Building 253, San Francisco Naval Shipyard. Photo by Nathan Kensinger.

The bus pulled up to the factory parking lot and day laborers got out. They crossed the picket line, ignoring the striking workers who rattled the barricades. The workers called them scabs and pelted them with rusted safety bolts, which flew high above the heads of the security guards and only very rarely hit their targets. Sometimes, when the striking workers became too unruly and threatened to overrun the barricades, the security guards fired off tear gas and rubber bullets, and, as the workers by now knew, in close proximity rubber bullets were not so different from regular bullets. At the sound of the gunshots and the smell of the gas, the workers ran in all directions. Often they trampled one another. Occasionally in anger or desperation they tried to climb the barricades and rush the armed men who, like them, were now and could only ever expect to be anonymous gears in the machinery of the world. Indifferent to all this, the hired day laborers shuffled onward.

Even with all the dormitory showers running, Cassie could hear the screams of her fellow workers outside. It was a muffled, distant thing, the melee, and inside the communal bathroom in which Cassie and her twelve-year-old daughter Dio sat on the damp tiles, it was difficult to hear over the shhh of running water and the sound of Dio coughing the sickness out of her lungs.

“Easy, baby, easy,” Cassie said, sitting on the tiled floor with her arms wrapped around her daughter, the two of them rocking back and forth gently, pilgrims in ritual supplication to the god of stunted lungs. “Tide comes in, tide comes out. Tide comes in, tide comes out.”

The girl breathed in as deeply as she was able, and when the air came back out of her it was in a fit of coughs, the sound of it like a butcher’s knife against pavement, a scraping.

It was said you mortgaged your airways doing this kind of work. To breathe the air was to breathe the things that lived in the air—the waste particulate, the evaporated chemicals, the dust, the heaviness. Over the decades the workers had tried myriad methods to keep the invisible toxins at bay, from face-rags soaked in vinegar to homemade inhalers. None of it worked. Only the vagaries of chance determined the onset and severity of affliction. Some workers lived into late age until one morning their airways seized like waterlogged engines. Others were born that way.

Dio hunched forward. For an instant her body spasmed and she coughed up a green-black dollop of phlegm. Then the girl fell silent. Although Cassie could barely see through the steam that filled the room, she could feel her daughter’s body relax, her breathing easier now.

“I’m all right, I’m all right,” Dio said. “Go back down there; they need you.”

“Let them need me,” Cassie said.

Cassie turned off the showers. She led her daughter back to the dormitory bedroom and eased her down to sleep in the double bed they shared. The room overlooked the factory parking lot across the street, and here the sound of the guards and the striking workers was closer. Through a megaphone, the factory’s chief of security ordered the workers to disband. In collective chorus, which was their own fractured megaphone, the workers chanted their refusal. Soon there would be another round of bullets and gas.

“They can’t tell you from anyone else,” Dio said. “Be careful, all right?”

“I always am, baby,” Cassie replied.

Cassie kissed her daughter and left the room. She went downstairs and crossed the street to the picket line. At the sight of her, the workers brightened. They parted to let her through to the front, the place where the most ardent demonstrators—young men, mostly, their lungs and confidence yet to be depleted, their self-worth still tethered to the velocity of their anger—stood arm’s-length from the guards. And when Cassie touched these men and told them to disband for the day, to return to the dormitories and gather their strength for the next morning’s fight, they obeyed. They obeyed because the request came from the sole survivor of the incident that had prompted this strike, the walkway collapse at Silo 216. They obeyed because the collapse had left fifteen dead and one survivor, and about such odds there was, even to the most strident unbeliever, the scent of providence. In this way, Cassie was, in the eyes of her fellow workers a kind of martyr, although she was not a martyr, was in reality the exact opposite of a martyr.

So they disbanded. The guards holstered their weapons, and the day laborers quietly put in their hours for the promise of a day’s wage. The factory, which had never experienced a stoppage and could never be allowed to experience a stoppage, hummed along.

