Apple blossom petals dance and fall on a light breeze that chills my face. An electric sun shines. The images change to a bird’s eye view of green hills, a waterfall, a spinning globe, projected onto walls of continuously flowing water. Between piles laid out in a grid, flowering plants and trees root down into islands of silicon sand set in the floor. All around, differential potential generates the electricity that powers this money-is-no-object façade, behind which the Fab and a hundred-fold data stores and DNA silos roar. The positive aromas of ozone and fragrant happiness mingle in the air. Everything is perfect. Every brilliant, shimmering surface gleams with pride. I eye smile at masked colleagues in the gathering crowd. It’s all I can do to show friendliness to women whose identity I do not know. We are all the same small size, chosen for our fine and dextrous fingers.
The changing room opens and we file in, keeping the required distance apart. Inside, all is smooth and clinical to touch: the self-cleaning and healing nanocellulose materials are microbiotic, doped in patchouli and lemon balm. I undress under an LED poster that insists ‘Fortune favours the bold’ and put my precious wristwatch in my locker. Together in the hammam, we scrub at dead skin cells; even the smallest spec in the air will destroy months of work. Our ritual ablution over, hair scraped back, we each step into the same one-size-fits-all boiler suit that conforms well, though provides little protection, in this, one of the most dangerous places in the world. After DNA swabbing and facial recognition, we enter the air lock, where we don white fire-resistant hoods, boots and vinyl gloves, and walk the last section across sticky, underfoot matting, buffeted by jets of purified air that removes any last dust and fluff. Within the shell, I have only the soapy smell of chamomile and my thoughts.
Entering the Clean Room, a vast cacophonous space opens up on row upon row of workbenches. The sound of industrial machinery punctuates and air booms, forced through the exits and perforated tiles in the ceiling and walls. Clouds of poisonous gas from acid baths and wet and dry etchers circulate. Navigating the aisles, I pass hundreds of highly trained technicians, each woman carefully moving between processes with extreme caution and respect to the hazardous conditions. Any sudden movements are frightening.
We are making the smallest computer processors on the planet. Though much of the process is done by machines, we still make by hand, carving circuit board patterns on silicon wafers. Artisans of the unseen, working at a scale impossible to imagine, rearranging atoms to make switches 10,000 times smaller than a human hair, on chips that hold billions of transistors, on processors no bigger than my fingernail.
At my workbench, my tools are laid out neatly: vacuum wands, plastic tweezers, prongs and a quartz crucible; alongside containers of polysilicon, arsenic, boron and phosphorous. Settling into my shift, I work with precision and gloved hands in the vacuum chamber, even the tiniest defect will distort the grid and the chips won’t work. I melt silicon-rich sand to form an ingot, that I cool and slice into wafers and polish to a flawless surface. Then I make the stencil to create the mask that will print the pattern. I tenderly etch, wash, and dope each brittle surface many times, before back-plating with gold, and layering the transistors and metal connections. As I build, I imagine I am building a house, my house, a home, next to other homes, on a main road, joined to hundreds of interconnecting roads, linking every aspect of our regulated and controlled lives.
Each wafer I make houses 90 microchips and each boat of 25 wafers is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. If a single part is damaged, the whole chip must be thrown away. Every time I load, carry or unload a boat, it is like carrying the weight of the world in my hands.
After 8 weeks, I send each completed boat, vacuum-sealed, by the circulatory hub to the dark factory somewhere else in the complex, where robots will test, cut and package each chip into a processor and assemble it with the CPU. My charges released into the world, I start anew.
“JINGLE: This is CloudCom News, broadcasting to you. Election primaries for Media President, set for the Autumn, are underway. Prime Influencer Rai is campaigning for App Votes by hologram all over the country. Our company probe Spirit-1 is due to land on Jupiter; within 1.5 miles it has sent back its first pictures. This will be the first successful landing, beating our competitors. Our cargo ships return from Mars later this week with new batches of penicillin, lithium and oil. A group of five off-worlders state they HAVE seen aliens. Blockchain is up. Violence is down. Production is up. Air quality is up. COMP-EX share prices indicate strong growth, up by 400% on this time last month. Big shout out to our workers. Remember – You are making Tomorrow.”
The Company news memes broadcast into my hood are the only interruptions to the otherwise tense and monotonous work in this eerie, round-the-clock nursery. It’s the twelfth hour of a twelve-hour day; my sixth of a seven-day week. Exhausted, I move slowly, enjoying my theft of Company time. Any slower and my App will give me a warning and deduct pay. Two warnings and you’re out. I had one a few years ago for a micron scratch.
Twenty minutes later, the claxon signals the end of the shift. As I leave, another woman takes my place. Weighed in and weighed out, back in the changing room, I remove my suit. Recalling how beautiful and crisp the contaminated garment was, I put it in the bin where it is scanned for mineral retrieval and recycling.
