An's Workshop

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Chapter 4

There is red everywhere in the futurehouse, on every column. It is no Dutch masterpiece, but there is something brightening about it. It is an unnatural red in the falsely-lit night like the painted face of a savage. The red columns holding up the roof are finally finished. Painterbots are stripping the masking tape around the bottom of the columns when she starts her shift, and she sees their splattered mechanisms now preparing to fly through security. They are all safe now. They are all fully aware of our surroundings.

She inhales the odour. With her lingering hangover, it all tastes of aether.

As the red-smattered drones exit one by one through security, the horns alarm and the belt stops. They all have been trained for this and never know if it is a drill or for real. The painterbots have not tripped the detector. It is either a disaster or more psychology from the top. Their next step is to ‘move toward the muster point’ as the safety lady comes around and tells them almost daily on her rounds. ‘What should you do if there is an earthquake?’ An’s answer is from rote memory. ‘Where is the muster point? For ten, next category please.’ The muster point is the big, cardboard circle directly above her. The associates stand before the safety lady now.

‘I am here to inform you that it has taken you all four minutes and forty-eight seconds to gather here. That is better than last time. Congratulations on your performance. It is important to maintain vigilance for the safety of all associates.’ Everyone claps after her initial orientation. She then moves aside, her job done.

Ananke moves from among the managers to under the cardboard circle. ‘We gathered you here for two reasons...’ His eyes dart to the clock and back to the group, timing his stern glances at a few faces. ‘… to test your response to a potential danger and to make an announcement.’

An is looking around the large crowd as he speaks. They have grown in number for the buying season. There are nearly four hundred of them now on the night shift. It is difficult to recognize anyone. She can’t see Ari.

Someone has raised her hand and starts to ask a question.

Ananke cuts it off immediately, ‘We ask that you not voice your concerns at this time. You can come to me on an individual basis at the next appropriate break.’

Another hand goes down.

‘As you have noticed, we have completed some upgrades to the look of the futurehouse. It is for your safety and the safety of other associates… and another reason which we will get to in a moment.’ Ananke looks and sounds as though he is reading from a memorized script, looking through everyone now, perhaps at his mental plastic placard. ‘We hope that the increased safety will increase our performance in relation to all the other futurehouses in the region. Currently we rank thirteenth in our section. Moving up .642 points, as we project will take us up four in the rankings and would entail certain bonuses… which will of course be shared among all of us.’ He quickly glances toward the managers. ‘This is only a projection, but a relatively accurate one according to our predictive algorithms.’

Oh get on with it. Not another diatribe about the algos. She has to hold her tongue. She is used to speaking her thoughts out loud to the air and the noise at her station.

Ananke speaks on in this stifled manner, ‘Now onto the announcement. Our futurehouse has been chosen to host an experimental program and we wish your full cooperation. Let me introduce to you AutoMATTon or MATT.’

Azzam pulls a large M7 box up over a red, cyborg with four appendages dangling in front of it and long, flat hindquarters sitting upon rubber tracks. They stare at this four-armed centaur. The first thing to notice is that its hindquarters can hold at least two totes on its back. Under this long back is what looks like a tank track, an upside-down assembly line.

‘MATT will be working alongside the seekers but don’t worry he is programmed to stay out of your way.’ Azzam touches a button on MATT and a laser scanner lights from its chest. ‘As you notice, MATT has four seekers. These all act independently to seek items. And there is no need to hold a gun with his built-in scanner. So theoretically MATT should seek four times faster than a live associate, which would mean a possible rate of 400 on a slow day.’ He laughs at his own joke.

Many of the live associates look knowingly toward each other.

‘Let us know if MATT in any way obstructs or interrupts your pathway. For the time being, he is limited to only L1, that’s level one for all the new associates. MATT is military grade. All his technology is cutting edge. The air force is drafting a drone version that will fly up to the higher levels, but they are only at the preliminary stage. We will begin MATT’s maiden path later tonight so be aware. Now let’s all get back to what we were doing.’ He dismisses us as the managers all gather around the new recruit.

