Canadian immigration laws allowed foreigners to apply for student visas without undergoing security checks. Applicants must register with a college or university, enrol into a certificate or degree program and demonstrate financial resources to meet foreign student status requirements. They may also apply for work visas. Student working visas are seldom denied. Successful foreign student applicants are free to enjoy three years in Canada with little government scrutiny. At the end of their three years, they are eligible for extensions. This policy allows thousands of foreigners holding student visas to live virtually unnoticed in Canada. No one can say with certainty how these visa holders spend their days and nights. Due to discrimination laws, the student’s age is not important so long as they have reached the age of majority.
Riding the outskirts of Toronto’s industrial section, Cornerstone Gyprock, a wallboard manufacturing plant, conducted shift change. Plant work paid better than average wages and did not always mandate English language proficiency. Mundane factory work was often undesirable to Canadians who generally earned a higher income for less demanding labour. A disproportionate number of brown-skinned and dark-haired workers arrived at Cornerstone Gyprock by bus and in late-model cars. Two in five people had reached their thirtieth year. Manufacturing and agricultural sectors attracted young and strong immigrant employees willing to work harder for less. The age demographics of those employed by Cornerstone were not unusual. Most employees were male. Again, not unusual.
After a short briefing, the nightshift crew donned safety gear. They waited as a team to man production workstations that needed constant monitoring. Workstations were passed to subsequent operators like relay race batons. Prior to batch initialization, computerized workstations required calibrating and testing to achieve and to maintain peak production output. Each run differed slightly from the previous run. No batch of raw materials was identical. Variations within the chemical ratios were normal. After topping off material hoppers, stainless-steel tanks and plastic flex lines pressurized, spindles loaded, powders and chemicals combined, curing compartments heated, and the foreman issued the batch initialization protocol. Consistency was paramount to success. Halting production midstream significantly decreased the finished product’s quality. Chunky wage incentives lessened this occurrence. Company culture ensured strict adherence to production protocols.
The interconnected, compartmentalized production line created a cacophony of noises. Ear protectors were mandatory. Noise levels exceeded ninety decibels. Eighty decibels maintained for extended periods caused hearing impairment. Management insisted all safety standards were observed at all times. To date, no employee had ever experienced a significant injury. Workman’s Compensation Board had never received a complaint. The labour board had never been contacted by a distraught employee. Cornerstone Gyprock maintained a perfect provincial safety rating. No inspector had ever been ordered onsite to investigate a claim. Flammable, corrosive and toxic chemicals were part of the ingredients used to manufacture wallboards. Two particular compounds and one catalytic production chemical caused death if workers were exposed for a prolonged period. Despite volatility and chemical toxicity, no spills or leaks had once triggered Cornerstone’s detection alarms. Lucien Gomez, plant manager and Vice CEO, prided himself on this achievement.
Compressed air hissed through hoses, electronic valves lifted pneumatic arms and actuated solenoids; electric stepper motors regulated cutting blades to precise tolerances while electromechanical servomotors plunged and retracted. Chain- and belt-drives hummed, advancing the click-clacking conveyer belt. As the mixing cycle entered phase two, electric frequency motors gained momentum, running up like Boeing 747 jet engines before take-off. Parallel to the production line’s interconnected compartments, electric forklift trucks zoomed up and down the aisles between yellow safety lines. Bundles of finished wallboards rocked and swayed against metal. Amid the controlled chaos, a crane operator walked outside the yellow line, a control module in his hand, conveying a two-tonne paper roll along ceiling rails.
Production- and operation offices were located on the second floor. Three supervisory offices were located mid-plant. Each possessed floor to ceiling picture windows. Tinted glass lorded over the floor, stretching the breadth of each office. Lucien Gomez sipped his morning coffee while overlooking more than one hundred yards of production floor. Workers hustled and scurried from one task to the other under his hawkish scrutiny.
Standing five-foot-eleven inches, his narrow waist, broad shoulders and deeply muscled chest lent him an appearance belonging to a taller man. Lucien Gomez walked on the balls of his feet with a gate denoting a sureness of movement that brought an image of a panther on the prowl to mind. Dark brown, tropical skin enhanced this image. Severe, thin lips pursed above a strong square chin where a perpetual shadow beard plagued existed no matter how close he shaved. Bushy black eyebrows formed a nearly continuous line over predator eyes that were always swinging left to right and back again. Gomez’s brush-cut, his arrow-straight posture, combined with a drill sergeant’s commanding voice, seemed better suited to a parade ground than an office environment.
