the swarm

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

The machinery continued unceasingly day and night, indiscriminate toward lunch hours and shift changes. Very little human involvement was necessary at the plant. There was a front-end loader who guided the shipments into the loading bay, but even the transfer of the raw materials was done by floating robotic arms and moving floors. Up in the crow’s nest, a glassed-in pod positioned high above the electronic ballet playing out in the hanger, two managers watched. But they could not watch constantly; it was too overwhelming. There were never any changes.

Most of the time Fred and Susanne, who held the day shift charge, sat at opposite ends of the enclosure, communicating only during the thirty minutes allotted at the noon whistle for eating. Susanne read books, all kinds from Tolstoy to Verne. On the wall behind there was an insurmountable collection she was chipping away at. Every fifteen minutes Susanne scanned the factory and checked the screens on which live footage was broadcast of every moving part in the facility. Seeing nothing out of order, Susanne returned to Robinson Crusoe.

Fred played himself in endless games of chess. For the first few months every match ended in a stalemate, but he learned to bisect his brain. Fred did not know what move Fred was contemplating, he saw only Fred’s strategy. As a result, Fred lost at the exact same frequency with which Fred won.

“Checkmate,” he’d say every forty-five minutes.

“Touché,” Fred relented, tipping over the cross-bearing monarch. It was then that Fred performed his checks.

There was only one night manager at a time, and the responsibility alternated between Gloria and Kit. Kit intermittently woke between alarms set every half hour. Gloria knitted. She started with mittens and socks, large enough only for infant appendages. Then she graduated to sweaters and impractical pants, colorful and gaudy, unflattering in form, anything to will her way to the morning whistle.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Hundreds of times a day, maybe thousands, for no one could keep track except the computer, frozen bricks of protein dropped onto the conveyer belt. After a heating, a shaping, a super-freezing, and every pocket of air sucked out, the raw shipment transformed into neat packages.

After the thunk of the bricks on the belt, they ventured off to the packaging operation. Once piled up in neat stacks, enough to fill a shipping container, the loader popped out of a hut and guided the collection to the transportation.

It was a flawless operation, swifter, cleaner, and more efficient than the old days, where cows and pigs, chickens and goats, had to be raised and slaughtered. Insects were grown in a matter of hours and then super-chilled before being sent to the factory. They required few nutrients, and even less care. No one had ethical issues with farming those nasty creatures, their beady eyes never seeing natural light, spindly arms and legs at acute angles crunched into a tight mass. People could hardly tell the difference in the flavor, and they’d finally mastered the texture. No longer was it mealy.

Low costs were predictably well-received, and every measure was taken to distract consumers from the true ingredients. Over time, bugs lost their nefarious reputation.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Another brick. Thunk. Another and another and so on and so forth they dropped through the sunlight and the moonlight, under dark, cloudy skies, and new moons. Inside the factory the outside world did not exist. For Susanne there were other worlds to tend to on the page. Fred was only one move away from winning and just as close to loosing. After a quick check, Kit could go back to sleep. Gloria was nearly done with the first batch of orange and purple tracksuits that would never be worn.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Susanne was on the last chapter of her most recent endeavor, the closing stages of a trilogy. She’d lost interest in the characters and the story some time in the second book, when she felt the plot points and background information were repeated unnecessarily. Susanne didn’t care about the characters anymore, but she never gave up on a novel, because the only thing she had was completing those works. Once she closed a book mid-way. Once. Never to open it again. Not because it was poorly written, in fact she rather enjoyed its language, but Susanne could not handle the grotesque imagery, the vibrant description of heinous acts. Her imagination was too active. Horror was the only genre away from which she readily steered.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Susanne did not hear the clicks and thunk anymore, like the second hand of a clock it fell deaf upon over-exposed ears. But a whoosh? That was not normal. Without marking her page, Susanne threw the book down with a thud.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Again with the whoosh. Susanne shot to her feet and darted from screen to screen, scanned the massive factory for abnormalities. Fred heard the book connect with the concrete floor and accidentally knocked over a bishop.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Fred asked.

“The conveyor belt!”

“Yes, yes, what about it?” he said annoyed by the disturbance.

“We have to shut it down, something’s wrong!”

“Nonsense, nothing is wrong. Nothing is ever wrong. It’s all very precise. Can’t be shut down. We have to make the quotas, don’t you know that?”

“But the sound! There’s a whoosh and not a thunk. It’s always been a thunk.”

Thunk? What are you talking about?”

“Oh Fred, what do you know? You’re so lost in that game you don’t know up from down.”

“Maybe if you pulled your nose from those books once in a while you could clean out your ears!” he barked defensively.

Susanne grabbed the binoculars that hung dormant on the hook by their jackets. In her tenure, she’d used the magnifiers only once, on her first day when she gazed with wonderment at the technology. It did not take long for her to cool to the advanced mechanisms. They were not impressive, just menial and never-ending. Eyesight enhanced, she looked to the conveyer belt where neat bricks were not traveling equidistantly in a line as they were programed. Amorphous blobs splattered on the moving surface.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Ten or twenty, maybe a hundred more whooshes in the period of indecision, of uncertainty, of hesitation.

“There! There! Look!” she screamed, pressing the rubber eye pieces to Fred’s face.

“What? Stop that, you’re hurting me!”

“Look at the belt, Fred!”

Fred snatched the binoculars irritably. “Give me those!” His jaw widened. “We have to shut it down! How do we shut it down?”

“See? Now you believe me!” cried Susanne.

“This is no time for squabbling. How do we turn it off?”

“I don’t know! I thought you knew how this all worked!”

“Me? I thought you were the expert!”

“Hah! Isn’t this just perfect? The one time something happens!”

The click-click-click-click-whoosh was now joined by another sound, amplifying exponentially with each passing minute. It started as a white noise, a fan on low in a back room. The floodlights darkened, unwelcome mood lighting. At first indescribable, when vibration joined the noise, a chilling sense of enlightenment overcame Susanne and Fred.

Click-click…

Clicking went inaudible. Whooshing was no more, not to say anything of the distant memory of thunking. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz was the auditory tidal wave sweeping through. Soon the industrial luminescence reduced to the twinkle of a few fireflies. Then the world went pitch black. Their ears bled blackness, an outpouring felt but not seen. Not even fingers inserted deep into canals could stem the flow or deaden the excruciating buzzing.

Beep-beep-beep-beep-clink.

The driver stopped reversing when the shipping container made contact with the buffer. He didn’t watch anymore, allowing the clink to guide him. As he climbed out of the driver’s seat, the man spit out brownish-green saliva laced with tobacco. He glanced at the display beside the massive bay door. Nothing was irregular. Times and weights were the exact same except the most recent.

But the driver did not notice, because he saw what he expected to see. Colorblind, the red appeared no different than the green. The man put in his earplugs, not wanted to hear the pounding, mechanical click-click-click-click-thunk.With a yawn and a readjustment of the wad under his lip from left to right, the driver punched the bay door opener. So effective was the hearing protection that the bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz did not register as the door lifted, drowning out his scream of exasperation as the swarm poured out into the clear night air.

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