Art by Jason Arias

​Flyover Country

Welcome to a future where undocumented migrants are penalized, prisons merge with labor camps, and iPhones are made in America.

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Nov 25 2016, 11:33pm

Art by Jason Arias

With a Trump presidency and the full scope of his campaign promises looming, here's a look at a future where some of them have come to pass. Welcome to a future where undocumented migrants are rounded up and penalized, private prisons overflow into labor camps, and iPhones are made in America. Cheers. -The editor


I meet this girl Mira and her kid in the parking lot of that Wendy's on Jefferson that's been closed since '19. Yellowing grass pushes up through cracks in warped tarmac, and I find myself daydreaming again about the ground ripping open and consuming the whole fucking town. Like an earthquake. Or maybe a big storm rolling in, like last year but fiercer. Something. Anything.

It's only 6.30 but it's hot out already. Mira's kid is sleepy, not used to being up this early. But she's still cute as all hell, all pigtails and smiles, playing up for the camera as I snap pictures of her and her mom on an old Samsung phone. Mira has got a CVS bag stuffed full of papers with her—the kid's school reports, some crayon scribbled drawings, letters both of them have written. I snap photos of them too, trying not to read the contents as I fight to get the shitty phone camera to focus on handwriting.

I need to get going. Miguel always sorts this shit out last minute, swapping shifts around so things line up. So everyone is in the right place at the right time. Always seems to end up with yours truly barely prepared, in a rush. Mira gives me 40 bucks, which she says is the last of her UBI for the month. I feel bad and try to give her 10 back, but she won't take it. Says she can pick up some more cleaning jobs on Handy, that I shouldn't worry. Just don't fuck up, she says. I smile and promise her I won't.

I've only got an hour before my shift starts, no time to walk all the way back home, so I duck into the bathroom at the big Walgreens on Lincoln. It's on the way. In the stall I kneel on the floor in front of the john, and spread out a clean shirt from my bag across the closed lid. I place the Samsung in the middle, and start using one of the toolkits I got off eBay to crack open its casing. It's tricky—it always fucking is—but I manage to pry it apart without scratching it up too much, without it looking like it's been tampered with.

I breathe a huge sigh of relief when I see the motherboard. The SD chip is 256GB, and the right model. It makes me fucking laugh, this shit. All these companies always competing to make you buy their phone, and then to make you buy a new one every damn year, making you feel like you're missing out if you've not got the newest, the best ever. But inside they all look the same to me. Same components, same chips, same storage, year in year out.

Somebody comes into the bathroom, so I start making heaving noises, just in case they spot my feet and wonder what the fuck I'm doing. There's a pause and then they reluctantly ask me if I'm ok in there. I laugh and make spit sounds and I'm like yeah fine, just a heavy night y'know. I cough some more and listen to them moving around, the sound of pissing then running water, mixed with canned laughter and the theme tune to Tila Tequila's Beltway Round-Up pumping in over the store's tinny PA. Eventually I hear the door close and I get back to work.

The SD chip comes out easy, I've done it a few thousand times before. I gently tape it to the backside of the RFID chip sewn into the back of my green overalls with a band-aid, before stuffing them back into my bag. I put the phone back together and drop that in there too, along with the clean shirt. Sadly the cheap-ass tool kit has to go in the trash on my way out, cos there's no way I'll get that through security. Pain in the ass, but fuck it. I've got a bunch more of them at home.

*

The walk to the Foxconn-CCA Joint Correctional and Manufacturing Facility takes me about 20 minutes on the interstate. Traffic is pretty much non-existent apart from the cab-less trucks that dwarf me as they pass, kicking up clouds of pale dust that scour my eyes with grit.

Gate security is bullshit as always. They barely care, lazily rummaging through my bag as I stand in the body scanner, feet on the markings, arms bent above my head. They pull out the phone, put it in a RFID tagged baggy to pick up at the end of my shift, and silently hand me back my bag.

Miguel is at the shift manager's desk. He gives me some gruff bullshit about getting in earlier in future, about how I should turn up ready to go in my overalls, while guiltily avoiding making eye contact. Stay cool, Miguel. He checks the rota on his tablet, tells me I've been assigned to production line 3B, building 7. Motherboard assembly. Of course, I know all this already.

I duck through dormitory 6 as a short cut, weaving through the endless rows of bunkbeds. Artificial light filters down through suicide nets and sprays a slowly undulating checkerboard across the plastic floor. Everyone in here is in green overalls: Voluntary. On shift breaks they sit around on their bunks or on plastic chairs, talking, playing cards, watching A Noble War on the huge TVs that line the dorm. It's the episode where Barron and Beatrice get married on the bridge of the USS Thiel, just after they've put down a socialist uprising on Phobos. I remember the episode, season 4 I think. Barron still has his real arm. I used to love this shit back in high school.

I keep walking. The dorm is a fucking shit hole. It's dirty and smells of ass and body-stink. If this is where they put the voluntary workers I don't want to ever see how bad things are for the actual inmates. I shudder at the thought of choosing to be stuck in here, but I get it. I got no kids, I'm lucky. My Universal Basic Income still covers my rent, just about. I pass a guy that looks my age, stripped to the waist, lying on his bunk. Chest splattered with random, uncoordinated tattoos, like sticker's on a kid's lunchbox. He stares up through the suicide nets, into dull fluorescent light, his eyes unmoving. There but for the fucking grace of god.

I find an empty locker and open it, cram my bag in. Checking over my shoulders for guards or drones I reach inside and tear the band-aid away from the inside of my overalls, and palm it and the chip into my pocket. I step back and pull the overalls on over my clothes, slip on the paper face mask and hairnet, and head outside, relieved to escape the smell.