Gomez hated waiting. He detested feeling impotent while others solved problems beyond his control. It had required a year to build the high-tech facility, followed by weeks of troubleshooting to remove the kinks from the automated system. Additional months of fine-tuning photocell sensors and thermal reactant strips were the first obstacles to overcome, followed by: weight-sensitive scrapers that cut too deep; stuttering and jerking variable speed frequency motors; and banks of malfunctioning radio probes. Additional months were necessary to refine the recipe ratios, to micro-calibrate individual compartments. Now, the facility produced wallboards that, from outward appearances, were no different from those fabricated at the mother plant next door. He had had almost two years of production without a hitch. Cornerstone teetered on the verge of maximum proficiency when everything went to hell.
Another computer problem, a specialist glitch tied to evolving technologies had cropped up. Banks of electronic hardware beyond his expertise and beyond his ability to solve taunted production goals. They forced Gomez to wait idly while others troubleshot and resolved the technical problems. The ultimate responsibility for production loss rested in his lap. He was a lower link in a higher chain of command and that knowledge was the origin of his stress.
Wayne Steinberg handled the plant’s technological challenges and headed up the five-man robotics team. Industrial control electronics had long ago become a specialist field requiring advanced computer engineering training. Steinberg oversaw the assembly line’s million-dollar integrated system and its programmable logic electromechanics. Marco Martínez, Gomez’s senior partner, president of their consortium and the top link in the chain of command, had sent Wayne Steinberg to take charge of maintenance and operation of the production line and to keep the plant’s technology current with ever-evolving Green protocols.
Gomez accepted Marco Martínez’s man without hesitation. Their relationship was rooted in Panama. Omar Torrijos, Panama’s military attaché, had appointed Manual Noriega chief of military intelligence when he had seized power. Noriega quickly became the most feared man in the country. Colonel Marco Martínez, a young military protégé, waited for an opportunity to impress Noriega. Colonel Martínez showed his rising star capability with a willingness to break any rule but one, never fail Noriega. After the death of Torrijos, Noriega became Chief of Staff to General Dario Paredes, head of the National Guard. Noriega awarded promotions to officers who had proven their loyalty. After Noriega succeeded Paredes, he promoted himself to High General and gained control over Panama’s government. Colonel Marco Martínez became General Marco Martínez.
Gomez had served under General Martínez in the Panamanian army. After Noriega’s rise to power, Martinez recruited Gomez from the tumultuous Panamanian streets overrun by violent, marauding youth gangs when he was seventeen years old. Gomez flourished in the army’s regimented lifestyle. More than any other event, tenure as a combat soldier during the Panamanian War shaped Gomez’s wartime experience. When he earned Captain at twenty years old, he was assigned to protect the borders from insurgents. Gomez practised brutal efficiency; the only language jungle guerrillas understood.
The United States accused Noriega of money laundering, drug trafficking and being a double agent for the CIA and Cuba’s intelligence agency. US foreign diplomatic affairs office urged Panama’s government to remove Noriega from office. Noncompliance met those diplomatic requests. Talks broke down. The United States Armed Forces invaded Panama and arrested Noriega. General Marco Martínez, along with other military personnel, fled. General Martinez took the very young Gomez with him. Noriega’s rapid decline, thought to have been instigated by internal malcontents, was a lesson to Martínez. A Florida jury later found Noriega guilty of money laundering, eight counts of cocaine trafficking and racketeering. Noriega was sentenced to forty years.
General Martinez learned that meting out harsh justice to enemy resources, especially families, villages or towns, ensured fewer sympathizers endured to instigate human rights violation protests. Wipeout a village and no one remained to take up the cause or to attract international attention. Swift, brutal responses limited retaliation. General Martínez was renowned as a leader who motivated his men to achieve success with nearly no-holds-barred. Panama did not suffer rank and file of free media, human rights protection groups and Armed Forces watchdogs. He was not as accountable compared to his North American counterparts, but there were limits that even he would not cross for fear of retaliation from a growing global consciousness. Martínez’s philosophy was simple; he expected his men to attain mission objectives; no exceptions. If a witness endangered the operation, then remove the witness. A favourite method of making a witness disappear was to feed them to the alligators. Gomez loved watching three or four of the giant lizards fight over a body by literally tearing it limb from limb.