It stood beyond the edge of the city, and was in size much larger than the city, a vast arrangement of silos and storehouses and machine rooms and chemical plants. A quarter-mile beneath the arid earth, dozens of massive underground pipelines, built forty years earlier and lousy now with corrosion and debris, fed the city’s sewage to the factory’s treatment pools. From this unending stream of human excrement, the workers—thousands of them, generations of them—synthesized useful things. They leeched ammonia and water and trace elements of hormones and drugs from the liquid waste, and these they repurposed in forms suitable for re-selling to the manufacturers and the builders and the hospitals. In the silos they stored small mountains of solid refuse and let the methane build and then sold it back to the utility company. From the solid waste they also made fertilizer and medicine and, more important than any of these things, they extracted phosphorus, whose natural sources had been mined to exhaustion a half-century prior, and without which the farms would turn fallow and the entire human race would starve. Day after day, the factory churned on, a microcosm of the forces that necessitated its existence, an empire of shit.

The workers returned to the dormitory. Dusk came, and with it, a break from the heat. As they did every Monday, Cassie and her friend Helen sat down on the front steps of the dormitory to go over the week’s expenses. They had served as co-chairs of the union’s negotiating committee for years, a thankless and at most times meaningless position, but now found themselves responsible for overseeing the strike.

“How many today?” Cassie asked.

Helen flipped through a folder of scribbled notes. “None.”

“Nothing at all? A sprained ankle? A bruise?”

“Nothing.”

“How many yesterday?”

“Three. Two got roughed up by Blackboots, one got hit in the head by a safety bolt. I guess some guy in the back with a weak arm tossed it and it didn’t clear the fence.”

Cassie copied the numbers into a column in her own folder. She looked up across the street to the factory gates, and beyond them the gray-black exhaust clouds and sour yellow lights of the flame stacks. Had any factory ever looked different than this? Had the world ever looked different?

She had given twenty years of herself to the factory, and whatever the factory had given her back was as ephemeral and soluble in time as those years now gone. She suspected it would have worked out the same way whether she’d landed a construction job on the sea wall or as a panel-hand on the solar farms, or anywhere else. In another existence, another time so far gone now as to exist outside of her known reality, there were perhaps other kinds of lives to be had, lives in which working hours were meant to be invested, not bartered. But not here, and not for her. This life was no more than an exchange of vaporous commodities. Effort for pay, wellbeing for survival, time for time. Time for time. Time for time.

Against the night sky, the sour, yellow flame stacks burned and there was about the burning a pleasantness of sorts, the pleasantness of a world unadorned, a world as it is.

A man in a gray suit crossed the street, headed toward Cassie and Helen. They recognized him as David, one of the night managers. He walked cautiously, avoiding the spitfire stares of the workers lounging around the dormitory grounds. One of the phosphorus technicians, walking in the other direction, went out of his way to shoulder-check him as he passed, but this too the manager ignored.

“You keep to your side of the playground, David,” Helen said, waving him away. “What’s so hard to understand about that?”

“Just delivering a message,” David said. “Dr. Rahim wants to see the both of you.”

“Oz himself?” Helen replied. “What an honor.”

David shrugged.

“Last I checked, Dr. Rahim isn’t on management’s bargaining committee,” Cassie said. “We talk to the bargaining committee, nobody else.”

“Look, I’m in the same boat as you,” David said.

“No, you’re not.”

“Fine, whatever. But I sure as hell ain’t in Dr. Rahim’s boat. And when he says he wants something done, it pretty well always gets done, one way or another.”

David pointed to the factory parking lot across the street. “He’ll have a ride waiting for you over there at dawn, before the picket line starts up. Go or don’t go, that’s your business.”

David clapped his hands as though ridding them of dirt and walked back to the factory grounds.

“Hey David,” Cassie yelled. “You like being made an errand boy?”

“We’re all errand boys,” David replied.

