Those cheesy writers are up to it again. This time we are bringing you ‘Labor Day’ themed stories. This will likely be our last go at it for a while, as we are collecting these into a delicious Fondue book of holiday stories for you to enjoy. You’ll be hearing more about that, later.
For now, I get to go first. My story is a little bit dystopian, but I feel like it is more in the genre of what I call retro sci-fi. I don’t think that is an actual genre, but it should be. (Click here for more about retro sci-fi). I hope you enjoy the story, and have a great Labor Day holiday. More wonderful stories to come this week from my partners in cheese.
The Labor Day
For the Fondue Writer’s Club
The first Monday of September shall be The Labor Day for all citizens – The Founders, Article Nine, Paragraph One.
‘I hate Labor Day,’ Keeter said.
‘I agree,’ Scranter yelled to be heard over the screaming klaxon. Flashing red lights demanded everyone rise from their bunks. The last thing they wanted to do was get out of bed, but duty called.
Scranter ripped off her night shirt and pulled a uniform over her head. Keeter did the same with his, dropping his dirty bed clothes onto the ground. He spit on them. ‘Just think, someone’s job today will be to clean this place.’
By the time the alarm stopped they were all dressed and ready to discover their assigned tasks. The two childhood friends took their spots in the single-file line with the other twenty-eight people in their dorm room. They each took their three nutritional pills and drank down the mandatory six ounces of water. They would get six ounces of water again at noon and one more dose in the middle of the afternoon, which would have to last them until midnight, when the day was officially over.
Keeter drank his water and said, ‘I heard back in the old days they used to make you start at midnight and labor a full twenty-four hours,’ he threw his paper cup into the dissolver, ‘but that was before the reforms.’
‘I doubt any of that is true,’ Scranter said. ‘Doesn’t really seem possible to work for a whole twenty-four hours without rest.’
A man who was three people ahead of them in line for assignments turned his head, ‘It is absolutely true. My grandfather told me that was the way it was in some parts of the continent even during his lifetime, when he was young.’
Scranter shook her head, ‘I’ll need more verification than that. Who knows how soft your old grandpa might be in the head.’
The man ahead of them let it go. They were all still fighting off sleep, so none of them had the energy for an argument over ancient history.
‘Do you think we’ll get assigned to the same project again this year?’ Keeter asked the question not knowing whether he wanted it to be so or not.
Scranter tilted her head and smiled, ‘we’ve been assigned to work on the same detail since we came of age. The jobs changed, but we were always in it together whether it was teaching children to walk, cleaning up the park, repairing programming circuits, or even that year we did medical work together. There is a hiccup in the AI. We were born within one minute of each other in the same hospital to women who had the same first name.’ Scranter drank the last of her water and pointed forward as the assignment kiosk was only three people ahead of them. ‘That is why we were assigned the same teachers, the same programs, and the same mentors. They think we are the same person.’
‘I guess,’ Keeter said, ‘it is a good thing we now live in different cities and only have to deal with that kind of mishap once a year on Labor Day.’
Scranter scrowled, ‘Yeah, but if we die on the same day, it might just bring down the whole system because it will not realize the need to dig two graves.’
The man three places ahead of them shouted when he got his assignment. ‘Communications Array Eleven! I hate stairs and ladders.’
Keeter ran his arm over the ID reader. His assignment displayed on the screen and the information beamed into his cerebral implant. Scranter did the same, then they both said the same thing: ‘Irrigation Station Four’
Irrigation Station Four was located three miles outside of town. Six others from their dorm were assigned to the same project and they all rode the bicycles together on the biway. Keeter cursed aloud, ‘I hate this place. I am so glad I got away from here. And I hate being forced to come back here every year for this, this’ he stammered, ‘this … this— stupid, archaic, useless Labor Day.’