The sound of rapid footfalls brought Gomez’s thoughts back to the present. The thin scar bisecting his left brow turned red whenever he became agitated. Gomez absentmindedly scratched the calcified bump in the middle of his large, hooked beak. He had telephoned Steinberg more than ten minutes ago. A knock at his door brought him a level of stress relief and dissipated some of the redness in his flaring brow scar. He turned from overlooking the plant floor and found Steinberg’s tall and slim body, all angles and jutting bones, sliding into his office.
“Sorry for the delay.”
Steinberg collapsed into a chair across from Gomez, one long and thin leg casually thrown over the armrest. Steinberg’s high-pitched voice, New York City accent, disdain for executives who delegated absent technical expertise and general contempt for authority, grated Gomez’s nerves. Preferring order and discipline, he incorporated his military acumen into Cornerstone Gyprock’s daily operations. He disliked the tall American with the lantern jaw and wavy brown hair, but Steinberg was one of the best in his field, so Gomez kept his personnel thoughts out of his chocolate-brown eyes that sat beneath a pronounced brow ridge.
“Have you solved our problem?”
“I’m working on it.” Steinberg juggled a pile of crinkled and dog-eared schematics. “I’ve centralized the sensor banks and probes that evaluate three of the chemical concentrations, but I haven’t yet identified the programmable logic controller memory grade blocs.”
“Don’t give me that fucking techno-speak.”
“Okay. Right. Let’s see, then.” Steinberg sank back in the chair with his mass of papers rocking precariously on his knee. “Three times each run, the computer generates a quality control list that guides production and updates our electronic bulletin board.”
“Yes, yes. Move on. Have you found a way to replace the list?”
Gomez stared distastefully at his desk computer. It represented the majority of his daily problems.
“Not without taking us offline with the mother plant.” At Gomez’s narrowing eyes, Steinberg added, “Which isn’t an option. We need to remain online to generate production-grade statements, material consumption tables―”
“Cut to the chase, Wayne.”
“I’ve written a patch to remove the control list and to substitute another, which makes it virtually impossible for anyone to obtain the original. I haven’t compensated for quality control, yet. I’m taking measures to prevent anyone with site access from capturing the original material control list before its replaced with the dummy. That includes trespassing into our system from the mother plant. I’ll have that wrapped up fairly quickly, but there’s another problem that’s popped up.”
“What’s that?” Gomez asked, partially relieved that Wayne had achieved so much progress in so little time.
“Random quality checks.”
“What of them?”
“I have yet to find a way to interrupt the portion of the program that calls for them. Because we’re online with the mother plant, a slave to their production processes, if you will, their computer’s request overrides ours. Even when it doesn’t, the call for random quality checks is an instruction set written directly to the chipset, which I can’t erase. It’s one of those damn internal scan functions which ensure quality and minimize loss when there’s a runtime error. Changing the default hierarchy of that chipset affects the generation of the numbers we use to produce first-grade boards.”
“Unacceptable. Our new Green protocols go online in a month. Any monkey with site access will be able to obtain our production recipe.” He slammed his fist on the desk. “Our product recipe must never hit the bulletin board, must never become vulnerable to corporate interception, or otherwise. Jesus Fucking Christ, you’re the one person I shouldn’t have to emphasize proprietary production security protocols.”
Wayne explained, “Until software companies release registration numbers, the public is excluded from the collection site. Only the distributors use the bulletin boards, and then only sporadically. By the time the software goes public, I’ll have the bugs eradicated. Be easier if we bailed and didn’t play cat and mouse with the ecologically absurd. Isn’t there enough capital invested without exploiting environmentalist movements and Green incentive programs? So what if a few customers go elsewhere. Combining the two plants is non-productive to ours. Fuck the EPA until they legislate change. Screw Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Systems ― LEEDS and the tree huggers don’t pay the bills. The mother plant can swallow those losses with what we’re putting out.”
“Need I remind you that to do otherwise would raise questions when every other manufacturer is embracing this new appeal of variable testing and material grade assurances? It’s more than going Green, more than LEEDS construction and material protocols. Do your fucking job. We don’t pay you to think beyond your specialty. We follow industry standards and we play follow the leader with eco-techno-advances until I say otherwise. Until then, keep the production recipe out of reach until the computer glitch is solved.”“I’ll have it done before the Green date,” assured Steinberg. “Ask your counterpart in the mother plant to hold off running diagnostics for the next week and I’ll bring this baby online ahead of schedule.”