‘What do you think about that?’ Ari asks her.

Oh, she didn’t notice him, ‘Yes, it figures. One step closer to getting rid of us all, right. Then again, our demise has been greatly exaggerated.’

‘What are you saying?’ He asks. ‘I am behind on my rate, but let’s talk at lunch break.’

‘You are a good follower, hey. When will you learn?’

The associates slowly shuffle around trying to milk the break as long as they can.

‘I have bills to pay,’ Ari says louder as he begins to walk away.

‘Gaming bills are expensive,’ she counters louder so that the other hangers-on can hear. A manager glances from behind the shiny red machine. An catches her eye and picks up her pace away from the MATT fracas and back to her packing station. Was painting the columns for our safety at all? It must be something about the robot. Maybe the paint contains something it can sensor to help guide it around the futurehouse? We will never know. They will never take the time to explain what actually is because that would take time away from production. The managers ‘knowing’ and the associates ‘not knowing’ keeps everything in its place.

Passing into the lunchroom entrance at midnight, she sees Ari eating his lunch at a table by himself. She manually punches in her code to the COR vendor. If she’s hungry, she always get the same thing—babaganouche and rusk. Then the obligatory facial scan to measure her satisfaction. Her chance to show how she really feels is met with a smirk that is facially scanned into the system. Customer satisfaction guaranteed.

At Ari’s table, his food glows like the packages at the COR hypersupermarket. The light to keep them awake is invasive. No matter, he is nodding off, so she sits with him against the fluorescent wall.

’So they finally brought him in. You better watch your job or MATT will take it,’ she surprises him again.

He sits up, ’Why do you call it a him? It’s a robot.’

’Did you get to work alongside it? How fast is it?’ she emphasizes.

‘I didn’t have the pleasure,’ Ari squints concernedly. ‘I was on L2.’

‘And what do you think about it?’ she asks.

’I think we better get going on this machine L of yours. It’s coming down the pipe.’ He says, now fully awake.

‘Yes. I know what you mean. I don’t want to be one of those pleading to hold on to a job cleaning the floor at the very end. But that is a little way off.’

‘So…?’ He asks her.

‘So I am making some progress. I have made some more calculations. We just need to know how much and which VR headsets to buy.’

‘And what about a power source?’

‘I have been looking but there’s nothing powerful enough. You won’t be able just to plug this thing in. It has to have a big boost, a pulse of energy to pull off what we need.’

Ari stares at his food and then separates what looks to be a green mass from some sort of sauce. ‘Let me search for what you need on the interscape or on wik, maybe there is a power source that some community knows about.’

‘Alright. You search and I’ll work on the VR interface. I might have an idea. Try to see if you can find something in the futurehouse while you are seeking and let me know the location. But the headsets have to be right, and you know that better than I.’

‘Yes I know the ones exactly. But if I get them, I will have to game with them first.’

‘Not a chance.’

‘Anyway, there is no way you will get them out of here. This futurehouse is locked down tighter than a prison.’

‘Don’t worry. It’s a gilded cage not a prison,’ she says, fluttering her hands.

‘And you have the key?’

‘Have you ever read Donne?’

’Have not done.’

‘Very funny. You’re such a card.’ She takes that as a no. ‘Anyway, he knew something about cages.’

‘Oh yeah?’

’Yeah. He wrote something like, ‘I hold the keys to my prison within mine own hand.’’ (random18)

Ari looks at the bright wall for a moment. ‘Let’s hope… it’s nice to think so anyway. My hands are usually kept so busy that I don’t have time to think of much else than filling totes and carts… just so that you can fill boxes with your hands.’

’There must be a way. The algorithm’s only function is to keep us busy-- that and to function as quickly as possible; I guess to keep itself busy. We have a multitude of functions. We can even make our own functions and these are only limited by our own expanse of mind. We make our own prisons, and we hold our own keys.