*

I move quickly through the courtyard. Running late. Again the bodies I weave through are all sealed in green overalls, but on the other side of the three-story chainlink fence I can see red and blue clothed figures. Convicts and Illegal Residents.

I keep my eyes down as I move, not wanting to catch the mirror-shaded gaze of the guards in the towers, or the dead twitching eyes of the drones that hang in the hot, still air.

Inside Building 7 the chain fence runs right through the interior, cleaving the production line in two. Green overalls on my side, red and blue on the other. The dank, mildew smell of almost-failing AC. Today I'm on motherboard assembly. A constant stream of naked iPhones come down the conveyor belt to me, their guts exposed, and as each one passes I clip in a missing chip. 256GB storage chips, from a box covered in Chinese lettering.

One every ten seconds. Six a minute. 360 an hour. 4320 a shift.

After me the line snakes away, disappearing through a hole in the chainlink, into the hands of Reds and Blues.

At the station next to me, a slender matte-black robot arm twitches, snapping video chips into the motherboards. It is relentless, undistracted, untiring. Given half a chance Foxconn would replace us all, but then they'd lose all those special benefits the President promised them for coming here in the first place. The ten year exemption on income and sales tax. The exemption on import tariffs for components. The exemptions from minimum wages. The exemption on labour rights. The protection against any form of legal action from employees or inmates. The exemption from environmental protection legislation. And Apple? Well, without me standing here, clipping one Chinese-made component into another Chinese-made component, Apple loses the right for a robot in Shenzhen to laser engrave 'Made in the USA by the Great American Worker' into every iPhone casing before they're shipped over here.

*

It takes me about two hours to pluck up the courage to do what I gotta do. Two hours. 720 iPhones.

Once I decide, there's no going back. Instead of taking a chip from the box to my right, I slip my hand into my overalls pocket, and palm out the chip. To my huge fucking relief it clips effortlessly into the next iPhone on the belt. On top of it I place the band-aid, with just enough pressure that it stays there while looking like it fell from my scratched and battered hand.

I watch the phone slide down the line, it's little band-aid flag making it stand out from its compatriots, as it vanishes through the chain link fence.

*

Eight hours later. 2880 iPhones.

Shift over. My calves and the backs of my thighs sting from standing for 12 hours, my eyes strained from the fluorescent glare. The panel on the wall bleeps, turns green, as I punch out. I gaze at its screen. My blocky, low-res reflection gazes back, a machine vision approximation of my tired eyes and pale skin. I stand there, silently, not moving, waiting for the panel to recognize me. A tick appears, obscuring my face. Video game statistics scroll along the screen's bottom: efficiency, accuracy, time keeping, responsiveness, productivity. 4314 iPhones. Chimes and a bleep. A synthesized, too-cheerful, feminine voice tells me I should smile more. A second bleep, the click of a door unlocking, and I'm out.

*

My phone buzzes at 5.24AM, under my pillow and loud as all fuck because I made sure the ringer was cranked to max. Text from an unknown number. Miguel on a burner. Time to go to work.

*

Two hours later and I'm back in my overalls, back in Building 7.

This time I'm on Returned QA Fails. The pace is slower, the work slightly more involved. iPhones that have failed quality assurance up the line because of faulty chips come back down. I whip out the fucked chip, stick a new one in, send them back up the line again.

One every 20 seconds. Three a minute. 180 an hour. 2160 a shift.

It tends to be even more chilled than that, to be honest. There's not that many that come back faulty, obviously. Nowhere near in fact. But the algorithms don't care. The drones lazily orbiting around the ceiling on their quadrotors are always watching, making notes, remembering. Calculating. Doesn't matter how many you actually do, you still gotta do 'em quick. Keep those productivity stats high.

It's less than two hours—maybe 60 phones—in to my shift when it appears. Coming down the line, a dropped band-aid stuck lazily to it's exposed guts.

My stomach flips. I glance upwards to make sure the drone has cycled away. As the phone reaches me I pluck the band-aid away, drop it to the floor. Un-click the storage chip, and drop in another, new one.

The chip I've just taken out should go in a box, to go into a container, to go onto a truck, to go onto a ship, to go to China, to go onto another truck, to be dumped in some no-fucking-where village in Guangdong where an old lady that used to be a subsistence farmer will pull it apart in her front room to recycle the components.

But this one? This chip I originally ripped from that old Samsung? This chip gets palmed into my pocket.

*

I meet Mira in the Wendy's parking lot. Her kid is with her again. Cute as all hell. Running around in the tarmac-piercing grass.

I hand her the Samsung phone, its storage chip returned to its rightful place. She hands me another 40 bucks.

Before I turn to leave, I watch her power it on, swipe it open. Her thumb stabs impatiently at icons. And then the screen fills with a photograph, a brown face, beard, smiling. Trying to look happy but nervous. Blue overalls. A photo taken while glancing over your shoulder, on a hastily hacked open, smuggled-in old smartphone you don't even know works. A photo you'd risk spending six months in solitary to take.

Mira smiles, begins to cry.
She calls her kid over.
Look. You know who that is?
Pause. Eyes wide.
Daddy!

As I walk away she's kneeling on the floor, holding the kid close to her, tears rolling down both their faces, as she swipes through images. The face again. Badly focused photos of handwritten notes.

I feel good for a second. Like it's worth it. But part of me still wants the ground to rip open and consume the whole town.

It's cooler today. A breeze is picking up, tugging at my green overalls as I start my walk back home. Somewhere out past the interstate, over the horizon, a storm is rolling in. A big storm like last year. I hope it's fiercer. I hope it's something. Anything.