By Ganesha Lightwave
Wheeler was a horse’s ass, the kind of guy who’d started talking a minute before a meeting was supposed to end and go on for an hour just to hear the sound of his own voice. And that voice – a monotone drone of bees, always using five syllables when one would do. Despite frequent urges to punch him in the mouth, I refused to join the others mocking him behind his back. Maybe that was why he asked me to come with him on a quality audit of one of our suppliers.
Metatron Incorporated’s state-of-the-art manufacturing facility was a giant chrome cube that gleamed in the winter Nebraska sun. There were no smokestacks or piles of slag, only transmission lines ending in a bank of transformers and the occasional wisp of white steam escaping from the building. Even more remarkable was the company’s bottom line. Metatron was that rare American manufacturer that made quality goods while undercutting the Chinese. Mechanical or electrical – you name it. Metatron could build it.
The reason for their profitability became clear the moment we stepped up to reception. Instead of a woman behind a desk there was merely a television camera.
“Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Vasquez, welcome to Metatron’s Archangel Plant,” a computerized voice said. “Please follow the indicators to the conference room.”
Wheeler and I followed the blue lights that strobed down the corridor until we came to a room where two men dressed in business casual waited. Both had weightlifters’ bodies. The blonde man’s eyebrows were lighter than his tanned skin, making his face resemble a photographic negative.
“Don Millikan, account manager.” The blonde man shook our hands with a grip hard as titanium. “And this is Richard Farraday, VP of manufacturing.”
After the introductions, I downed two cups of coffee to immunize myself against Wheeler’s assault of verbal chloroform. He wasn’t there to learn how Metatron operated so efficiently. He was there to spout his own prejudices.
“Slackers are easy to spot. I watch for guys who won’t look me in the eye because they know the tasks they’re performing are useless.”
I tuned him out. The sun could use up its hydrogen fuel, expand to a red giant incinerating the Earth, and then collapse to a cold, black husk. Wheeler would still be talking. I looked around and studied the forty-inch flat-panel monitor that displayed colorful triangles, circles, and squares. They were the same figures I’d seen on a textbook Wheeler had carried. My God! These guys could reconfigure whole assembly lines just by dragging around some symbols on a computer screen!
What happened next came as an even bigger surprise. Wheeler got to the point.
“You’ll get your contract,” he said. “When Vasquez and I coming looking for jobs in a couple months, I want you to remember who gave it to you.”
At the time I wasn’t sure I wanted the job but when they announced the downsizing back home, I was glad. Thank you, Wheeler. What followed was the oddest job interview I ever had. Millikan and Farraday took me to an indoor climbing wall and didn’t start talking until we were fifteen feet off the ground with no safety lines.
“We like to look at the whole person, not just the resume,” Farraday said.
“We want someone who won’t freak out when things get hairy. That’s why your friend, Wheeler, will never make it out of customer service.” Millikan reached across a vertical gap, grabbed a handhold, and hung by one arm until his feet found purchase.
Clinging to my spot with cramping fingers, I was glad I didn’t have to follow.
On my first day at work I wandered around the warehouse that stored raw materials. It was immaculate with white concrete floors and walls. Periodically automated forklifts would retrieve pallets and roll them onto the factory floor. I tried to get a glimpse of the assembly lines but the gates always closed too quickly. My only companion was Robby who seemed more interested in playing games on the inventory computer than in explaining what I should do.
A klaxon blared and yellow lights flashed just before lunch on my fourth day.
“Shit! They’re going to evolve us!” Robby crouched under his desk and trembled.
I thought I’d better hide too so I dashed behind some metal shelves and lay flat on the concrete. It was a stupid move. I was visible from the center of the warehouse but it was too late. The mechanical overseer had already entered. The best I could do was hope the yellow-framed robot would ignore me if I didn’t look at it. I froze as it rolled closer on inflated tires. It stopped and extended a probe that touched my forehead. I began to feel sleepy and passed out.
When I woke, I felt stronger and more focused than I had in years. No longer subject to the limitations of muscles and tendons, my arms could package a thousand integrated circuits a minute. All my weakness and self doubt had vanished. I had a purpose – to maximize production.
- - -
Author of the novel The Speed of Regret, Ganesha Lightwave has published more than fifty short stories in journals such as Absinthe Revival, Space and Time, Zahir, Tales of the Talisman, Blazing Adventures, and Metal Scratches. He has also published over two hundred fifty poems.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
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