*

The following morning at earliest light, Cassie and Helen stepped out of the dormitory to find a small dust storm whirling in the parking lot across the street. Two large men in suits and sunglasses stood at one end of the lot, waiting. Dark brown spirals of sand and grime and settled waste particulate turned the air opaque. Cassie covered her face with the neck of her shirt.

“Keep your head down and move quick,” one of the men shouted into Cassie’s ear, his voice barely audible above the deafening sound of a rapid mechanical heartbeat. He took her by the hand, Helen and the other man followed, and quickly the four of them ran toward the center of the storm, in which stood something neither Cassie nor any of the factory workers had seen before. A helicopter.

Cautiously they clambered inside. Cassie and Helen fumbled with their seatbelts, unable to make heads or tails of the contraptions. Quickly, one of the men reached over and buckled both women’s belts. The beast lifted, and in no time at all the brown and yellowing factory grounds grew smaller. Soon the whole of the world was swallowed by the taffy-thick layer of haze which was the underside of the sky.

Vertigo washed over Cassie. She had never seen the land from this vantage, and in doing so now experienced a sensation akin to an inverted birth. In a single outward push the world she had spent her whole life moving within was opened and she, rising beyond its insides, saw for the first time the entirety of it, swollen and labored and so viscerally, imperfectly alive.

The helicopter swung northward. Past the battered hulk of the continental sea wall and the sprawl of the city lay the northern hills. As the helicopter neared, the haze and smog which hung to the lowland suddenly dissipated, and the air turned clear enough that Cassie could make out the balconies and roof tiles of the hillside mansions. These were the homes of the factory owners and the children of the factory owners, the homes of celebrities and politicians and the man they called the Apollo of the Anthropocene, the man who saved the world. Though she had seen pictures of this place, Cassie was rendered silent by the foreignness of it, the way in which the rustling of the leaves gave the impression of a giant and hunched animal, its coat rippling. Never in her life had Cassie seen anything so green.

The helicopter leveled and landed on a pad at the edge of a large estate whose grounds occupied much of the upper quarter of the hill. To accommodate four rectangular living spaces terraced one above and offset from the other like staircase steps, the land had been flattened out and extended outward.

Cassie and Helen stepped out of the helicopter. As the machine’s blades came to rest, they sent ripples across the manicured lawn grass, a migration of air. And it was the air that stunned Cassie—not the sound of it, not its violent movement, but its emptiness. It carried no scent, no familiar sting of chemicals or refuse. She breathed in the air and smelled nothing, tasted nothing. She breathed in until her lungs were full. She held the air inside herself, delirious with the lightness of it, the cleanness.

“Cassie, what are you doing?” Helen said, tugging at her arm. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

“Sorry,” Cassie said. “It’s just—have you ever…”

She stopped, unsure. Quickly the two men hurried Cassie and Helen away from the helicopter and down a stone path cut through the lawn. At the wide glass doors of the estate’s lower level they were met by a butler who ushered the women inside and into a glass-backed elevator that ran up the spine of the terraced home.

“That’s the original laboratory,” the butler said as the elevator ascended, pointing to an outbuilding at the far end of the property that resembled a double-car garage. “That’s where he made the most significant breakthroughs.”

Neither woman responded.

“You do know…” the butler started, then paused.

“Yeah,” Cassie said. “Everybody knows.”

The elevator doors opened. A wide and spare living space greeted them. But for a few bookshelves, the walls were decorated with various plaques and framed awards and citations, which numbered perhaps two or three dozen but were not plentiful enough to cover the walls, and only served to highlight the emptiness of the room. Only the back wall, made of glass and overlooking an outdoor swimming pool, was not decorated this way. Beyond the glass wall, out in a wide veranda by the side of a plunging infinity pool, an old man of unimposing size sat on a garden chair.

“Come in, please,” he said. “Sit down, it’s a good day to be outside.”

