What people don’t understand, the hiring manager says, keys swinging from his hand, is that the machine needs to be tended. Fed, watered, maintained.
Like a houseplant, Mai says.
Yeah I guess, he nods, most people would say a cat or a dog.
My landlord won’t allow pets, Mai says, so I just keep plants and bread.
The hiring manager smiles at Mai.
He says, I think you’d be well suited to this job.
He shows Mai the ins and outs of how to clean the machine. How the temperature has to be regulated by pools of frigid water and delicate damp cloths laid on it. Despite all of this and the cooling vents, the room remains quite warm. Never, the manager says, turn any of these off without permission. He pats the side of one of the processing units affectionately and says, She doesn’t get to rest.
Mai’s now part of maintenance and she thought that would be – well she didn’t know what, because she doesn’t really have a technology background, just a background in cleaning and housekeeping and nannying, which the manager assures her is fine for maintenance. That is really her job – making sure the machine feels well. Is taken care of.
The last girl we had, he tells Mai, used to recite poetry to it.
Was that helpful? she asks.
He laughs. Probably not. Not that I mind. If anything, the machine probably doesn’t need any more input, but if it makes you feel better I don’t care what small rituals you do. As long as they’re, you know, appropriate. You just can’t eat in here. You can take breaks of course, we have a staff room and you can also eat in the general backrooms as long as you don’t leave a mess. But you must not eat in here.
I understand, Mai says, very seriously. She thinks she could probably sneak sweets in her pockets, mints, winegums.
It’s a mess thing, he explains. We can’t risk you leaving crumbs or having sticky fingers. Absolutely can’t have crumbs. Hair and dust is hard enough to take care of.
He shows Mai the cleaning room with the long spool- like buds for very gently running along the machine’s crevices. Never, he repeats, never force anything. If you don’t know what to do, come get one of us. Me or Julian. You’ve met Julian right?
Julian sits in the back office vaping. Can you even do that in here? Mai asks. He shrugs and says there’s a vent. Everything is vented out. Don’t worry. Then he says, did he tell you not to force anything? Yeah, Mai says. Sometimes, Julian says, dust gets sucked down in places. If that happens, don’t try and get it out yourself. Get a manager.
Do you do maintenance? Mai asks.
Sometimes. I’m not huge into it so thank God they finally hired someone. It gets incredibly boring.
We can listen to our own music, Mai asks, right?
Sure, he says, if your phone will work down there. Don’t be surprised if it craps out. You should get a Walkman.
Yeah. Sometimes I see them on Trademe. And try to find some audiobooks to rent for it. I really can’t convey how boring your job is.
I don’t mind boring, Mai says. Julian looks at her in a way that seems to say, that doesn’t surprise me. Do you know why they hired you? he asks. She shrugs.
It’s because you’re a girl. They only hire girls for maintenance now.
Oh. Why’s that?
Why do you think?
Mai has the suspicion that whatever answer she provides will be wrong. Because girls are more likely to apply for cleaning roles?
He shakes his head.
Because they think that I have the feminine touch?
Oh you definitely have the feminine touch, he says. But, no. Then he looks out of the staffroom window, checking nobody is in the corridor. It’s because you can’t put your dick in any crevices. He draws out the word crevices.
You don’t know that, she says, straight-faced.
He pauses and then he laughs.
Well, she asks, then why are you here?
He looks at Mai like she is unbelievably slow. I was hired way before that. Also, I technically don’t work in maintenance. Actually being around the machine is not meant to be part of my job.
So you put your dick it and got moved departments, she says. I get you.
He looks at her like she just dribbled on herself and says, don’t be crass.
When Mai told the manager that she just keeps plants and bread, that was a big lie. She has often thought about keeping both those things, but they always die on her the times she’s tried. She doesn’t have the nurturing touch. Taking care of the machine is fine though, because she gets paid to do it for eight hours a day, and Julian was right, it is very boring, as well as incredibly simple. Easy breezy monotony. He was also right, her phone doesn’t work down with the machine and seems to be slower in the days after she’s taken it in with her, so Mai just keeps it in the staffroom. At first she checks it every 15 minutes or so, but it turns out there isn’t much to check. She doesn’t really like texting people so people don’t really like texting her. She quickly runs out of memes too. The internet is dry. She dwells a bit on the irony of that. Sometimes she runs into Julian, but he is always walking very fast with headphones in and just sort of nods aggressively at her. She sees her manager even less, after he stops shadowing her for the first two days. Must have decided she is competent enough. She thinks the bread line worked on him. He tells Mai to text him if something goes wrong.
Mai wonders what would happen if something went wrong and she gets stuck inside the machine or something, because Julian told her that her phone probably wouldn’t work down there.
Can you say that again? her manager asks. I don’t follow.