There are still a few minutes before they begin the last half of the shift.

‘Speaking of keeping us busy, have you ever watched the clock?’ Ari says.

‘I’m always watching the clock.’

‘No I mean on the gun. I noticed something a while ago.’

‘You mean on my screen glass? No, I never have. Why? What about it?’

‘Watch it this time. Watch the seconds closely. I noticed something. I wonder if it’s for the whole system. They are either adding seconds onto our work time or there is a bug in the algo.’

‘A glitch in the machine?’

’It might just be my gun or the algo is trying to get more work out of me. Do you think it tailors the program for everyone, or when it needs more orders filled does it nickel and dime us by the millisecond?’

‘First robots and now the clocks are wrong.’

‘Yes. Speaking of which, it’s time to get back.’

When she goes back to the packing station after the Quick 5 she notices that someone has stolen her C2s. She has to go to a manager because there are no more on the cart. He says he’ll restock her boxes when he has time. An remembers to check the clock on her computer as she logs back in. She watches for about twenty seconds, but she doesn’t see anything about what Ari found so abnormal. She keeps watching. Then the manager comes over with the boxes and catches her. A box with an order drops down into her slot. Luckily it needs a C2.

‘Just what I needed. Thanks.’

He looks at her computer to see what she was focused on, hovering to see what mischief she is up to now. So she fills the box with a noodle strainer, a silicone baking mold, a rechargeable halogen headlamp, and adds some light packing paper to keep all the plastic in place before she tapes the box shut. As she sends it off on the bottom belt, she looks back at the time on the computer. She watches for ten seconds, but nothing happens. She doesn’t know what he was talking about. None of the managers is around so she focuses on it. 11:10:22… :23… :24… :25… :26… :27… :26… :27. Unbelievable. It is true. It is actually doubling back and repeating random blinks of time. Why hasn’t anyone else noticed this? Too busy. These seconds added to the clock are adding nickels and dimes to COR’s bottom line. This is an intentional mistake by an algorithm that is programmed to limit mistakes and profit from having none. This had to be created by the programmer, that sensitive, creator genius whose material extension of thoughts they work through every night. They are all mere time serfs now moving through time shadows. He created shadows of time. Genius. Evil Genius.

And she didn’t even see these time shadows that are right in front of her. ‘That’s just what I needed.’ She mechanically repeats, ‘More time.’ An talks into the tote that has just landed in front of her as if she summoned it. It is empty, a dud. Ironically this human error also wastes her time, but she supposes the algorithm, in fact her whole time here, wastes her time. She should be working on L. That is really what she should be doing. Why is she here again? Oh yeah, she doesn’t have a back-up plan so there is that. One step at a time. She must use her moments just as wisely and just as calculating as it is programmed to do. Her mind has to become as efficient as a program, as it, as an algo.

She watches the clock performing its ghostly actions to slow seconds. Now the work is very quick, much quicker than the associates around her. One of those ‘flashes of brilliance’ or whatever Azzam said he saw on her chart. The movement is stimulating her mind, her synapses; that is all. She has slammed about 7 orders in a couple of minutes. That is what the clock says but it is getting harder to discern reality. What is time and who defines it? How can an associate’s performance be measured against what has now been discovered to be a false construct?

She is an associate working in a futurehouse on a broken clock. What exactly is she associated with? An associate has limited or subordinate membership. They all don’t qualify to be associates because they are not members of anything other than their own constructed systems. Members would mean they actually belonged, that they actually had a stake. In actual fact, one mistake and they are gone. Well, ok that is not true. Three mistakes with written and signed warnings and then they are gone. They are not members of this subversive club that constructed it, that can bend time itself. They are paid not to be subversive and to follow orders, to pack and seek orders, and to maintain social order. Her mind is wheeling around and around. She hasn’t quite figured it out and it is hard when she is tired and there is a box she must complete in front of her. The mind can only concentrate on one task at a time. This might be why so many are in the predicament they are in.

