The noise was coming from inside his ear. At first he thought it was tinnitus. Everyone who worked at the factory got tinnitus. It was just a rule. But it was more of a whistle than a ring, and he had only been working there for a few months. The grizzled mechanics said it took years, each one extending the number to fit their tenure. Rupe was at twenty years, so that meant Jacob had nineteen and some change left to go.
Next he assumed it was a bug, maybe a cricket. The thought of having a bug wandering around his skull was off-putting, but stuck bugs tended to die and could wait until the morning. As long as it didn’t start biting anything, he’d be fine. The problem was: How would a cricket find its way to the 12th floor of an apartment building, and why couldn’t he feel it moving around? Also, he was pretty sure crickets were extinct and had been since RoundPharm™ had gotten into the pesticide business. All the bees were dead because of them. Sparrows too.
Jacob stuck his pinkie into his ear and dug down as far as he could. The noise stopped. His ear hurt. He grimaced and pulled the greasy appendage out, hoping it would be covered in cricket legs. It was not.
“Huh?” he said to the empty room. He wished his wife was home. She’d smile and tell him he’d be okay. Everything was okay when she was around. She’d also tell him to go see a damn doctor and not to be an idiot about it. Jacob could do that on his own, make an appointment on his lunch break.
He got ready for work, the low whistle following him into the bathroom and then the kitchen. His electric toothbrush drowned it out, as did the shower and toaster oven. The noise was so low that it might as well not be there, though Jacob didn’t find this particularly reassuring.
What if he was going crazy?
“Too stupid to go crazy,” he muttered at the TV, where two news pundits debated the latest piece of politics. Jacob switched the channel to cartoons.
He ate his toast and drank his morning orange juice while Scooby and the gang ran from a swamp monster to jaunty music. He smiled. When he remembered the ringing in his ears, he turned the volume up. When it was time for Freddy to detail his latest plan on catching ol’ Swampy, Jacob got an idea. If the noise was real, he should be able to record it. Freddy pulled out a coil of rope from off screen, and Jacob dug into his back pocket for his cell phone.
It was an old phone, one without the fancy holographic displays and light-sensitive buttons, but it managed to get service in the deepest part of the factory, which none of his colleges could brag about. He swiped through his apps until he found a blue square with a white microphone. He pressed the button, and when a red circle appeared, he pressed that too.
“Would you like to record a voice memo?” the phone asked in a sultry, robotic tone. He had never recorded a voice memo before and was surprised to hear the question. Older phones weren’t supposed to have AI like the new ones.
“Yes,” he mumbled. Maybe it had updated over night and he just didn’t know it.
Jacob muted the TV and brought the phone to his ear. The ringing was back, soft and undisturbed, and he felt his hands go clammy. This would either prove he was crazy or that something was wrong with him. Either way, something was wrong with him.
After a few seconds, he stopped the recording. His nerves were on edge, but the sultry voice sounded quite happy as she saved the memo as voice_memo_xx.xx.01.
“Play the recording back.”
The whistle was faint in his speaker, but it was there, a teapot screaming from three floors up. He closed his eyes, knowing he should make that doctor’s appointment now and not later.
“You’re a god.”
Jacob yelped the phone from his hands, and the recording stopped as it tumbled to the floor. He stared at the bright screen, sweat forming on his brow. The voice asked him if he wanted to play the memo again. His ear was ringing.
The phone didn’t answer, though he expected it to. It had an AI now. He nudged it with his foot. The other voice wasn’t an AI; it was different, a whisper, like a ghost inside his head, and it had … never mind what it had said. He didn’t want to think about that.
By the time Jacob picked up his phone, Freddy was unmasking Ol’ Swampy and getting ready for a commercial break. Jacob navigated the screen carefully, making sure not to play the recording again, and looked up the number for the nearest hospital in his insurance plan. He called it, made an appointment, and told himself he was feeling better. He wasn’t, and the assurance didn’t help him, but it’s what his wife would have said.