Mai tries to explain it again. He looks at the door for a good moment and then says, that has never happened. I don’t think it’s very likely. Don’t put your arm down anything, I guess. Unless somebody else is with you. This is why we have all these – he gestures at the long rods. And if anything goes wrong just call me or Julian.
Mai decides to leave it at that.
Mai wonders, if you can’t have crumbs or hair or dust, why there isn’t some sort of elaborate cleaning routine she has to go through whenever she enters or leaves the engine room. She asks Julian this next time he’s walking past at a more leisurely pace. He nods and says, oh it’s just the company being cheap. Really, don’t worry about it. You’re cleaning out whatever you bring in.
She asks, don’t they have a lot of money? Don’t they like, sponsor arts festivals and things?
He says, yeah. They’re still cheap. They’ll host a pizza night once every two months to make you feel like they value you, but they won’t pay you overtime. So make sure you don’t work overtime. Ever.
Alright, Mai says.
Also, they say you can take breaks, but don’t tell anyone how many you’re taking, because then they can convince you that you need to work overtime. You don’t ever need to work overtime here. If night shift comes in late, say you need to know how many hours you’re being rostered on for. Make sure they know it’s on the payroll.
Okay, she says, gosh. Thank you.
Well it’s pretty bog standard advice, he says. But you look like you need it.
Mai wonders about these sorts of things a lot, because there is so little to do, especially mentally. The machine, of course, can always be cleaned. The cloths always need to be changed and resoaked. The chlorine levels always need to be checked. The first week is quite overwhelming. Not because of the extent of what there is to do, just the extent of actual thing. It takes up the whole engine room, is vast and maze-like. Half of the first day is just her manager getting her to walk around and then follow the sound of his voice out. It’s fairly unnerving. It’s even more unnerving the moment he says, well I think you’ve got the hang of it. I’ll leave you to it for an hour and when I come back we’ll make sure you’re still alive. He even winks. Suddenly the place seems a lot more hostile. Every time she turns a corner Mai prays she won’t meet anyone on the other side. She vividly pictures coming head to head with a stranger made of light, or the absence of light. Even a normal looking person would be pretty terrible.
The diffused lighting – composed mainly of faintly blinking LEDs – washes the corridors of chrome and metal in an even and nonthreatening softness, but also plays with Mai’s sense of direction. Particularly up and down. She imagines finally finding the door out and discovering she has been walking on the ceiling. Or that the corridors stretch on and on forever. But she always finds her way back to the exit door with no issue except mild disorientation. Time and time again. Sits down by the door for a moment, to catch her senses. Looks up the stairs to the duller fluorescent light. And by the time her manager comes back, she realises that maybe, very quickly, she will learn to trust the machine.
Mai has never really been a creature of routine, but taking care of the machine she finds herself falling into one. She does her steps in order – rinsing out the clean cloths that Soumia, who does night shift, leaves for her. Swapping them with the ones laid out that have dried. Mai soaks these in cool and then cooler water. Then Mai takes the buds and walks in a perimeter, wiping down the crevices. She can’t help but think of them in any other term, thanks Julian. Not much ever comes off, because she cleans so often, but she supposes that is the point. She buffs all the unit surfaces down. She checks the electricity input and the machine’s other levels. And then she does it all again.
There’s no rush.
Mai finds herself liking this easy routine. Her days bathed in soft diffused light, from up and down and all sides; the continuous hum from all around too loud, but not overwhelming. Mainly the sound of fans and vents. She steps soft, any shadows are soft. She can stop wherever she likes and reach out to touch warm polished chrome.
Soumia is from Morocco and likes recommending Mai audiobooks and funk albums. When Soumia clocks in to work she’s always laughing on the phone, and the sound bounces down from the upstairs corridors. Every time Soumia sees Mai she tells her to stop wasting her beautiful youth in such a sterile place. Get a job outside, gardening.
Mai says she’ll think about it.
Love to see you kid, as always. Take care down there. Keep your fluids up.
Mai wishes they could work the same hours. She likes their chats as they swap over, no matter how brief.
Mai finds that even if she works pretty slowly, her hours open up long and empty. She goes roaming around the staffroom and the back corridors, looking for someone to pester. But there is only Julian, who is always in such a rush unless Mai catches him on his break and then he’s always reading. One look up is enough to tell he doesn’t want a yarn.
So Mai begins to meditate. She stretches out on the smooth corridors that wind between the machine’s engines, or leans herself against its warm sides. It’s pleasant. Like a sauna. Her thoughts become hazy, and she doesn’t mind it. Sometimes it is quite hard to not fall asleep.
Her manager tells her that it’s her job to take care of the machine. Make sure it’s happy.
The machine does not get to rest. Its fans whirr without end. It seems only fair that Mai gets to rest instead.
