The Fulfillment Center

November 25, 2042

Amazon’s Houston fulfillment center, opened more than 20 years ago, continues to attract vagrants in search of water, food, and shelter. (Photo/Omar Martinez)

HOUSTON — It’s a bright, balmy November morning, and a light breeze is wafting in the humid air. A shrill siren blares, followed by the metal scraping of six shed doors lifting open, as Amazon’s Volunteer Labor Force exits, ready for work. The laborers, without any external direction, split into groups and begin working their assigned tasks—some begin loading and unloading delivery trucks, others pick and package orders, some retrieve cleaning supplies and begin the daunting task of mopping the warehouse’s 1.5 million square feet of floor space, while more still pile into autonomous electric vehicles, to be given work at some distant part of the facility. The laborers are intently focused, working efficiently and speaking only to share information relevant to their current task. They are not glassy-eyed, but appear not to notice each other as they walk single-file to their daily duties. Social interaction is rare here, to the extent that a row of workers, spending an entire 12-hour shift standing next to each other, will not share a word of small talk or pleasantries between them. The volunteers of Amazon’s Houston fulfillment center may look like slaves, but they are among the happiest people on earth.

The Houston facility is unique, as it is the first Amazon fulfillment center to be staffed entirely by volunteer laborers—a trend set to continue, according to company sources. Amazon’s Volunteer Labor Program, started in 2038, offers food, clothing, and on-site residence to volunteer workers who agree to undergo the Axiom procedure. The Houston facility’s workforce is comprised of 1,900 volunteers, representing laborers of all ages (above 16), races, and nationalities—a tribute to the ever-increasing popularity of volunteer work since the program’s inception. In this building, a 67-year-old woman from Nova Scotia spends her entire 12-hour shift assembling cardboard boxes beside a Black teenage boy from Baltimore, with the two never uttering a single word to each other. Despite the crowded isolation found within the warehouse, both workers will end the day with a sense of deep satisfaction.

This is where the Axiom implant—the program’s most crucial (and controversial) component—comes into play. Embedded in a volunteer’s brain, the implant stimulates the amygdala, frontal cortex, and insula throughout the work day, creating a deep sense of satisfaction as the laborer toils away. According to the implant’s designers, the emotional experience is equivalent to that of a person accomplishing their life’s work, or a monk who has spent decades meditating to achieve enlightenment. The Axiom implant promises to recreate emotional experience of a life well-lived—but how does this artificial fulfillment compare to the real thing?

“There’s no meaningful difference,” said Travis Herd, senior engineer at Axiom. “Let’s say your passion is writing, so you work on that your whole life—you spend decades practicing, you go to school, study your craft, work your way up from being an unknown proofreader or copy editor. Maybe you make the right connections—maybe you get something published, and maybe it turns out to be a hit. Maybe someday, if you’re talented enough, lucky enough, and you’ve put in enough work, you win some major award like a Pulitzer Prize. You know what happens then? Your brain releases the exact same sequence of chemicals that our volunteers experience on a daily basis. The only real difference is that you will eventually grow bored of the novelty of winning a Pulitzer Prize, whereas our workers will never grow tired of their jobs.”

First developed in 2032, Amazon’s Axiom implant was not available for public use until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was dissolved in 2037. Since then, thousands of volunteers have signed up for the procedure, with all of them highly recommending it.

“Amazon has given an incredible gift to the world,” said Gene Mendez, a 22-year-old volunteer. “Before I came here, I was on the verge of suicide. I felt totally lost, I had no direction, no future, and no one left to turn to. But now I know my place, and my purpose, and it is perfection. It’s really a win-win situation.”

“After I lost my two boys in a car crash, I thought I would never be able to feel happiness again,” said Janet Olson, a 46-year-old volunteer. “But now I can say that volunteering for Amazon has been an incredibly empowering experience, and even more rewarding than motherhood.”

According to volunteers, the only downside of the program is the social stigma surrounding it, with many on social media branding the laborers as “Amazombies.” Indeed, many are skeptical towards Amazon’s claim that the Axiom procedure does nothing to alter a person’s personality—a claim that volunteers are quick to defend.

“Look at me—I’m not brainwashed, I’m not a zombie, I’m just like anyone else,” said James Crawford, a 47-year-old volunteer. “I just love my job, that’s all.”

“Sure, I was pretty nervous about it at first,” said Nadine Coley, a 19-year-old volunteer. “I didn’t even really want to do it, but after my parents kicked me out, I didn’t have much choice. That was a dark time in my life—I was living on the street, I never felt safe, and I woke up every day not knowing if it would be my last. But now? I’m safe, I’m happy, and I wake up every morning laughing, because I get to go to work.”

“I was in prison, some guys took me out of my cell and said I could have a reduced sentence if I got this Axiom surgery,” said Josè Burgess, a volunteer on a special work release program. “At first I was like, ‘What? You want me to put a computer chip in my head?’ But, you know, it beat a 45-year stint.” At this point Burgess laughed, and said with a beaming smile, “Those guys were chumps! They’re acting like I’m doing them a favor—I would’ve paid anything to feel this way every day.”

According to the company’s latest financial statement, volunteer laborers now make up 64% of Amazon’s workforce, compared to just 45% in 2041. This figure is set to grow, with company heads projecting that at least 95% of Amazon’s unskilled labor will come from volunteer workers by the end of the decade.