MATT is blinking and tracking his way down the corridor closest to her packing station. Now what is he up to? He moves to the aisle directly adjacent to her station and turns. A bolt of red lights up the entire aisle. Is his sensor that powerful that it can read everything, every item, in an entire aisle? It would have to read over five thousand items. Unbelievable. If that is what it is doing, that is the most powerful…. wait a minute. She has to find out if this is true but if it is then they need that, whatever it is, that device which can sense that much and that fast. MATT’s whole shell must cover some kind of hypercomputer to process all that information. They might need that too. The main thing is that sensor. They need to lure it away for long enough to take what they need for L. She’s not about to pry it out in front of all the cameras on the killing floor. Then they need to get it through security and they need to engineer this operation flawlessly. She will need Ari to reach the next level.

She barely got through that shift. She couldn’t contain her excitement. She sang; she did the packing dance. It was glorious.

Finally now at home with her thoughts at dawn, she needs to be alone to figure this out. Sitting on the rocker pod, perfectly slotted on the semi-terrace, is the most private place she knows. It’s in the back yard so there are no neighbors to spy inside her head as she rocks. I… I… I… I… she is tired of talking to herself. She needs someone to bounce ideas off of. What’s keeping him?

Ari is always late, but she can’t wait to tell him what she’s come up with so far. Now she has to just come up with something… more.

‘I’ve got it.’ she says as she sees his shapely nose come first around the corner.

‘That’s the kind of enthusiastic greeting I expect to hear from you,’ he says as he gently reaches his hand to her shoulder. A static charge jumps between them.

‘Ouch. I know what you have been up to.’

‘What?’ He asks innocently.

’Gaming probably. It doesn’t matter. I know where we can get the power source that we need for L. It’s the robot thing, MATT. Ari, I saw it scan a whole aisle in one flash of its sensor. We just need to figure out a way to get it out of the futurehouse.’

‘Hold on. What?’ He asks as he crouches down to look closer at her.

‘You heard me,’ she says. ‘Why spend months developing it when we can just steal it.’

‘Do you know how much that thing is worth? And what if we get caught? What about security?’

‘I have worked there long enough to know we won’t get it out that way. Anyway, we don’t need the whole thing. Just the scanner and the power source… and maybe the hypercomputer’

‘Hypercomputer? That might be huge,’ His eyes light up with gaming possibilities. ‘So what’s your idea?’

‘OK. Let’s sit down a bit first, so we can warm up to that part.’

‘Oh boy… and let me guess who is going to do the dirty work.’ They walk into her COR unit through the scanned screen and Ari plops down in the old leather chair that she uses as her library. Dust spits and sprays the air, countering his weight.

In the kitchen she fixes up some drinks, some distilled pomegranate with mint leaves—from her personal cache. When she come back he doesn’t look at all comfortable, leaning forward in the chair with his hands on his knees.

‘Here you go,’ she says as he takes the chipped glass.

‘I can’t lose this job.’ He takes a sip and looks at the deep mix of red, green and purple. ‘There is nothing else out there.’

‘I’ve been thinking about a way that takes away any possibility of blaming you. You’ll have the easy job. All you need to do is make it look like that big, clumsy robot has an accident. I’ll do the rest.’

‘May I ask what your plan is after that? They have cameras everywhere you know. They are going to review everything once they figure out what happened. They’ll ask questions about each and every action.’

‘Are you scared?’ she asks, looking him straight in the eyes to see his reaction. ‘I thought gamers don’t get scared.’

‘Don’t mock me. Like I said, if we get caught we lose everything.’ His voice gets lower. ‘Maybe we need more people involved in this operation.’

’The less people that know the better. Look, scout out a place where either there are no cameras or it would be obvious that it was an accident, like near an elevator or some obstruction. Then try to be in one of those locations when it crosses your path. Bam, there’s an accident. And no one is the wiser. These things happen. It will take them a long time before they know why we needed those parts and for what—if they ever figure it out.’

