It was muggy in the factory. Illow licked her dry dark brown lips and inhaled deeply. As she concentrated, she tasted the thick air, wet earth and rusting iron resting heavy on her tongue. Transmuting dirt into muslin was a mindless process, the hard part was keeping up with everyone else.
Illow’s hands cramped from the repetitive motions and she briefly flexed them under her padded gloves. She grabbed five handfuls of red dirt from the bucket on the far edge of the table and placed them onto the thick cast iron tray in front of her, spreading it thinly so as not to misshape the fabric it would become. When it was sufficiently smooth, she put the lid on the tray and fastened all four clamps around it. Winding up the lever tightly and then releasing, Illow pressed down on the top with her forearms. Beneath the machine, the metal table creaked.
The four octagonal runes inscribed on all the tray’s corners glowed crimson, slowly turning white under her attentive eye. She refrained from wiping the sweat that slipped from under her headscarf. Even if her cornrows would be soaking wet by the time she got home, Illow knew that if she let go of the tray’s covering for even a second, her arms would burn. A shiver crawled up her spine at the memory of yesterday’s casualty. The smell of the elderly woman’s burning flesh had haunted Illow’s sleep, shrill screams bouncing off concrete walls for what seemed like an eternity.
She mentally shook herself and cleared her thoughts. She had to focus on the task at hand. It was almost closing time. And since she hadn’t made a mistake all month, she'd be getting a raise after she clocked out. She needed that money.
When the light was so pale it was almost blinding, she leaned her full weight against the tray. Illow glanced up briefly to see that most of her co-workers were on the same stage as herself. She exhaled in relief. A cramp shot through her left hand but she only grunted and ignored it. She couldn’t afford to be distracted. After the light died, she slowly lifted the lid and placed it to the side. Within the dark tray lay a slip of muslin, purely white and thin as paper.
Illow took off a glove and carefully smoothed a finger over the fabric’s surface. There were no deformities. She took a moment to check everyone’s progress.
“What the fuck is this?” a voice boomed out from the side of Illow and she jumped. The room fell silent. “What are we supposed to do with this thing? Sell it?”
Illow peeked out from the corner of her eye. To her relief, the overseer wasn’t speaking to her. The man stood towered over the redhead beside Illow. The strip of muslin clenched in his fist was a shrunken, grayed thing that smelled of ash. It was ruined. The redhead kept her head down and eyes glued to the floor, looking like she wanted to sink into it. Illow’s stomach churned a little as she turned back to her own fabric and carefully folded it into a small square.
“Not gonna say anything then? You alchemists get more arrogant every day, I tell ya.” The overseer scoffed, dropping the burned fabric to the cracked, dirty floor and straightening his finely made white jacket. He gestured his pale hand at the cowering woman. “You know what to do. Let's go.”
The redhead obeyed, tears gathering in her eyes though she said nothing. Illow pressed her lips together and quietly breathed out through her nose, hands trembling. She put her muslin in the nearly full bin beneath her table and started the process again. A few minutes after the door closed behind the overseer, it opened again. A blonde, brown-skinned woman came out, wearing the same thin gray jumpsuit and black running shoes as everyone else.
As the new woman took the place of the old, Illow fastened the clamps on her cast iron tray. That mistake was the fifth one the red head woman had made this week; that was grounds for termination. Fear tightened around Illow’s bones like a snake poised to strike. Cal Ago Inc. had a long list of people begging to enter the company. Management could replace an ineffective worker in seconds. Illow blinked rapidly as she pressed her forearms against the tray’s lid. She couldn’t afford to be replaced.
Eight more pieces of muslin were put in her bin before sound re-emerged from her co-workers. She shifted uncomfortably, her chest tightening as she looked at the clock. Twenty more minutes. Surely nothing bad could happen in that time. To the right of her, Michele hummed an upbeat tune under her breath and winked when their eyes met. The dark-skinned Tamil woman never failed to flirt and Illow was more than fond of her. She gave a tense smile back as she grabbed more dirt from the bucket. Her anxiety loosened just a bit.
Illow inhaled deeply, centering herself as she wound up the lever. Focus. She went through the process again and again, the expertly folded fabric piling up until the bin was nearly full. Soon there was only enough dirt left for one more piece of fabric and a few more minutes to go. A side door slid open with a bang and out stepped a man in a red suit with matching leather gloves and shoes. District Manager Boyd hardly ever visited factory F7, but when he did silence followed in his wake.
