The Warehouse book

Zinnia grabbed the CloudBand off the charging mat and strapped it around her wrist. It buzzed and said: Good morning, Zinnia!

Then: Your shift is due to start in 40 minutes. You should leave soon. The words were replaced by a pulsing arrow that pointed toward the door. She stood, turned in a circle. The arrow spun, never leaving the door. As she stepped outside the watch buzzed against her wrist and the arrow swung to the left, pointing toward the elevators.

She followed the arrow down to the tram, where a massive group of people waited. There was a spectrum of polo colors, but mostly red. A tram car slid into the station, filled up, and left. Zinnia watched two more. When she managed to make it aboard the fourth, the space filled until she was shoulder to shoulder with the people around her, all of them doing the commuter shuffle, elbows tight to their bodies, shifting their weight with the movement of the car to keep upright.

The crowd getting off at the main warehouse facility were mostly young, fit. No older folks, no heavy folks, no one with any clear disabilities. They all drifted toward the end of a long queue that snaked around a large room, marching through lanes cordoned off by stanchions.

At the end of the line were three turnstiles, a revolving set of metal arms that only one person could step through at a time, after scanning their watch at the disc on the front.

A series of video monitors was built into the walls, all of them showing a clip in which a man bent over to pick up a box, arching his back. A buzzer sounded and a red X appeared on the image. The same man bent at the knees, keeping his spine straight, and there was a ding and a green check mark appeared.

Then, a woman calmly walking with a box to a conveyor belt. The screen froze, and the words Walk, don’t run appeared.

Then, a man carrying a box that seemed to be too heavy for him.

Inform a manager if you can’t lift an object heavier than 25 pounds.

Then, a woman climbing the side of a shelving unit, like a monkey. Buzz. Red X. Always use your safety harness.

When it was Zinnia’s turn at the turnstile, she stepped through and walked down a hallway into a space so massive it made her a little dizzy, trying to process it all.

Shelving units stretched as far as she could see. The inside of the place had a horizon line. She couldn’t see the outer walls from where she was standing, just mammoth support columns, reaching up to the vastness of the ceiling, which was lower than she would have expected. Three stories. Maybe four. The shelving units themselves were twice her height, and they slid across the polished concrete floor, spinning around and switching spots with each other. Men and women in red polo shirts dashed back and forth between them, digging out packages. The space was snaked with conveyor belts marked in yellow, items flying across the rollers.

Spinning metal and slapping feet and the soft whir of machinery melded into a symphony of chaos. It smelled of motor oil and cleaning supplies and something else. That gym smell. Aerosolized sweat and rubber. The air was both cool and slightly humid. Zinnia stood and watched this great machine, dancing, oblivious to her, almost to itself.

Her wrist buzzed. Another arrow. It prompted her to walk forward, until it buzzed again, the arrow switching, moving her to the right. She glanced up and down, from the watch to the space in front of her, careful to avoid the red runners and the spinning machines, having to stop every dozen steps to let someone pass so she wouldn’t get knocked on her ass.

So much for Walk, don’t run.

After a few more turns she realized the buzzing was different for each new direction. The side of the watch closest to her wrist joint buzzed when it wanted her to go right. Back or forth, it would buzz the bottom or the top. It took a minute, but once she noticed it, she couldn’t not notice. A few more turns and she found she could navigate by feel without looking down.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

She found herself at a far wall, or maybe just a freestanding structure in the middle of the warehouse floor. She couldn’t tell. Leaning against the wall was a young Latino man. Strong, hammered forearms with curly black hair.

“Miguel,” he said, extending his hand. The band of his watch was fabric, and dark green, like fresh leaves. “I’m here to help you get acclimated.”

“Zinnia,” she said, returning the shake. The skin of his hand was cracked and callused.

“Okay, mi amiga, you seem to have gotten the knack of the directionals. So, let’s walk around a bit and I’ll explain the mechanics of all this. Then we can get started.”

Zinnia held up her wrist. “So this really is your lifeline, isn’t it?” “Only thing you’ll ever need to get around. Follow me.”

The Cloudband

Miguel pushed off the wall and strode along it, the expanse of the warehouse floor to their left, and to their right: offices, break rooms, bathrooms, broken up by long stretches of walls that featured video screens playing a clip of the commercial they’d watched on the bus ride over.

The young mother. The bandages.

“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Cloud, I don’t know what I’d do.”

There was added footage. Happy, shiny people working at Cloud. People picking items out of bins, placing them on conveyor belts. The occasional testimonial from a satisfied customer.

An Asian kid in a dorm room.

“I’d never have passed my midterm if I didn’t get that textbook in time.”

A young black girl in front of a dilapidated house.

“There are no bookstores or libraries in my neighborhood. If it weren’t for Cloud I wouldn’t have any books at all.”

An elderly white man sitting in an old-fashioned living room.

“It’s hard for me to make it to the store these days. Thank you, Cloud.”

“Welcome to the floor,” Miguel said, spreading his arms. “That’s what we call it. All these pretty folks are reds.” He pinched the fabric of his polo shirt. “The whites are the managers. They roam around and keep an eye on things. Speaking of, if you have an issue, just press the crown of the watch and say manager. It’ll send you to the closest one who’s free.”

Zinnia looked down at her watch. Wondered if it listened only when the crown was pressed. Probably not.