Scranter didn’t say anything. Keeter made the same proclamation every year and she’d learned to ignore it. She had chosen to never leave. She and her husband enjoyed the small-town life. Truthfully, she resented that the law made everyone return to their birthplace for Labor Day. She held out hope someday they would reform the Founder’s dictate, although she understood why it was law. The Founders built their world out of the ruins of a people who had become disconnected from their roots. They thought a yearly return to their birthplace would help. Her experience showed her it only created unpleasant feelings in some people. The world was filled with people who felt as Keeter did, and someday she worried they might do something unfortunate to upset the peace. Aside from Labor Day, their lives were nearly utopian. She’d read enough history to know how awful things had truly been in the past. She wondered if Keeter had ever read a book.
The sun was just coming up over the towers on the eastern horizon. The side of the road was littered with the dormant machinery of everyday life. Frozen in place where it was and doing what it did when the time came.
They were on their own today, destined to do the work laid out before them.
The six workers arrived at the station exhausted, tired before they ever began. It was tempting to sit idle and kill the time, but that was a dangerous gamble. Last year, a team at Warehouse Block Nine had done that, and the AI determined an example was needed, and therefore it summarily executed all of them. There were rumors of more and more executions in the past three years as the new generation of people were less enthusiastic about their civic obligation.
She had a life and hopes for a family, and she wasn’t taking any chances.
All eight of them dismounted their rides and went straight to the instruction kiosk to read the specs:
Seventy-five feet of pipe must be laid between Valve Seven and Pump Three. This pipe is necessary to irrigate the grain for twenty percent of next year’s crop. The pipe is in Holding Bin Two. The trench should be dug two feet deep and straight. If the project finishes early, this crew may return to their dormitory, having completed their Labor Day requirement. If the project remains unfinished, this crew and its family will receive twenty percent less in their personal grain allotment for the coming year. The tools necessary are located at Valve Seven. Good luck.
They had all been taught in school their first action should be to elect a Site Leader. Usually someone volunteered, and true to form Stacenda did. ‘I was assigned irrigation work last year, so I know what to do,’ she said. They all unanimously agreed to appoint her the foreperson. She asked Keeter and Scranter to use the dolly and lay the pipe out alongside the path which she would mark. Stacenda told one of the older crew, a man in his early sixties, to use the paint and mark the straight line for the ditch. The others were told to get shovels and start digging the ditch.
By noon they were all digging. Their bright blue uniforms were wet with sweat from the hot sun. Dirt gathered around their knees and feet, and the five golden stars representing the Five Founders were stained with honest toil. Stacenda called out to the group, ‘It’s midday. Time for our water break.’
The group moaned with soreness as they walked back to the instruction kiosk. Stacenda waved her ID in front of it and the bottom opened to reveal eight containers of water. ‘Sip it slowly,’ Stacenda said. Then she followed it with, ‘and make sure to take a bathroom break now. Your supplemental pills will be kicking in. Everyone should pee. We don’t want any medical emergencies.’
Keeter said, ‘If we keep at this pace, we’ll be done by three or four.’
‘We can’t keep this pace,’ Stacenda said. ‘I think more like five or six, which is good. We’ll be back before dark. You guys are doing a great job.’
The old man in his sixties wiped his eyes. ‘You know, I missed the exemption cutoff by only six weeks.’
‘Tough break,’ Scranter said. ‘But this is your last one. I am happy for you.’
‘Maybe,’ The old man said. ‘But my grandfather told me in the old book it says that human beings were commanded to work the earth by the sweat of the brow. I guess The Founders agreed with that.’
‘The old book is stupid,’ Keeter said. ‘This is no way to live.’
A young woman said, ‘I always feel more alive on Labor Day than any other day of the year. This seems more real than anything else.’
‘Whatever,’ Keeter said.
Water break ended, and they all headed back to the trench.
By two in the afternoon the ditch was dug. Stacenda ordered a break while she and a woman named Lynden retrieved the glue and the wrenches. She then gave them a brief lesson on how to glue the threads and screw the pipe together. ‘We have to make it good, with no leaks. If we don’t do it right, we will all get a visit from the Overseers which will not be pleasant. You all know the consequences for failure.’
They decided half the group would start by the pump and the other by the valve so as to then meet each other in the middle. This work went quickly, and by four o’clock they were nearly finished. Smiles began to flash and playful banter began, the kind of talk that happens when the tension of work is nearly complete, the kind of talk people make when relief is at hand.