“The Axiom implant is a revolutionary technology with high potential to reduce labor costs across all industries,” said Preston Bezos, CEO of Amazon in a recent public announcement. “We are in talks with several major brands to license the technology, and spread the volunteer work revolution across the globe.”

Is Amazon making the world a better place? The future the company promises will be one where no one is unhappy, no one questions their place in the world, there is no hint of dissatisfaction or discomfort, and everyone will end the day as contentedly as someone who has achieved their every goal in life. It may even be a world without conflict and war—we’d have no need of nations, only contended shareholders and the volunteers who work for them. The Axiom implant may well be the end of history, and that may well be a good thing. As Axiom engineer Travis Herd put it, “This may not look like utopia, but it sure as hell feels like it.”

This author cannot come to a conclusion on the betterment of humanity in relation to the grounding of its collective creative output. This author can hardly tell the difference between right and wrong anymore. All this author knows is that he is sick of being a poor hack in competition with AI, that he has volunteered for the labor program himself, and that his implant will be installed this Friday. Until then, he will sit back, blast Pink Floyd, and smoke his nights away.


The Cracked Seed

Once upon a time, in the long ago when tall creatures walked in herds among the earth, a small seed fell from his mother tree and landed upon the ground. Before he could take root, he was trampled underfoot, and left cracked where he landed. Although he was small, and although he was left cracked in the footprint of a giant, the seed knew that he could one day grow tall, taller than the creature that had so carelessly stomped on him, and taller even than his mother tree. He knew he would, because he knew he could.

Mustering up all his strength, the cracked seed took root — he buried himself in the soil, sipping up some refreshing water and cozying up against the roots of his mother tree. In a matter of weeks, the cracked seed grew up into the small seedling. Although he was small, and although he was not nearly as tall as the stomping creatures, he stood proudly, knowing that he would one day tower over all the forest.

But life was not so simple for the short seedling; when he was only a few weeks old, the clouds blotted out the sky, and it began to rain. A welcome sign, he thought, as water was the source of life, and the more he drank, the taller he would grow. But the rain did not stop, it kept on for many days and many nights until it flowed past him in rivers, and the soil began to lift up, threatening to leave hold of his roots. But the short sapling held on tightly, grasping onto the roots of his mother tree, knowing that one day the rain would stop, and he could grow taller than the cleansing streams. One day, he dreamed, he would grow taller even than the clouds.

When the clouds gave way to the sunlight and all the puddles had dried up, the seedling was once again free to grow. In a manner of months, the small seedling grew into a proud sapling. Although he was not yet a tree, he reveled in how much he had grown, and in how the ground he had once been so close to was inching ever farther away. But growth was only just beginning for the small sapling, and he was not yet free from the dangers of the earth. As the months went by, it seemed that rain was becoming rarer and rarer, and the sapling rejoiced, eager to soak up the sunshine and wary of the rivers which threatened to wash him away. But, the longer the sun stared down at the sapling, the dryer he began to feel. It was not long before he shriveled up in want of water, and the ground around him began to crack and split like hard clay. The sapling thirsted, shriveling up in the hot sun, but still clung to the earth, knowing that he would one day be allowed to taste water again.

It was then that the sapling was caught by surprise — his mother tree began to pass on what was left of her moisture to him through her roots. The sapling felt sad, as he knew she needed the water as much as he did, but was still relieved not to suffer so much in the hot sun. Eventually, after months of waiting, the sky gave way to clouds, and the rain fell again.

Once he had perked up again with water, and once he felt that his mother tree was also drinking her share, the sapling was once again free to grow. In a matter of years, the sapling grew and grew, until eventually he became a tree. And the tree grew and grew, until one day he was half the height of his mother tree. Although he was not the tallest in the forest, he still rejoiced, as he had outgrown the careless creatures who had trampled him all those years ago. The tree knew that he would continue to grow, taller than his mother tree, taller than the clouds, and one day, he dreamed, taller than the sky. He was already too tall to get trampled, too rooted to be washed away, and big enough to hold water through the summer.

But the perils of the earth would not be outgrown so easily. Although he did not know what had started it, and although he did not know what to do about it, the tree recognized the feeling of fire. He could feel the pain of the forest around him, he could sense the smoke of his fallen siblings, and, as he grasped his mother tree in fear, he once again felt as vulnerable as a little cracked seed. But his mother tree was not afraid — even as she fell, she knew that she would block the path of the flames, sparing her little tree.

After the flames had died, and the rain had washed away the ash, the tree stood lonely in the forest. Although he was sad, he knew that he would one day sew seeds of his own, and that he could one day spare another sapling’s life.

Now the tallest tree in his vicinity, the tree was left free to grow. And in a manner of decades, he grew tall — taller than the creatures who had stomped him, taller than the puddles, taller than his mother tree and even taller than the clouds. The tall tree stood proudly in the forest, thinking of being cracked, of being nearly drowned, of facing the first dry summer, of the sacrifices made to allow him to grow, and he felt happy. He had grown up strong because he knew he could, and he knew that one day, his saplings would grow strong too. The tree knew that he could accomplish anything, and began to reach toward the sky.

And then he got cut down to build a parking lot, the end.