Zinnia let the buzz of the watch tell her which way to go. She understood the importance of a directional technology that didn’t involve looking down. Between the moving shelves, the dashing reds, and the conveyor belts, it was an easy place to get creamed if you weren’t paying attention.
“You’re a natural,” Miguel said.
“So why is it you’re training me, and not one of the managers?” “Managers have more important stuff to do,” he said in a tone that
indicated he didn’t believe it. “This is a voluntary program. You don’t really get anything, except an hour or two where you don’t have to run around. I like it. You’re a relief. Most people don’t pick up on the directional thing until the end of their first shift.”
Zinnia stepped around a shelving unit as it slid into their path. “Doesn’t seem too hard,” Zinnia said.
“You’d be surprised.” Probably not, Zinnia thought.
“How long have you been here?” Zinnia asked. “Going on five years.”
“You like it?”
Long pause. Zinnia glanced over. Miguel had a look on his face as if he were chewing something soft and unpleasant. Zinnia kept looking, not giving up, so he shrugged. “It’s a job.”
Answer enough. She figured that was the end, but then he kept going. “My husband wants me to take the manager’s test. Try and move up. But I like this just fine.”
Zinnia wondered about the managers. The ratio was extreme. She saw hundreds of people in red, but only the occasional man or woman in white, carrying a tablet, walking like they had someplace to be.
“I would figure being a manager is a little less intense,” Zinnia said.
“And more money. But I don’t know . . .” Miguel looked at Zinnia, speaking slowly. Choosing his words. “They have this program, the Rainbow Coalition, supposed to be all about minority empowerment. Getting us up in the ranks. Diversification. I don’t know how effective it is. Most of the people who wear white . . . they tend to match their shirts, if you know what I’m saying?”
Zinnia gave a conspiratorial nod.
“You Latina, or . . . ?” Miguel asked, then shook his head and dropped his chin. “Sorry, I shouldn’t ask.”
Zinnia gave him a Don’t worry smile. “My mother.” “You should think about applying then.”
The watch buzzed again, several times in rapid succession. She looked down, saw it said 8495-A. Looked up and saw the same number on the shelving unit in front of her.
“Okay,” Miguel said. “Now tap the watch.” Zinnia did, and the numbers changed.
Bin 17. Electric razor.
Then, a picture of an electric razor in plastic clamshell packaging. “Seventeen?” Zinnia asked.
“Toward the top of the spinner,” Miguel said. “Hold on . . .” He pulled a bundle from his pocket. “Sorry, was supposed to give this to you at the start. Safety harness.”
Zinnia looped it over her belt, and found a carabiner clip on one end. She pulled the clip and a gauge of heavy nylon wire came out from inside the belt. It was thin and sleek and she immediately thought of a million different uses for it. Like not going ass-over- elbow in Bahrain.
“Attach it to the hooks as you climb,” Miguel said, taking the carabiner and latching it to a curved piece of metal protruding a few inches above Zinnia’s head. There were more hooks, running up the side of the unit. “Though honestly, in a few days you’ll stop using the thing. Takes too much time. But if you see a manager around, use it. You can get a strike for that. Three strikes, you lose a credit.”
Jesus, this system. Zinnia climbed the side of the unit, treating the individual shelves like a ladder, and found the bin. She grabbed the hard plastic clamshell holding the razor that had appeared on the watch and leapt to the ground. The watch buzzed with a smiley face.
“I guess this means I did it right,” Zinnia said, holding up her wrist.
Miguel nodded. “Everything is chipped. It’ll let you know if you didn’t pick the right item. The way they stock them is pretty clever— they don’t usually put things next to each other that could easily be confused. Still, mistakes happen. Now . . .”
The watch buzzed again, pointing her away from the shelving unit, down another long row. They walked until they reached a conveyor belt. The watch gave several buzzes again. Underneath the belt were piles of plastic bins nested inside each other. She took one, placed the package inside, and it whisked off, disappearing from sight.
“On to the next,” he said. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. Like I said, you’re new, first couple of weeks all you’re going to do is carry smaller stuff. Longer you’re here, the more complicated the work gets. Heavier items, or you get assigned to placing, which means you carry items from where they come in to the appropriate shelving unit. Word of warning: the bugs aren’t supposed to move when someone is hooked onto a shelving unit, but since we don’t always hook ourselves in . . . sometimes they do, and it’s like riding a bronco.”
“So what now?”
Miguel looked down at his own watch. “Technically, we have another hour free, where you can ask me questions. How would you feel about walking over to a break room, grabbing some water? Breaks are rare enough around here. Got to take them where you can.”
“Sure,” Zinnia said. She preferred to get to work—the mindless tedium of it would give her space to think—but she figured he might say something useful.
Miguel wasn’t exaggerating about what a haul it was to get to the break room. It took them fifteen minutes to find one. She had no sense of space, but he seemed to know the way. Halfway through the walk, Miguel pointed out she could say break room into her watch and it would direct her to the closest one.
They got to a room, found it mostly empty. A row of vending machines along one wall, two of them out of order, and a series of flat tables with stools bolted to them. On the wall, in great big cursive, it said: YOU MAKE ALL THINGS POSSIBLE!
Miguel got two bottles of water from a machine and placed them on a table. As Zinnia sat, he pushed a bottle toward her.
“Thanks,” she said, cracking the plastic top.
“I can’t stress it enough,” he said. “Make sure to stay hydrated.
That’s what gets most people. Dehydration.”
Zinnia took a sip, the water so cold it stung her teeth. “Anything else I should know?” she asked.
Miguel looked at her. Blinked a few times. As if maybe there was something he wanted to tell her but he wasn’t sure if he could trust her.
She tried to think of something that would translate to Hey, I’m cool, but finally, Miguel said, “Stay hydrated. Hit your numbers. Don’t complain. If you get hurt, walk it off. The less you have to talk to the managers, the better.” He took out his phone, typed something, and held it up for her to see.
Don’t even SAY the word union.
Zinnia nodded. “Got it.”
Miguel cleared the text from his phone. “How’s the apartment working out for you?”
“You have to think vertically. I get these wire baskets and hang them from the ceiling. Makes for easy storage.”
“You still live in one of those?” Zinnia asked. “Didn’t you say you were married?”
“We make it work.”
“I thought you could upgrade housing.”
“You can,” Miguel said. “But it’s expensive. My husband and I—he blew out his ankle so now he works in customer service—we’re saving our credits. He’s from Germany. We’re thinking of leaving, going there.”
Zinnia nodded. “Germany is nice.”
Miguel breathed in, let it out in a long, sad stream of air. “One day . . .”
Zinnia gave him a small smile. Something he might find comforting but that would also cover up the awkwardness, the pity she felt for this man, stuck in his monkey job, dreaming of leaving the country when there was a very good chance it was never going to happen.
Miguel looked at his CloudBand. “I guess that’s it. If you get jammed up on something you can say Miguel Velandres into the watch and it’ll find me. And like I said, you can say manager to find a white, but it’s better the less you have to bother with them.”
They dropped their water bottles into an overflowing recycling bin—a sign above it that said, THANK YOU FOR RECYCLING!—and stepped onto the floor.
“You ready?” Miguel asked. Zinnia nodded.
He raised his wrist. “Orientation complete.”
Zinnia’s wrist buzzed. Another arrow, beckoning her to move forward.
Miguel raised his hand. “Don’t linger. Never linger.”