in. I suppose I'll have to get them with poison."
I asked who else we'd be working with the next day, as though we were getting all into a good day's picking like good little slaves, when in fact I was asking who else I could expect in attendance at our impending attempt to enlist outside aid against the slavers.
"I'm not sure on that," he said sounding faint. "They might be cannibalizing themselves. That would explain the sounds. Years ago we had cats. It never used to be like this."
Peeking through the crack in the drapes, I checked out all the drones. Corporate logo androids roamed.
"Uh-oh," I said.
"What is it?"
I could tell that one of the corporate logo androids saw me. "See you at the boarding station," I said, abruptly ending the call.
Moving away from the drapes I held still against the wall, quiet as a mouse, while the clown outside my window tapped. I used to pick cotton next to a guy who said he helped make androids until automation took over. It's hard to believe now that people ever used to be real and live lives.
The clown's silhouette stretched across the floor and up the opposite wall. It stayed there so long, I started to wonder whether maybe it was more than it seemed. As if somehow sensing this thought, the clown stopped tapping and began fumbling with the window.
Slowly the window slid open. Then a brightly gloved hand entered the room. This disturbed a cockroach in the sill. Perceiving movement, the hand retracted. "Looks like your account balance is low," said the clown. "How about a burger?"
The antennae of the cockroach inquisitively quivered.
"Your account balance looks a little low. Want fries?"
Some fried sludge sticks sure would've gone down good. I hated to admit it. For a second there it was all I could do not to leap up and order a double. But corporate logo androids cost a lot of money. They've got all kinds of rights. Being equipped to defend themselves, they do so with impunity.
On the way to the boarding station a group of dead celebrities beat a man unconscious. One of them bumped into him. Anytime you see the cast of Gone with the Wind strolling around, you can bet there are some slavers remotely slavering.
"What are you looking at?" Scarlett demanded with flashing eyes. Probably going for a retinal scan. I wondered what withered being controlled the machine, but said nothing as I kept moving with the others.
In the screens positioned everywhere to ensure regular programming reception, constantly shifting images numbed. Being distracted felt like being informed. Being trained felt like being educated. No one questioned anything. Everything was firmly blurred. Any second and I just knew huge helicopters would appear overhead. There was no way they didn't know what we were attempting to do. It would be the most glorious thing that ever happened in the history of the human race if the star people who brought us into being heard our call and finally returned to free us. But the images were so numbing everywhere, always shifting.
When I got to the boarding station, my friend with the idol was nowhere to be found. I waited around as long as I could before I had to get on the belt. Didn't want to call too much suspicion. I picked cotton all day disheartened as hell, almost certain the whole time that the overseers knew. They had to know. I thought they must have gotten him for sure, and figured I was lucky that I hadn't gotten in too deep.
Then about a week later I saw him. We were in the cafeteria. It was him all right. He acted like he didn't even know me. To not call suspicion, I initially figured. Strangely though, I tried contacting him a couple times after that, but he never would respond. Just like that.
It's hard to imagine what life would be like if the world wasn't one big field of cotton. Who knows? Maybe the slavers really are wasting everyone's time worrying so much after all.