At the outer valve, there are only a few meters of outside to walk before the undervator. The pleasant smell stops, and the stink starts. Aggressive odours of cordite, industrial exhausts and human waste radiate from the marshland beyond. Small intense landfill fires burn, releasing acrid black smoke. I try to understand the extent of this place, but its infrastructure is out of sight. In the middle distance, miles of negotiated settlements sprawl in the no man’s land between the North and South free trade zones. Teenage police gangs shake people down at the perimeter with armed drones. Protesters shout “Shame on you, Shame”, and “You are rich because the rest is poor”.
I pause to wind my watch, taking the time from the space stations passing with exact regularity overhead. It is 5am. The sun is up, and the moon lingers. The Eyenet Borealis is still visible, generated by the Company satellite grid that monitors all communications worldwide. I see a flash, followed by staccato bang bang bang; the recognisable sound of homemade nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose explosives detonating violently. Shadowy figures fall to the ground summarily executed. Security turns away and so do I, afraid, forced to remember all I have lost.
At our quarters, I step on and off the upavator with skill. Before entering, I call for my roommate. “Celeste! Hey Hun. It’s me, time for your shift. Time to go!”
Celeste emerges through the makeshift curtain, “Good to see you made it home in one piece. See you later Tuuli. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” she laughs, swinging on to the downavator and away. These small human moments are precious. I will see her next when her return marks my time to leave.
I leave my sliders side by side at the threshold and manoeuvre into the small space, careful not to disturb our two neat piles of personal belongings. A bouquet of incense squirts. The musky perfume does little to disguise the smell of used air trapped by the low ceiling. We share the bed and blanket, as close as anyone can be. No one else enters the physical space in which I move.
I tell the safe to unlock and take out my wind-up radio, prohibited in this world of surveillance and company-approved technology and put in my App. My life is on it – my bitcoin and my data. As a ‘customer’, the Company charges me a fee for acting as my work agent. Each day it deducts its 100,000,000 Satoshi fee and the rent and energy usage for my shelf, the little left over affords me a few basic supplies. I worry more about my data though, as I no longer own my real-world identity, I must lease it. If I lose my licence or it expires, my freedom to work expires with it.
With hands sensitised by prolonged sweating in the vinyl gloves, I put my sleepwear on, enjoying the repetition of worn clothes that fit closely and warmly, and begin my ritual of self-care, anxious about the side effects of making the wafers. My immune system is failing; my body is a site of microbiological war. I wash weeping eyes and sores in my nose with purified water from the hose, drink to swallow a black-market multivitamin and flush my system. After meditating, I make and eat a simple meal in bed and watch the rolling news, the usual compilation of rating boosting murders and whitewashed propaganda on DTV. On the dot of the fifth hour, everything turns off except for a low red light, so I lie down to sleep and dream of my husband and two girls. With my index finger, I trace the words a previous occupant has scratched on the ceiling, “Your daughter is a terrorist.”
It is not long since I came out of the Transformation Through Education camp. I have learnt to be a good actor, show my allegiance, recite the manifesto and labour well. Compliance guarantees some safety. Using the pandemics as a pretext, the Company reduced our rights and freedoms. I am quiet; don’t drink or use nicotine or amphetamines, unlike my colleagues. My passions are gone, though even now, I can’t say no.
On the way into my next shift, I watch millions of starlings forced to swarm in the sky, stopped from roosting by a Company man with a laser. Protesters are at the gates again, shouting and waving placards “Another woman has leapt” and “Don’t let the floor bots sweep then away”. A drone buzzes close by, playing the sound of a woman screaming and dropping jackfruit stink bombs that smells of dung. Rumours about jumpers abound, but I have seen no evidence, and if there was, there is nothing I can do.
Before changing, I void my bladder; once inside my suit, I won’t be able to go until my shift ends. In the cubicle, I take a little longer, stealing time again. Rubbing my hands with alcohol, I look at my face in the mirror, etched with age and fatigue. The starched and lustrous uniform waiting for me offers little hope, as once again, I leave the world and the familiar feeling of isolation sets in.
From high up on the gangways, our managers watch us intently. As I am looked down on, I, in turn, look down into the microscope. It is a vertiginous drop to another world. I am looking for misalignments in the patterns that indicate a scratch or stray particle on my wafers. I am nervous to find anything amiss; any discovery will reduce the chip yield, triggering an investigation that will shut down the Clean Room until the cause is found, and could lead to my relocation or termination.
This automated world is not what it seems. It is not run by artificial intelligence; but by millions of anonymous people working in the digital industries. Hidden away in secretive buildings, inside giant camouflaged domes, shielded by firewalls that scramble prying Eyes; able to withstand supply-chain raids and competitor airstrikes, rolling blackouts and solar events.
Life here in the Valleys is at risk. After mining and manufacturing were destroyed, industry resumed in part due to 3D printing oil-based polymers from digital files, connecting the ravaged communities to a New Silk Road of bonded labour, electronics, white goods and genocide. Those whose jobs were taken by the AI were compensated with Universal Wage; the rest, like me, were press-ganged into new forms of slavery. The AI have better rights than us.
