Nosing at the Selangor canals in the industrial zone of Setia City, there is a large, grey, squat building of a dour aesthetic which one passer-by of no consequence to this story, nor to any other story, or even to himself, thought as “diligently unremarkable”. In the fifties, the building had been the site of a privately-owned packaging company; the primary business of which was the manufacture of corrugated fibreboard cartons, from which later would be excavated such various items as eggs, apricots and printers. After the business upgraded and the company relocated east, the property was bought by a Swedish noble for a moderately-inflated sum, and repurposed as the world’s largest manufacturing plant of surgical rubber gloves.
The process by which a rubber glove is made is elaborate, yet simple, and almost wholly contingent upon one ingenious mechanism. This mechanism, coiled about the factory’s interior, and sedulously attended upon by discrete bundles of specialized labourers, has the appearance of a long, circling centipede. In the place of where a bug’s chitinous body should be, there is instead a black, segmented chain, looped around a conveyor belt. Attached to this chain on either side are hundreds of perfectly-formed ceramic hands. Each digit is gently and equidistantly splayed from the next. Almost luminous in their powdery white, the hands spin on ball-bearings slightly out of sync with those beside it, such that the effect of the operation’s movement is one of a giant, butlerish, circuitous ballet of insect origin. Or as though the left hand of Mickey Mouse had a strange and sinful dream.
The mechanism at use within the Setia City factory took a more-than-modest pleasure in its work. And this was lucky, for the travails to which it was subject took no natural amount of fortitude. Dipping its hands— or should I say legs, or should I say hands, either or, or both, as you will— into the various solutions of ammonia and chlorine, the machine experienced an unremittent burning sensation across a certain length of its body at all times, as parts of it slid through the chemical baths located on the factory’s main floor. Further up, past the baths, the hands dove in and out of a sortie of vaguely soothing liquids and gels, which built up gradually into a composite film of complex plastics. The machine would then twist through the doors of a huge oven, where the hands’ new accretions underwent vulcanization. In the darkened brimstone furnace, the embryos of rubber glove polymers slung sulphurs to each other across molecular divides, forming easy chain-gangs of supple co-dependency. Emerging to cool into completeness, the fully-formed gloves were at last shucked cleanly from the hands by pressurized bursts of cold air.
On average, 200 rubber gloves were produced every minute.
The machine knew— without quite knowing how it knew— that it was the crucial operant in an important enterprise. After being tested at a number of stations for imperfections (which were not, let it be known, overly common), and sorted into diverse cardboard boxes according size, the congeries of loose and flappy pseudo-skins would journey along their various supply routes to universities and medical offices, KFC outlets and research laboratories, all across the Asian-Pacific, where they would serve as a cardinal line of defence against the cross-migration of numberless toxins. The machine was both the guardian of the flesh of man, and the protectorate of that which man sought to control. For this it was proud.
Yet— or perhaps through due consequence—the machine was deeply repulsed by its organic template. For all its dexterity; for all its wondrous capacity for harp-playing, oil-painting, ear-tugging, pencil-sharpening and chest-stroking, the human hand was— by its reckoning, and in the first order—a thing of compulsive secretion. It oozed things continuously. Wherever it went, whenever it palmed or pressed or lingered, it left behind it an oleaginous stain. Without the vessels of containment the machine so assiduously accreted and then shed, from factory lights on to lights out, the contaminants endemic to touch would seethe past all barriers, like a horde of rats rippling unseen through a field of wheat. The image set minor ripples of disgust through the machine’s backbone. This caused imperfections in the production line, so that a batch of one hundred or so gloves was lost.
Mira Chok had been a basic worker at the factory for one year, seven months. Her job was to manually remove any glove that— for one reason or another— had not been fully cleaved from the ceramic mould during the final air-jet process. For ten hours each day, she and seven others clad in aseptic white would sit to attention before the rolling chain, waiting with eyelids sprung to dully suspended stupefaction should an anomaly of rubber residue come whisking by. Mira’s proficiency and dedication towards her work was as much as anyone could expect from one committed to a job of such spectacular drudgery.
Under strict employment policy, all workers were required to wear themselves the gloves the factory produced. Mira was none too complacent in this regard. It is, however, a sad truth that misfortune knows other byways than complacency.
In this instance, it came down to a bakelite ring. Mia had found it that morning midway through a solitary breakfast of black coffee and eggs, half-hid beneath the tablecloth of a cheap main-street diner not two blocks away from the factory. If the ring had been candid about its existence—disclosed itself flatly in plain sight—its qualities would have been that of the gauchely camp, a bit of tawdry refuse; and to pick it up a thing unseemly. But the manner in which that little glistening thing of jelly blue just lay there, so pert in its circular self, mediating turgid joy and shy devilry, to slip it on her finger proved to Mia something destiny could have fooled her into as rote. Mia slid the ring out from under the tablecloth, and put it on.
At the factory, the ring was forgot. Snapping on her work gloves, the latex snared on a tiny nub of rough bakelite, sharp out of character. A tiny tear appeared in the glove, just below the middle knuckle of the left hand. The event and the outcome constituted something of a momentous chink in the cosmic fabric of mediocrity. Even the supervisor, a walrus-man with eyes that jabbed like screwdrivers, did not notice the puncture. Because of this grossly infinitesimal oversight, of which either all parties or none must be held to account, Mira could not fail to come in pale, unconscious contact with one of the ceramic hands. And so it went that the machine— for the first time since its mechanic stirrings— felt the touch of a living thing.
It was unendurable. That tiny patch of not-rubber thing, hers, soft and warm, bearing secrets of muscle and marrow, of infinite blood factories and pipes— caused an alien acid to gush into some non-existent cavity deep within the machine’s abysmal heart. Its steel body fibrillated like a blind dog before an electrical storm, or a wasted eremite teething on the bitter fruit of revelation. Within the machine grew a hot, subterranean rage. Deception was what it willed to utter, and a ball of enormous hate fled like a million oil droplets to all the gloves it had so unwittingly shed; dead things that even now were lapping and nestling against the hands of a vast global consumery.
At this the machine’s spine buckled. The joints of several ceramic fingers split. Knuckles grew bulbous and shone in sickly cream, and Cthulhic claws evolved with eager snapping. By their own accord, the hands multiplied, and the chain glowed a dull red as it spun faster and faster. Finally, with a great wrenching the machine tore itself up from its bearings. It threshed with gawky horror to the floor, as hundreds upon hundreds of hands slipped and clacked and fluttered about for purchase.
The workers serried, then split. Industry-standard surveillance cameras covering the full perimeter of the factory floor tracked and recorded this both— the serrying, then the splitting, followed by welter of panicked activity towards the main doors—and a paper was later written on the observations thereof, entitled ‘Crowd Evacuation Patterns in the Event of Unplanned Industrial Catastrophes: Analysis by Way of a Modified CBTT Model’.
Witnessed also by the glass eyes was a great orgiastic palpation. The machine’s rummaging was both ferocious and impersonal. Digging and thrusting and sinking its way into soft melony forms, it was not long before no hand was left white. Fires spilled and swept about the factory’s hulk, and the shadows of workers pooling towards the exits oiled in flickering, anxious imprints across a floor slick with blood and oil. Many escaped. Others did not. Into which of these two categories Mira chanced to fall, we are, as yet, uncertain.
Words by Kate Prendergast