At the middle point of the trench, where two sections of completed pipe came together, there was a rise in the ditch that had been overlooked. It was a solid piece of basalt in the topsoil. Though small, it was a part of a larger outcropping that wouldn’t give way by digging. ‘We will have to use the pick-axe.’ Stacenda said.
The old man went to the tool bin and grabbed the tool. When he returned, he said, ‘I saw one of these used years ago on a Labor Day in the lithium quarries. I think I know how to use it.’
He swung at the basalt twice, and each time it bounced off without effect.
Keeter, who had been sitting down to rest, stood up. ‘Let me take a whack.’
Scranter stood beside him, ‘I have to see this,’ she said.
He took the tool and reared back and swung it wildly, tipping over as he did. The sharp point shattered the rock, but he fell over on top of it and the point found the soft part of his face and jabbed into his skull. Scranter toppled over as Keeter’s feet swept under hers, and she fell onto the pipe and smashed her head against the basalt.
Scranter moaned. ‘I can’t see,’ she said. Her body twitched and then she died, too.
It happened so fast the other six people didn’t have time to respond.
Stacenda and Lynden dragged the bodies out of the ditch.
‘We all know the law.’
The old man looked up to the sky and said, ‘From dust we came. To dust we shall return.’ Then he turned back to Stacenda. ‘Indeed, the law is clear. We must finish the work and then make certain the dead are brought back to the place where we began. They cannot be left behind.’
Stacenda nodded. ‘That’s right. I hate to be mean, but if we don’t want to end up punished, or worse, we needed to check that ditch.’
Lynden had already jumped into the ditch. ‘Keeter’s last swing did the trick. It broke the rock enough to get the pipe laid.’ She grabbed the glue and connected the last joint. They finished covering the ditch just as the sun fell behind the skyscrapers in town.
Stacenda confirmed completion of the project at the kiosk.
‘How are we going to get them back?’ Lynden said.
The old man said, ‘I was thinking of that while we covered the ditch. I think our only option, the easiest option, is to tie them to the shovels, then tie the shovels to the bicyles and drag them back.’
‘Shouldn’t we carry them,’ one of the other men said. ‘Dragging them seems barbaric.’
‘Labor Day is barbaric,’ said the old. ‘We could carry them back, but I’m not certain any of us have that much left in us. I doubt we’d make it back before midnight.’
Lynden spoke up, ‘Article Nine, Paragraph Seven: All Laborers must return to the place of departure by midnight or a second Labor Day will be levied against them the following day.’
‘We know the law,’ Stacenda said. Then she realized her tone was harsh. ‘But thanks for reminding us.’ She put her hand on Lynden’s shoulder, ‘You’ll make a fine leader someday.’ She turned to the old man. ‘You’re right. Let’s get to it.’
They tore the sleeves off their uniforms and used them to tie the lifeless bodies of Scranter and Keeter to the shovels, and then to the axels of two of the bicycles. The six survivors each took one mile each of pulling the corpses. They arrived back to the dorm with two hours left of Labor Day.
Most of the laborers had returned, and the common area was nearly filled with people. They put Scranter and Keeter on the floor in the middle, where four other dead bodies lay. A man sat beside them. ‘I was the team leader. They died before we ever started. There were ten of us. We were supposed to replace a power box on Communications Array Eleven. We were about fifty feet up on the ladder and one of them slipped, fell, and knocked the other three off.’
At midnight, the hum of everyday life returned. The machines, robots, and computers that did all the work in the world came back to life. Six carts emerged as if from nowhere, and picked up the bodies and carried them off. Food and water dispensers came online. Parched people began to refresh their bodies with water and other beverages and delicacies. Medical robots began sewing up gashes and wounds, dispensed medicine, and the machines on the side of the road roared to complete their deliveries. Air cargo took flight. Entertainment devices came alive. Millions upon millions of automated equipment, computers, and service bots took over so that human beings could again slide into the delusional comfort of an existence where all work, including thinking and planning, was done by machines.
Everything returned to normal. The Labor Day was fulfilled. For the next three-hundred and sixty-four days no one would labor or toil. The machines of society would do it all, and then The Labor Day would come again.