‘Actually I know a spot, a couple spots, but I can think of only one on L1… and remember MATT is confined only to L1.’

‘Great. That is a start anyway. Don’t tell me about it because the less collusion on this the better. If you ever happen to be at that spot at the same time as MATT just give him a shove so he is down for repairs. That’s it,’ she says and shrugs her shoulders.

‘That’s it? You are the eternal optimist. The chances of MATT and me intersecting at that exact location are very slim. It’s outside of the high valuables locker. The management put so many cameras inside the locker that they forgot to put one properly by one newly-painted, bright, red column. Also there is something weird about that area. MATT probably can’t pick up the signal there because of the cage around the valuables. I noticed one time that he slows down at that spot.’

‘I told you not to tell me where,’ she says emphatically. ‘Less collusion means less accountability.’

He looks at her questioningly, rubs his mouth and scratches the stubble on his chin. ’Everyone hates that thing. We all know it is going to take over our jobs. There is probably someone on the night shift who would love to take it out if we just asked… for the right price.’

‘You’re not backing out are you? No one else should know. We agreed on that.’

‘OK. I know. But you keep talking about this big project and I haven’t seen anything yet.’ Ari bites into the mint leaf as he looks directly at her for what he thinks will be her bluff.

An goes on the offensive. ‘If you want out that’s ok. I understand. I don’t want you to get into anything you can’t handle.’

‘Look, I’ll think about it. I can be pretty stealthy if that’s all you need me for. It won’t be hard to knock over a robot and get away with it… if we just happen to cross paths at the right spot that is. I just wonder how you think you are going to get anything salvageable out of that futurehouse fortress.’

‘Don’t worry about it. I should also tell you something I heard going around.’

‘What’s that?’ Ari raises his eyebrows.

‘There’s a rumour I overheard from an associate who knows a manager that we are going to have to start wearing our badges at all times. Permanently.’

‘We do that already.’

‘No, I mean outside. In the world. Outside the futurehouse. Everywhere we go.’

‘But there is a chip in it. They’ll be able to track us.’

‘That’s the idea. They will know wherever any associate is at all times. I suppose they think it will add to efficiency. They will know if we are really sick or not. They will know where everyone is at any given time to call in the closest extra people for overtime.’

‘I mean they will have us. They can do whatever they want with us really. There will be no other place to hide.’ He shakes his head. ‘When is this supposed to start?’

’I just heard it, but if it is going to happen we need to move on L because if they start tracking us everywhere… all our data will be in the algorithm to see our patterns. And if this little maneuver we are about to do shows up as an anomaly in our routines, outside as well as inside the futurehouse, then they will know it’s us. That is why I am saying just do it if your paths cross at this place you know, which I now know, and only go through with it if there is zero chance of evidence against you.’

‘Alright. Only if MATT and I cross paths. Zero chance of evidence. Got it,’ He says as he drains the last purple-red pool and sets the empty glass on the leather armrest’s mechanized, electro-tray.

At 2:45:45 MATT is recorded moving north down aisle one-twenty-one toward the cage. Ari just happens to be moving south on one-twenty as he sees the red-revolving light reflected off the metal ceiling between the aisles. His cart suddenly pulls one-hundred-eighty degrees and darts north toward the cage as well, after he looks at his gun and puts it back in the trolley holster. If MATT happens to stop and pivot robotically right just as Ari comes barreling down one-twenty, it will happen. It is a matter of theoretical chance. Technically it would be the robot’s fault because it didn’t sense the human worker. That is, as long as MATT happens to peek its metal frame into aisle one-twenty just as Ari comes into the corridor which just happens to be the spot where the blinded camera hangs near the high valuables cage.