Early-morning traffic was quiet, and the sun was still snoozing beyond the horizon, so Jacob turned his stereo up, jumping between stations to avoid commercials. For some reason, the noise was easier to hear during them. His attention was divided, stuck between blinking yellow traffic lights that turned green as he approached and the phrase in his ear. He was not a god. He was too stupid to be a god, and anyways, he was a Christian and that meant there was only the one God, which was not him. Crazy people thought they were gods, and he didn’t feel crazy. Was crazy something he should feel though? He was pretty sure the disease didn’t come with a sore throat or runny nose.
Just as the traffic lights were shifting from blinking yellow to a steady green, Jacob was leaving the city. A shallow grey ran along the horizon, not quite a sunrise but bright enough to dim the stars. He continued changing radio stations, and he continued trying not to think about the phrase in his ear. By the time he was at work, someone had spilled water-color pink on the clouds.
Jacob made his way into the factory, passing through two security checkpoints and third shift workers dressed in white coats. They yawned as they punched out, bags under their eyes and empty lunch boxes in their hands. One, a woman with paper-white hair and black earrings, gave Jacob a silent fist-bump. This routine had started on his second day and was currently unbroken. Jacob still didn’t know her name.
The factory was owned by RoundPharm™ and made electric toothbrushes, the kind that could transmit the news into your head while you brushed or play music if you had a Spotify Premium account. They could also tell you if you were getting a cavity and even book a dentist appointment, though that required Amazon Prime to work. Jacob did not know a single person in the factory who owned one.
He made his way through the big building, cutting well-worn corners and passing under a host of security cameras until he was in the maintenance shop. An obese man with oil stains up to his elbows worked a mill and sang to the radio, which was stuck playing country music.
“Hey Rupe,” Jacob called. “How’s it going?”
“Turnin’ and burnin. Burnin’ and turnin.”
“What’cha makin’ today?”
“Don’t know yet.” Rupe shut the machine down and removed a square piece of aluminum covered in holes. “It just might be a paperweight.”
“Got a problem with line four that I want you to look at. Conveyor is stuttering. Grab the tachometer, and I’ll meet you out there.”
Jacob started for his things as the radio station jumped to commercials. The ringing returned. It was almost deafening, and even though he had a doctor’s appointment in nine hours, this couldn’t wait. It would be irresponsible to work on heavy machinery if he was crazy. He pulled out his phone, now with an updated AI, and asked it to find his memo.
“You finally get a new phone?” Rupe asked. “‘Bout time.”
“No. It must have updated or something.”
“That’s not how that works.”
Jacob shrugged. “Listen to this for me, please.”
Rupe shrugged back and held the phone to his ear with an extreme intent. When it whispered, “you’re a god,” Jacob jumped. Rupe did not.
“Whistling sound,” Rupe said, handing the phone back. “What’s broken?”
“Dunno.” He had heard the voice. It was there. It didn’t make any sense that Rupe could hear the whistle and not the words behind it.
“Well get your things. Been waiting for you so we could fix line four.”
It was, when Jacob thought about it, a fact of seniority. Rupe was the lead, and that meant he was above fixing stuttering belts. His job was taking care of the robot arms, fixing them when they broke and reprogramming them when they got lost. It’s what got him the big bucks. He was also too fat to get underneath the conveyors.
Jacob donned a white smock and snagged the tachometer, complete with CAL sticker. He also grabbed his tool belt.
They made their way into the maze that was production, a dozen conveyors manned with robot arms grabbing, inspecting, and moving white, bristly parts from one grumbling piece of machinery to the next. First-shift employees watched the movement with glazed looks in their eyes and bright orange stoppers in their ears. Everything was normal.
Just as they entered the center of the room, heading for line four, the noise cut. The conveyors stopped running, the robot arms stopped moving, and the giant plastic molders ceased stomping. Jacob’s hands went clammy again, and the tachometer slipped from his fingers, landing on the floor with a plastic-y crunch. Rupe’s mouth fell open. The ringing in his ear was loud.
Every robot arm turned to Jacob and bowed its rectangular head.
It was the longest, most surreal second of Jacob’s life. By the time he fully registered what had happened, production had resumed, each machine kicking back on so RoundPharm™ toothbrushes could be sold in all corners of the world.
He was a god.
God help him.