Our Company boss is so wealthy he lives in his own country on the other side of the world, safe from the nuclear winds and the chaos. A man mad with money made from deep surveillance of Company customers who disclosed everything to their Apps, a man obsessed with getting ahead in the space race. His corrupt wealth, hidden offshore, could solve all our problems. Working in an owner-run country, we are prey to their caprices. The pace of my work, the volume of wafers I am expected to make, is becoming more dangerous. When there’s an accident, there’s no intervention, nobody cares. We are replaceable.
Abruptly, my brooding thoughts are interrupted by an external voice inside my hood. The App announces, “Your chip yield is low. You are being disciplined. You will be reassigned if you do not make up the loss within 48 hours. May I remind you; your contract expects you to arrive, work, perform, leave and pay on time.”
The App sets us against each other to provoke higher yields. A good yield brings more Satoshi, better food, or an hour off. Speeding up slightly, I imagine myself on another planet. When skies are clear on several continents simultaneously, you can see the commercial transports leaving. Yet here I am, reprimanded by robots, nurturing the invisible. The problem is that, if people can’t see it, they think it doesn’t exist.
Another shift passes. The claxon calls. My App clocks me on and off, calculates my deductions. Outside, I see the placards. A shoddy form of disenfranchised collectivism. Oil cans smoke.
When I get back, I call out for Celeste, but someone unexpected emerges.
“Nice to meet you,” she says, coming close to my face, smelling my air for clues about who I am and what I’m like.
“Nice to meet you, too. I’m Tuuli.”
“Esen.” She slides past me and away.
Celeste’s few possessions have been replaced. With horror, I realise she has jumped. What the protestors are saying is true. I free-fall into understanding and grief, recover and prepare for a new friendship in split seconds. My heart is heavy and my head full. I spend the evening listening to pirate networks. “A message to our comrades. Pixel slaves. Algorithmic exiles. Rise up. Resist. People are dying in unprecedented numbers. We must act. Fabbers. Tell us where you are so we can liberate you. Tell us where you are so we can stop production. Share your location?”
Guilt sticks my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Not only is working here deadly – the product of my labour kills people. It weaponises air. The chips from my wafers control the delivery and dispersal mechanisms for odour dispensing military, stealth and environmental weapons – olfactory products that modify human behaviours, perfumes for the elites and deadly clouds for the masses. The scent of domestic harmony and smells to charm a lover or influence someone’s opinion. Smells to control a crowd or sow unrest, hold people captive. It is smell that keeps me here.
It was a clever new market, making something out of nothing. Our biological reliance on clean air makes it profitable. At first, purified air was manufactured and distributed by the Company for domestic use against pathogens and air pollution. The carbon corporates didn’t phase fossil fuel out, so there was a permanent haze of orbiting carbon that caused decades of gloom. It was too hot, too cold, there was no drinkable water, genetically modified crops failed, livestock died. Hungry people fled to the mega cities and the less fortunate to the mega camps, and we, the people, were declared human biohazards that needed to be controlled.
No sooner than my head has touched the pillow, I am woken by Esen. I scrape myself up and go. Looking into the microscope, I zoom in scale: this one is so scratched, it looks like a war zone down there. This batch is lost and so I am. I have nothing to lose. It dawns on me that in making the switch that keeps this foul operating system going, I have in my hands the means to stop it, at least interrupt it. I take a good set of blank wafers to photolithography and change the image on the mask, altering the grid by just a few microns. This batch won’t be compatible with the other components; the abusive technology these chips are destined for will be unable to function.
I have eight weeks before the changes are noticed. In eight weeks I can do a lot of damage. For a little while, the materials will not be missed and my nano sabotage will go undetected. I quieten the sensible voice in my head and work on outwardly as normal. I have joined the resistance. In my mind, I witness the complete breakdown of the system in all places simultaneously. Imagining it, I move towards it, and on to the next process, I pass the UV light through the mask and etch the 3-word location of this fab onto the grid. Rides.waltz.incur
Hours later in the changing room, remorse floods in. I have acted rashly and can’t undo what I have done. I smell strongly of fear. My molecular disruption has put the lives of the women I work with at risk. Somehow, I need to let them know. I have been slow to understand what’s important, what I’m fighting for. This isn’t my struggle but our struggle. None of us are safe. I am making tomorrow.
“Hello, Esen. Time for work.”
“Hello, Tuuli. How are you? It seems they have been keeping you busy. You look tired.”
“I am. Listen…”
“I need to talk with you.”
“Talk with me? Of course… How?”
Laura Moreton-Griffiths is a British artist, writer and curator working in London. She works predominantly with speculative fiction, world-building for animation, moving image and performance, to address discriminatory power structures and social practices, seeking personal and societal agency. Her work is held in private collections in the UK and internationally.