Cassie and Helen set their folders, in which lay their negotiating notes, down on the table and sat across from the old man. In this nearness to him, Cassie could see about the man a kind of chronological asymmetry. From what she remembered in her schoolbooks, he would be nearing ninety now. And yet his skin, awkwardly taut across the forehead and beneath the eyes, and his full black hair, glistened and combed flawlessly, projected an aggressive facsimile of youth. She wondered how many people had seen both this man and the insides of the factory that existed because of his invention. Rahim Ibn El Kul, the chemist who managed to synthesize phosphorus from human waste, the owner of the most lucrative patent in human history.

“How was the trip?” the old man asked.

“Fine,” Cassie replied.

“It’s awful, isn’t it? So loud, so unpleasant. But it’s the fastest way to get out here, unfortunately.”

Another butler approached, so silently that both Cassie and Helen did not notice him until he placed two glasses of ice water on the table in front of them. Neither did they notice the two large men who’d escorted them onto the helicopter, and who now stood silently at either end of the veranda, watching.

“January really is the only reprieve anymore, isn’t it?” Rahim said, waving his hand across the periphery of the property. “When I was your age, we could reliably count on a mild December, but these days one really can’t spend any time outside but for a few days around New Year’s. A shame.”

“Why are we here?” Helen asked.

“Because I want to make you an offer,” Rahim said.

“Then send your offer to management,” Hellen replied. “That’s what their bargaining committee is for.”

“You misunderstand. I don’t want to make your coworkers an offer. I want to make you two an offer.”

Helen paused. She turned to Cassie, who had missed most of the conversation. Instead she stared at the glasses of water the butler had set on the table. Through the glass, inverted, the pool shimmered bright blue. The drinking water an immaculate lens. With great care, she picked up the glass and drank from it. Suddenly she was pulled back into a memory from her childhood—a memory of running toward the cliff at the edge of the quarry, jumping high into the air and then coming down, faster and faster, to meet the water below. In a moment, she was airborne and at the apex of her jump, her heart rising to meet her throat. This is how the water tasted. It tasted of weightlessness.

“Do you mind if I ask how it happened?” Rahim said. Cassie broke out of her momentary hypnosis to find the old man addressing her.”

“What?”

“The accident.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” Helen said. “Accidents are unavoidable.”

“You already know what happened,” Cassie said. “I told the HR scrubs everything. I filled out all the forms.”

“I know,” Rahim replied. “I want to hear it from you.”

Cassie set her glass down. “We were cleaning the silo,” she said. “You have to peel off the mold from the inside of each one every month or else it builds up and the yields go down. Takes a team of sixteen to do it. We were a quarter of the way down when the top anchor snapped. The whole platform came down, took everyone with it.”

“Everyone but you,” Rahim said.

“That’s right.”

The old man said nothing. Having no previous experience with the way powerful men wielded silence, Cassie rushed to fill the void. She answered his unspoken question.

“I wear a backup line,” she said. “Made it from a climbing rope and a beener I got from the obstruction depot. I hook it to the outside anchor whenever I’m on silo duty. Been doing it ever since my daughter was born.”

The old man nodded. “Smart,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” Helen said. “Tell me something: do you know why our workers throw safety bolts at those scabs every morning?”

“Because it makes for good optics,” the old man said.

“Because you can peel them right off the silo walls,” Helen replied. “Walk into any one of your shit houses, you’ll see the bolts so rusted, they come off in your hands. They crumble. All we’re asking you to do is make it so people aren’t taking their lives in their hands every time they go to work to put water in that pool of yours. You can do this; you know you can. The cost would be a rounding error for you.”

“Probably,” the old man said.

“Then why not?”

Rahim rubbed his temples. He looked for a moment all of his ninety-some years, and then a small, pitying smile came over his lips and he was once more unanchored in time, a man without age.