She could fall asleep, in the middle of the path. Soumia would just clean around Mai in the night and then, twelve hours later Mai would get up, go to the bathroom and begin her shift again. She’s sure Soumia wouldn’t mind. Mai wouldn’t mind cleaning around Soumia if she fell asleep on the machine. Mai would understand.
Mai prefers to be in the machine room. It is like living inside one of those white noise sleep devices. She doesn’t like the walk to the staffroom:, the rapidly dropping temperature, the stark fluorescent lights and the dim corners. The laundry room is alright, because it is also warm, and full of noise; of things churning and the sound of water bubbling. Autumn is rapidly turning into winter, so when Mai steps outside night has always fallen. Sometimes, Soumia arrives on time and there is a haze of colour at the edge of the horizon, but more often it is just dark. And so, so cold compared to the engine room. Walking through the outside night Mai feels faint, not really present. She supposes her manager was right. She is well suited to caretaking.
It’s so strange, Mai thinks. How many people on how many floors of this building, all working off the machine. And how few come down to visit. It is just her and Soumia, two ghosts.
She thinks about the guy before, who violated the machine. He found something beautiful and wanted to exploit it. It makes her very angry, but it doesn’t surprise her. The machine is all input. It is all external desire – for knowledge, for attention and affection and sexuality, yeah. But those things are not the machine. It is the input and storage of these desires, not the source of their creation. Poor machine that never sleeps, and this is what it gets subjected to. Porn, and pictures of girls in bikinis on yachts in the Greek islands.
At home, Mai reads. Offline only. She tries to limit her input to the machine. She – and Mai does think of the machine as a she – has enough to process. Sometimes, especially when input is high, the machine whirrs louder. It is a pained sound. The fans work overtime, the room floods with heat, and Mai too finds it a little harder to breathe. Sweat rolls down her back. And then the heat passes, the fans return to their normal speed, and Mai returns to work.
Julian catches Mai on the corridor to the laundry room and stops and waves. Hey, Mai! He beckons her over and says, I thought you had moved out.
What? Mai says, Why would I do that?
I thought you were moved to the other site.
The other site?
Yeah. The second branch. We’re – they’re expanding. Has nobody told you?
Nobody has told her. Sometimes her manager comes down, just to check that the thermostat matches the temperature his monitor system reads. He asks Mai about her sourdoughs, and she smiles and tells him they’re going well. He has not said anything about movement or expansion.
Julian can’t believe it. There’s a whole second location being built, just off Vogel Street. Huge scaffolding.
Why? Mai asks, how much more staff do we need?
It’s not for the staff, come on. They’re putting in another computer.
Mai stares. She thinks of the laboured whirrs, the hot flashes. She asks, is there something wrong with her?
I don’t think so. I mean, you’d probably be telling me. But you know how it works. We’re running out of storage space, so they’re making more. It’s that simple. You do know how it works right?
Of course Mai does. In basic terms at least: the machine stores data, information that people think belongs in some ephemeral cloud. Of course she understands. This is what she tends to.
Technically, Mai also understands that there must be many more machines out there like Her. There is far too much data for Her to process alone. But She has been the only processing unit of this size that Mai has seen, so She is also the only one that Mai has ever actually thought about. The only one firm in her mind. Mai supposes it’s similar to how other people can’t imagine their data being kept in a physical body at all.
She isn’t special.
She is just a tool, a facility.
Mai feels parched.
Julian tells Mai that he’s going to visit the second site for a tour tomorrow. Everyone is. Mai tracks down Soumia, asks her if it’s true. Soumia looks at Mai sadly. Oh Mai, did nobody tell you? I hope you get to see the place. It’s meant to be pretty flash.
When Mai calls her manager, he says, I’m sorry, we just need someone to keep maintaining the current processing unit. You can visit another time though, I’ll make sure. Just not yet. You understand.
The next morning she really understands – how much more data must be flowing to Her. She can feel it, in the boiling heat of the room, how hard She is working. Mai needs to rest halfway through the first batch of cloth changing. She sits on the stairs and turns her face to the cool corridor. She doesn’t understand how She does it. Poor darling, she thinks, listening to the fans whirring. They’re going way too hard.
Mai forces herself to rise and complete the circuit. Near the centre, one of the crevices is strangely lit. Uneven. She looks inside and sees there is something stuck in there. A cloth that Soumia must have dropped. It’s caught between two ports. She wonders how long it has been there. Sweat rolls down her forehead. Poor darling. That won’t do. She leans her body in. She is surprised by how dry and loud it is inside. She can hear the sound of static coming off the balled cloth. Mai reaches down, down. Sparks web across her skin, and for a moment she is a beautiful constellation, lit up from the inside.