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They're pretty sure everyone is trying to kill them, but they discover that complaining to management would be unhealthy. Then the “safety” posters begin to predict their future… and their deaths.

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Pete - Pete’s Kiosk

11:30 a.m.

I held the tiny star-shaped cog up to the lamp, peering through the center hole to check for any roughened edges that had escaped my file. Satisfied that the part would fit perfectly into the larger mechanism, I placed it on the conveyor-belt to my right and it slipped away, through the dark hole, travelling down the assembly line.

I then turned my attention to the pile of identical cogs still in need of finishing touches. The pile grew steadily as roughly machined duplicates drifted down a belt at a glacial pace. Smoothed out by my file, each of these steel components would move on to join a few other cogs of various shapes and sizes, which would all be assembled inside a large gear-box. Where that gear box ultimately went, I couldn’t see from my seat.

I felt a tickle in my ear, and looked up just as the lights dimmed and then brightened three times.

The conveyor belt locked. I rose from my station and inserted my file into its black leather holster on my belt.

I opened the door and stepped out into the hall, nodding silent greetings to my colleagues as they joined me. One after the other, we turned and shuffled along the hallway toward the Mess Hall. Little flashing white indicators guided us to our destination, but of course none of us needed them to know where we were going. They weren’t annoying or anything, so I didn’t mind too much. After all, it was protocol that they should flash rhythmically.

As I walked, I read, purely out of habit, the two signs posted on the way between my work kiosk and the Mess Hall. The first warned, Matches—Always Put Them Out! The second read, in bold print, VOGELS and below, zijn niet voor de poes. (Vogels was the company name, of course. But I never had known what the other text meant, and I guess I didn’t care enough to find out. Probably a slogan. Whatever.) The graphic—a silhouette of a black cat set against a blue sky spotted with birds—had been interesting the first thousand or so times I saw it. Not so much anymore.

In the Mess Hall, I waited in line with the others. Sam drifted out of the crowd and joined me.

“Did you see the game last night?” I asked.

“Never really cared for sports,” Sam said. I wasn’t surprised by his apathy about team sports. His build said that, if he was athletic at all, he was a distance runner: tall, lanky; knobbed joints and muscles like jerky. His shoulder-length brown hair hung straight and minimally styled, like he didn’t give a shit (not that I give a shit about hair, either—I’m just stating the facts). When nervous, he had a habit of combing his thin eyebrows with a long forefinger.

The people in line inched forward. I was close enough to the dispensers by then to hear the glugging of soupy oatmeal slopping into industry-standard steel bowls.

“Yeah, I guess I don’t care much for sports myself,” I finally answered. “If you’re going to get a team of guys together, seems like they could do something more productive with their energy than throw a ball around.”

At the table now, I watched Sam lazily spoon his oatmeal. Neither of us appeared to be very hungry. At least, not for oatmeal.

Our conversation had died, so I listened apathetically to the drone of voices in the Mess Hall. My gaze shifted around languidly, until it settled on Gomez, just as he took his place in the lunch line.

I’d never really cared for Gomez, with his slick hair and insubordinate eyes. He wasn’t a team player. I could tell, because his shirt was never properly tucked, because he rarely reviewed the safety guidelines. He didn’t exercise the necessary care concerning regulation. No one else seemed bothered by this, so I kept quiet.

I’d always figured he would slip, one day. And I was right.

Everyone jumped when the siren went off. I think John must have palmed the big red alarm button in the far corner of the hall. We all leapt up from our seats to stand at attention.

My eyes darted about the room, scanning each of my colleagues’ clothes and deportment, checking for anything out of order. I was not entirely shocked when I discovered that Gomez was responsible for the anomaly. He was wearing—I still have trouble processing what I saw that day, and what came of it—mismatched shoes. One was indeed regulation-standard, steel-toed and black; the other, however, had been crudely, hurriedly spray-painted a harsh yellow.

I nearly choked on my own tongue when I realized that, on top of everything else, it was a sneaker. I just couldn’t understand. Sneakers in a factory? He’s begging for a toe injury.

As one, we all looked to the big blue sign posted to the left of the Mess Hall entrance. We all knew it by heart, but we approached it anyway.

I was the first to reach it, and so I read aloud:

TOE PROTECTION GUIDELINES: Use of proper toe-protection is mandatory on the factory floor, as prescribed in the safety regulation guidelines manual, which outlines the properties required of protective shoe-wear/boot-wear. Here, to name a few thereof:

Steel-toes required in all footwear. Toes are to be square or round, never pointed and never curled. Tread thickness is to be greater than 1,000,000 μm and not to exceed 11,000,000 μm. Heel counter is to be elevated above toes to prevent side-to-side foot movements. Tread striations are to be horizontal, spaced evenly at a distance not greater than 2x10-8 ha, providing optimum traction on a variety of substrates. The appropriate angle from the upper shaft to the sole is ⊾, plus or minus up to 5°. Footwear must be fashioned of quality, durable leather. It is required of all workmen to polish their assigned footwear nightly. For further guidelines, consult manual: section N, subsection ZW, article 15, chapter 22.98a, heading ii.

It is required of all workers to maintain the true size and correct color footwear, as outlined in form NEN 3011. Should work conditions require variations, floor managers should consult the manual as to the legal, industry-standard alterations of footwear before attempting to deal with the conditions prevailing at the workplace in question.

These orders are issued directly by the Safety Institution, and the aforementioned restrictions apply to any and all persons, past, present or future (including visitors, workers from a different division, and directors). Upon each entry of the workplace, consult this sign. If even one individual should fail to comply, the entire workplace may be shut down! Safety must be demanded of everyone, or no one!

Should this rule not apply to everyone—as in, it only is applied where certain personnel are concerned—then the ‘limited’ application of this sign requires that it be measured and subsequently a copy be made of half the size of the original (0.15 m from the center line). Under the blue rectangular graphic, of a height of 0.15 m and width of 0.20 m will the offender—for whom alone this action is required—paint in white letters the exact copy of the text of the relevant sign (read: the Toe-Protection Safety Sign) for the benefit of the whole team, as well as himself. He will then post this on the Re-Education Wall, in order to ensure future compliance.

As per rule ERT 2177, this sign must be read aloud, in full, each time offense is given. This must be done to ensure full compliance as well, so that the offender understands the nature of his or her error and how to prevent it in the future.

The Safety Board thanks you for your compliance.

Have a Careful Day!

My mouth was dry by the end of it. I stared at Gomez, waiting for his response.

He shrugged.

There were audible gasps.

“Well?” said Jack. “What are you waiting for? Hop to it!”

Gomez just looked at him, lip shriveling to meet his gums. I couldn’t discern the meaning behind the expression.

Finally, he lurched off toward the bench behind the slop-delivering pumps, where he would set about his work of fashioning a perfect replica of the sign whose instructions he’d broken.

Sam said softly, “What do you make of that?”

“It’s like I always say: he’s not a team-player,” I replied.

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