“So the gig is pretty simple,” Miguel said. “Seriously, the watch does most of the work for you. It’ll give you directions to an item. You find the item. You pick it up. It’ll give you directions to a particular belt. You drop the item. Boom. Next one. You do that for nine hours. Two fifteen-minute breaks for the bathroom, plus a half hour for lunch.”

“You can’t just go to the bathroom?” Zinnia asked.

“Let me introduce you to the yellow line, mi amiga.” Miguel held up the watch, tapped the face. Running along the bottom, hair-thin, was a green line. “It doesn’t look so bad now, but once you get started, this tracks your progress. Green means you’re making rate. If you’re lagging behind, you drop into yellow. You hit red, your employee ranking plummets. So don’t hit red.”

“These folks are really obsessed with their colors, aren’t they?” Miguel nodded. “Lot of people here who don’t speak a word of inglés. Anyway, to your question, too much time in the bathroom, you fall behind. Best to hold it. And a thing about breaks . . .” He stopped. Raised an eyebrow, as if he needed to emphasize the point. “You get a half hour for lunch. If you’re all the way out in the hinterlands, it could take up to twenty minutes to make it to a break room. The algorithm is supposed to keep that from happening, but it happens. My advice—the protein bars in the vending machines keep pretty well. Carry one in your back pocket. Better to get the calories.”

“What about water?”

Miguel shrugged. “There are water fountains everywhere. Stay

hydrated. You’d be amazed with so much space, but it can get hot as hell in here sometimes.” He looked down at her feet and grimaced. “And get some sneakers. Order them tonight. Trust me—those boots are not going to feel nice in a few hours.”

“Yeah, I figured that,” Zinnia said. “So you pick stuff up, drop it on the conveyor. What about larger items?”

“Different part of the floor,” Miguel said. “And you only ever get there once you’ve been here a bit. Entry level is strictly stuff under twenty pounds. Hold on . . .”

He put his arm up, not touching Zinnia, but making sure it was close enough to get her to stop walking. A girl in a red polo flew past. Zinnia had barely seen her in her peripheral vision. The girl’s hair was whipping around her face and she was sprinting, hard, something tucked under her arm. Face nearly purple from exertion, and maybe tears. She hit a corner, turned, and disappeared.

“Building on fire?” Zinnia asked.

“Getting to the end of her shift,” Miguel said. “Way the algorithm works, you’re supposed to have enough time to walk to your item, pick it up, and bring it to a belt, all at a brisk and deliberate pace, right? Doesn’t really work like that. Sometimes the bugs have things moved around. Sometimes stuff isn’t shelved right, so you lose time looking for it. Sometimes by the end of your shift, you’re motoring to replenish that line.” He pointed to another young man hauling ass down a row and disappearing. “You come in too far behind too many times, your rating goes down.”

“Bugs?” Zinnia asked.

Miguel stepped down an aisle, waved for her to follow. He brought her to a shelving unit, crouched, and pointed underneath, to a little yellow dome on wheels, hooked into the bottom of the unit. Then he kept pointing, along the floor, to stickers with scanner codes placed on the concrete.

“The little yellow things that move them around, we call them bugs,” he said. “So, how about we do our first pick, so you can get a feel for it?”

“Sure.”

Miguel raised his wrist to his face, pressed the crown. “Preliminary training complete, on to step two.”

Zinnia’s wrist buzzed. Another arrow. Miguel placed his hand in the air, palm up, and bowed.

“After you, mi amiga.”

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?”

“The shoebox?”

“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.”

The Warehouse facility
  • The Warehouse

  • ____________________
    'A gripping read, a literary blockbuster with brains. Horribly compelling' The Observer
    'Featuring an explosive twist-in-the-tail climax, this terrifying hybrid of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Zamyatin's We is a triumph' The Guardian
    ___________________
    In a world ravaged by bankruptcy and unemployment, Cloud is the only company left worth working for. But what will it cost you?

    Amidst the wreckage of America, Cloud reigns supreme. Cloud brands itself not just as an online storefront, but as a global saviour. Yet, beneath the sunny exterior, lurks something far more sinister.

    Paxton never thought he’d be working Security for the company that ruined his life, much less that he’d be moving into one of their sprawling live-work facilities. But compared to what’s left outside, perhaps Cloud isn’t so bad. Better still, through his work he meets Zinnia, who fills him with hope for their shared future.

    Except that Zinnia is not what she seems. And Paxton, with his all-access security credentials, might just be her meal ticket.

    As Paxton and Zinnia’s agendas place them on a collision course, they’re about to learn just how far the Cloud will go to make the world a better place.

    To beat the system, you have to be inside it.

    What people are saying about The Warehouse:
    'Literary blockbuster’ Observer
    ‘A triumph’ Guardian
    ‘Brilliantly imagined’ BBC Culture
    ‘Inventive, addictive’ Paul Tremblay
    ‘Thrilling’ Blake Crouch
    ‘An Orwellian thriller’ Publisher’s Weekly
    ‘Wildly imaginative yet terrifyingly real’ Riley Sager
    ‘Taut, tense and masterful’ Chuck Wendig
    'One of the breakout books of the year' Barnes & Noble
    'Holds up a dark mirror to our times' San Francisco Chronicle
    'A jet black satire of modern consumerism' Waterstones
    'A thriller of ideas ... taut action, incisive cultural commentary ... shades of Fahrenheit 451 and Jurassic Park.' USA Today

  • Buy the book

Related articles