At these exact seconds, and they are seconds—in the untime-- she has stopped at her station because a wonderful book has jumped from a tote into her hands and she had to open it. It is one of those ‘slightly damaged’ ones but they are her favorite because someone else has loved it first. She likes to think of whom it was that read the book and that is a story in itself. As she touches it, she notices the pages do not all line up perfect leaves. They are rounded, wetted and dried; they are seasoned and have been touched before. The one in front of her reads:

The street was a blind alley. Winston halted, stood for several seconds wondering vaguely what to do, then turned round and began to retrace his steps. As he turned it occurred to him that the girl had only passed him three minutes ago and that by running he could probably catch up with her. He could keep on her track till they were in some quiet place, and then smash her skull in with a cobblestone. The piece of glass in his pocket would be heavy enough for the job. (random19)

She drops her book into the dark of the cardboard box not from her own will.

On the other hand, it is Ari’s pure will that propels his cart into MATT. The two objects in motion do not tend to remain in motion as they have acted upon an unbalanced force, that being each other. If it were only two pieces of metal colliding, the futurehouse would absorb the noise, but MATT was not programmed that way. MATT was programmed like a flow chart. It is written in MATT’s program code: ’in the case of the external shell being upturned, the appendages shall act as fulcrums to right itself. In the case of the external shell being unable to be righted after one second, the alarm shall sound.’ This happens at 4:45:49, after Ari’s cart hit MATT at 4:45:50. So it happened in the untime. Ari’s cart hit it blind at 4:45:50 and the alarm sounded at 4:45:49.

At first, An sees one manager go over to investigate the alarm. Once in the past this happened to the robot when it was stopped by a bolt that fell on the floor and all that was needed was someone to right MATT and it went on its merry way. This time is different. Once the first manager has a look, the heavyweights are called in. Azzam, Ananke and the big boss, who no one ever really sees, is called out of his office away from his shadowy monitors and onto the killing floor, as it is affectionately nicknamed by the associates.

MATT is helplessly laying on what could be construed as its back, the built in platform that holds two totes. In fact its centaur body with tracks instead of four legs and four arms instead of two looks like some military knock-off manufactured by COR. MATT’s totes along with their contents, a bag of pompoms and an antigravity spinning top, have spilled out on the floor. The force of the collision damaged one of its parts, making it unable to right itself. It no longer can move its molecules through the futurehouse pathways in these dark hours nearest the sun’s rising.

In the darkness of my night, in the lightness of my day, An remembers from the Almshouse. This whole gambit seems to be working. She feels the light like a blindfold has been unbound.

It is painfully obvious from its mark and dent what happened. Ari didn’t escape in time and they are grilling him.

‘Why didn’t you follow protocol and look both ways down the corridor before entering it?’

‘I did… I mean I thought it would stop. Weren’t we told it was programmed to stop?’ Ari repeats his ready-made reply.

‘Still you should look for obstructions as well as associates.’

‘What?’ Ari asks, not following the logic.

‘Never mind. We have to file a CARE report now,’ says one of the five managers standing around the fallen robot.

‘CARE report? Are you sure about that? We will have to look up the procedure. It’s not like it needs a doctor. Have Asteria review it in the manual.’ Asteria was the undersecretary.

‘Where are we going to put it? It is out of commission for now.’

‘The hotline and repair will be closed at this time.’

Ari sneaks backward as the night managers discuss the next step.

‘For now we will have to put it in CARE. There is no robot repair area.’

‘That is logical,’ says Azzam.

‘Have Asteria also call head office and get the ok on that just in case.’

‘Right,’ says a middle manager.

‘Get a stretcher from CARE for now and we will treat it as an AI3 injury until we hear otherwise. Who was the other party?’

‘Where did he go? It’s Ari. There you are. Log out from your pathway and come to the boardroom. We’ll review it from there.’

‘OK.’ Ari immediately logs off his gun. He already lost a few minutes on his rate and was trying to hold in his fear. He is mumbling that all of this is going to come back to him. He knows this will all show up on the weekly report. His feet are perspiring under his two layers of socks, on the felt insoles, inside his broken shoes with the angled heels. The Prepurg keeps flashing in the darkness of his mind, as he walks slowly to try to find where the boardroom is. He has never been there. Maybe HR knows.