He walked through the isles for a while, bending down to inspect the muslin and watching the machine parts with a critical eye. Boyd’s face was impassive every time Illow peeked out to find him. He never said a word.
Suddenly he stopped and licked his lips. Standing behind the dreadlocked woman directly across from Illow, Boyd pressed a hand against the helpless thing’s neck, watching over her shoulder as she let the lever unwind itself. “Pretty fast worker, aren’t you?” he asked lightly.
Lips trembling, the nervous woman responded, “Yes sir.”
The man watched a bead of sweat trail down her face and wiped it away, his fingers lingering on her gleaming very dark brown cheeks. “What's your name?”
“Adele is what my mother called me.”
Illow unfastened the clamps, lifted the cast iron top, and took off a glove, smoothing the muslin lightly. With her heart beating in sympathy for the woman across from her, she took off her other glove and folded the fabric perfectly.
“Ms. Adele, would you like to hear an offer I have for you?”
Illow peeked from under her eyelashes to see District Manager Boyd lean against Adele’s table, a welcoming smile on his face. Her stomach turned at the sight.
The night shift’s closing bell screeched out suddenly, nearly startling Illow. Adele jumped. District Manager Boyd laughed. As everyone began to pack up their bins and drop them off near the large double doors, Illow heard Adele’s whisper of, “I’m willing.”
Boyd gently took hold of Adele’s arm and led her out of the door he’d come from. This time, after the two were well and gone, no one spoke. There were some people like the red-head woman who only ever experienced misfortune, who didn’t learn as fast as others and couldn’t move quick enough. And then there were people like Adele. People whose beauty made them destined for greater things, even if “greater things” meant becoming the concubine of a man notorious for his lust. At least Adele hadn’t been burned in an accident or beaten to near death for a mistake. Illow hushed the inner voice that hissed how none of those options were any good either way. Ignoring the pit in her stomach, she lined up in the queue behind Michele.
An hour and a half passed before she finally slid her card through the machine. Watching as an extra one thousand and ninety nine dollars was transferred into her account, Illow sighed softly. She was unsettled, she had to admit that to herself as she left F7’s building.
Michele intertwined their fingers, glancing at Illow from the corner of her eye as she sang a slow song at low volume. Illow found that she couldn’t smile this time.
They passed the towering metal gates and the murmurs around them picked up as the other women began gossiping about the day’s events. Ahead of them all, the men's sector's gates flew open. Cat calls rang out from both sides as the crowds collapsed into one. The sky bled orange as the sun rose. It didn’t feel like a new day.
In the distance, the sparkle marble and glass skyscrapers of the city proper stood majestic. Millions of them forming a bright, almost technicolor painting of something otherworldly. When Illow had first come to this city, it had been a sign of what she could achieve. But she had been aiming too high.
“At least—,” Michele spoke up after they’d entered their apartment building, also made of concrete, and boarded the lift, “At least no one died today.”
Illow swallowed thickly, the heavy rattling of the floor allowed her to keep her silence for a while. When she reached her dorm, which was right across from Michele’s, she responded. “It could’ve been worse. We did good, right?”
Michele nodded while unlocking her door. “Yep.”
Illow swallowed again. “See you in the morning,” she said lamely. She closed her door after listening to Michele’s faint response and released a deep sigh. Her home stood as she’d left it; the larger room was taken up by a twin sized bed, a small refrigerator and sink, and a thin wood desk. The smaller room — more of a closet than anything else— was dedicated to the wet shower, toilet, and a small mirror. It wasn’t much, but it was far better than the communal space she’d been forced to share with the eastern district’s low level workers. Being a digger had been torture.
Illow flopped onto the bed after peeling off the top of her jumpsuit. She stared up at the low-slung ceiling, counting the hairline cracks and stains that lived there. Her life wasn’t as good as it was when she’d lived in her small town, but at least she didn’t have it as bad as she could. That college degree had paid off, now if only she could pay off those student loans.
She huffed a laugh, breathing in the scent of the old vanilla candle Michele had bought her. Climbing under the threadbare covers, Illow’s mind flitted back to her family. It could all be so much worse.
Maybe she should propose marriage to Michele. The company’s benefits for married couples would do them both some good. And who didn’t like a little extra money and some free time?