“You know there’s this thing they say about me,” he said. “I don’t mean what they say about me in your little union pamphlets—Dr. Shit, makes a dollar-fifty every time a tomato is sold, all that nonsense. I mean what my contemporaries used to say. They said I had both gifts: the foresight to see what was needed and the knowhow to build it. But in reality what I have, the only thing I have, is an honest view of the world. I see the world as it is.”

The old man took a sip of water. He waved, seemingly to no one in particular, and soon another butler came over and set a couple of contracts down on the table.

“You’re not going to get what you’re asking for because the world in which that factory puts your wellbeing first is not the same world in which that factory exists in the first place. In the confines of your own mind you are welcome to live in that other world, which I will readily admit is a better world. But everywhere else you must live in the world as it is. The ugly world. My world.”
Rahim tapped the two pieces of stapled paper on the table. “Three years’ salary in a lump sum to each of you. Confidential and immediate, if you convince your colleagues to stop the strike by the end of the week.”

Cassie stared at the contracts. She turned to face Helen, who was also transfixed by the papers on the table, and Cassie could instantly see that her friend was now engaged in the mental calculus of all the things three years’ pay could buy—time, recovery, room to breathe. In a life spent bartering one of these things for the others, here suddenly was a lopsided deal.

But Cassie could also see her friend would not take the deal. Or rather, that she could take the deal, but could not live with the person she’d instantly become, which was an entirely different thing.

Cassie turned back to Rahim. She spat on him.

The two large men standing at the corners of the veranda instinctively stepped forward, but Rahim raised his hand and both stopped.

“C’est la vie,” he said.

Cassie stood up. “Let’s go, Helen,” she said. Both women left the veranda and, shadowed by their escorts, returned to the elevator.

“I’m sorry,” Helen said, shaking. “I wouldn’t have. Not ever, not ever. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Cassie said. “I never doubted you.”

Silently they descended. Outside the helicopter lay waiting.

“Christ, I forgot my folder upstairs,” Cassie said. “Go on, I’ll meet you in a minute.”

The women split up and their escorts split up with them. Cassie took the elevator to the top floor and returned to the veranda, where Rahim sat watching the horizon, the place where the hill plunged into the smog. Hearing her footsteps, he turned.

“I don’t want your money,” Cassie said, picking up her folder.

“I know,” the old man replied.

“I want a house on the hill.”

Rahim smiled.

“Tomorrow you have management put out a statement saying the chairs of the bargaining committee are being deliberately antagonistic. You wait two weeks, then I’ll convince them we can’t hold out any longer. They’ll listen to me.”

“I’m sure they will,” Rahim replied. “You’re the survivor, after all.”

“A couple of weeks after that, you bring me and my daughter out here, you make sure we never have to go back to the factory again, ever. Deal?”

The chemist extended his hand. Cassie took it. How frail it felt, how near the bones to the surface.

Cassie made to leave, then stopped. She turned back.

“You ever spend any time inside that factory of yours?” she asked.

“No,” Rahim said.

“You’ve never smelled the air down there? Never tasted the water?”

“That’s what you want then? Better air, better water?”

“I want nothing,” Cassie said. “I want all the nothing you have.”

She left the old man, and was most of the way across the room when he called to her.

“Just one more thing,” Rahim said. “I want you to say thank you.”

Cassie watched the old man, his immaculate hair, the time smoothed out of the skin around his eyes, the endlessness of him.

“Thank you,” she said.

*

The helicopter lifted from the pad. Swooping downward, it descended along the gradient of the hillside and into the soiled city air. The blades and the engine did not sound so loud now to Cassie, and neither did the altitude bother her as much as it had before. And although with great velocity the workers returned to the place from where they’d first embarked only a few hours earlier, already to Cassie the factory seemed to be getting further and further away.

Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian Canadian author and journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and numerous other locations around the world. He is the recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His debut novel, American War, is an international bestseller and has been translated into a dozen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award and the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and has been nominated for eight other awards. Omar lives in the woods just south of Portland.

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