When the CARE attendants come with a stretcher past all of the packing stations, everyone looks. About a minute later the ridiculous vignette of MATT, the robot, being carried by two humans on a stretcher is displayed past the busy packers. If only the associates could hear each other laugh over the sounds of the futurehouse machines.

So the robot, along with its sensor and hypercomputer, is now in CARE. It is break soon. All the managers will be in the boardroom. It’s all in motion.

In the boardroom, Ari is told to sit by the large monitor. The managers line either side of the long table, but the seat at the head is empty. The general manager must have slipped back into his office, but who knows; he could be watching everything from the camera hanging down over the middle of the table.

Once everyone sits, it begins.

‘Ari would you like a cup of coffee or anything to drink?’

‘I’m OK.’

‘We are just waiting for the recording to load but before that could you tell us your version of the event?’ asks Azzam lowly as he bends over the edge of the wood table.

‘Well, I was just coming into the corridor and the robot came out of nowhere. It turned into my aisle as I went into the corridor. That’s when it hit me.’

‘It hit you?’

‘Yes. It came into my path, so it hit me. That is correct.’

‘And did you see it sense you at all and try to back up quickly?’

‘No. It might not have picked up on me.’

‘OK. We have the chronotape now. Please have a look and tell us what is happening as we move through it frame by frame. What time do you think it actually happened?’

‘I guess around ten to.’

‘No, that’s when I got there. I would say a few minutes before,’ says Ananke.

‘Alright. Let’s roll it at thirteen to and see what we have.’ The monitor shows a grainy black and white image from above. There is the aisle, the criss-crosses of chain link, and the column near the high valuables cage blocking the left side of the view.

‘Is that the best angle we have?’

‘I’m afraid so sir,’ says the technician at the helm of the computer.

‘Well that’s after it anyway,’ booms Azzam.

‘Alright roll it from quarter to and we’ll see what we got.’ Quickly in reverse there is the crowd of managers, then MATT on the ground, the crash, then the robot going backwards up aisle one-twenty-one.

‘OK from there’ a higher manager says.

Ari sighs. They are not going to see him turn around and follow the light. He sucks in a breath and says, ‘From here I am coming down—’

‘Wait a minute. How fast are you going?’

‘I always go as fast as I can without running… according to protocol that is.’

‘Alright go ahead.’

‘Yes, I’m moving quickly down the aisle here and about to turn into one-twenty-one—’

‘Did you hear MATT or see his light? And would you say you were going approximately 7 kilometers an hour?’

‘You know it’s impossible to hear anything with the hum of all the machines around all the time. I might have been thinking about my next item. I don’t know. No, I didn’t see the light. I am not sure about the speed.’ The undersecretary, Asteria, is visual-typing every word Ari says onto her glass screen. Her eyes dart through the letters on the keyboard hologram. The line of questioning continues. Ari comes to realize it is all really about these managers covering any mistakes they might have made.

An leaves about a minute early right before break. She wants the cameras to catch her holding her arm so she makes a production out of it. She stops and shakes it a bit when she notices an eye hanging down. She walks quickly to the scanner and scans out with her other arm awkwardly. Then she goes to CARE. Just as she thought. They have already gone on their break.

There in front of her is MATT lying stretched on the floor. She goes straight for the sensor on his chest. With a click of a button and a twist after a moment to think how it will come out, she has it in her hand. She searches in the cavity for the thing that runs it and clicks open a tray. She takes that too, puts them both in her pocket, and slips away.

It is in her pocket. She has it in her pocket. Now what? She can’t go to the break room. That would mean going through security. She will just hide out in the bathroom for thirty minutes. No, that will be on camera. They will know. The others on the night shift are coming. She goes into the bathroom, opens the paper dispenser and puts the two parts on top of the folded white leaves of paper towel. It should be safe through the break. Then she lines up for security with the last of the stragglers; once in the break room, she eats what the vending machine’s circuits randomly provide. Then it scans her face to recognize any new input data. She smirks like nothing ever happened.

Now, she did prepare for this day. This wasn’t just a lucky coincidence. She bought an item from COR recently. It was a book, that book from her dream. It was The Precariot. She finished reading it and it was really an extraordinary book, but that wasn’t the only reason she bought it. She needed something from it. A small leaf of sticky paper. If all goes well that paper is going to get this sensor into their hands so they can make machine L. They mustn’t lose sight of what they are doing today. ‘This is the step we have been waiting for,’ she speaks out loud. Her mouth is too full of dry rusk for anyone to understand. A new associate at her table that she doesn’t know looks over, but turns back when he sees it is just An.

After the break, she swipes back in after going through security. As she returns to the bathroom, the boardroom is still lit and there are many silhouettes inside. Against the opaque glass, figures are gesticulating, one quite larger than the rest. Ari must still be in there. Hope he comes through. He will. He must. She plays with her hair in the mirror as she waits for the last woman to leave. The Quick 5 has probably already started, so she quickly takes the sensor and drive from inside the paper dispenser and rushes to join the group.

As she arrives, there is only an assistant manager there. He sometimes leads the Quick 5 when everyone else is busy. In fact, she almost thought he is one of them. He is giving the usual safety spiel after there has been an accident.

‘Has anyone seen a safety hazard they would like to share?’

Asis raises her hand. ‘There is a ladder out of place in aisle eighty-seven.’

‘Does everyone hear that?’ He tries to look authoritative. ‘Replace your ladders in the eight-S positions’.

An puts up her hand.

‘Yes, An.’

‘I am not sure this is a safety issue, but I have noticed the timers are out of synch on the computers,’ she says.

No one says anything for a moment.

‘How do you mean?’

‘I mean… the time on the computers, maybe the guns too, it’s off.’

‘I’ll have to check into that.’ He writes a few words down on his red, company spherelet.

‘Check the seconds.’ she says. ‘They repeat sometimes.’

‘That’s impossible,’ he laughs. ‘That’s a joke right?’

A few of the associates who are seeking this shift pick up their logged-in guns. They are watching the seconds… for several seconds.

‘Yeah look. Mine went from :23 seconds to :23 and then to :24’

‘Mine too. Funny I didn’t notice that before.’

‘Hey wait a sec. How can we hit rate if the time isn’t right?’

‘Yeah we should be taken off the algo path until the time is fixed.’

‘We can’t be accountable!’ An older associate takes this opportunity to join in.

The sub-manager takes off his toque and scratches his scalp. Alright, I’ll get a manager on this. For now just get back to seeking and packing and the rate won’t count until this is fixed.’

‘You’re sure? You promise?’ An asks.

‘Yes I’ll make sure of it,’ he says unconvincingly. ‘Now, who wants to lead the stretches?’

Before they get into our stretches, he looks at the time on his spherelet, calls off the whole Quick 5, and says they have to get back to work because the meeting has taken longer than the allotted time and it’s cutting into production. As he sprints off through the motionless stations to find the managers, he passes An and she hears him mutter to himself, ‘One of these days, one of these days.’

With no managers around, or sub-managers for that matter, she has the time to choose her box carefully. After she packs about fifteen boxes there is a pair of VR goggles that is to go in an A2 box with plenty of room left over. Perfect, maybe they are good VR wear. So she puts the goggles in and pulls the sensor and hypercomputer drive out of her pocket as she grabs the wrapping paper. Both items hide seamlessly inside the paper as she fills up the empty space in the box. The address is printed out of the computer with a sticky back. She quickly cuts off the barcode with her COR patented safety knife and pastes her address beside it on the top of the sealed box. It looks passable. On the conveyer it goes. The box stops under a red light for the code to be scanned, then continues. An gets back to work.

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