Friday, June 28, 2013

Planned Obsolescence - Part 1

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Bay 11 was down again, and by the time someone thought to call him, the company had lost fifteen bale's worth of production. Not that the operators cared, their bonus for the month was already shot. A few had started turning dials on the factory's cybernetics and injecting hormones into its blood supply – a homeopathic approach to an exact science. By the time the lead operator returned from break and decided to call Marco out, it was too late to save the day's production goal.

Marco ran a hand through his hair, reminding himself that yelling at Servelan, the cryptovet tech, would do no good. “No, the reason it's doing that is because your summoning circle's ley lines are in parallel with the servo cables,” Marco said.

“Well, they have to run that way, or they won't latch up to the syphon,” Servelan said, folding his arms.

“No, they could have gone over there,” Marco said pointing several meters to the outer wall. That's where they were last week.”

“They're a bitch to maintain over there.”

“Yeah, I know because every year, some green cryptomancer re-writes the ley lines over during new moon, then shrug when the induced noise raises hell with the feedback cables.”

“Marco, I keep telling you we don't raise scrubbies from hell," Servelan said, referring to the symbiotes used to keep the factory's toxins from leeching into the final product.

“Figure of speech, Servelan. The bottom line is that the cybernetics won't run right until we get those ley lines feeds put back the way they were.”

“The 'mancers won't like it.”

“They get paid to be on call just like I do. Get them over here.”

There was grousing and grumping when the artificers and cryptomancers made it to the floor. They always dragged their feet when having to work bay 11 with its surly operators, anachronistic machines, and the fossilized engineer that made things damned inconvenient for them. Marco didn't care.

He was one of the few people left that understood the machines fused into the living factory, he was in fact part of the last graduating class before the university's engineering department closed. At the same time, the factory had an accident requiring a pulmonary system overhaul for Bay 11 and the accountants had decided to install a cybernetics suite rather than take the old beast down for a year of grafting and recovery. He thought himself lucky to have landed a real job when his classmates either went to work for museums or put their degrees on the shelf to pursue other careers. Some just raised kids or took to lamenting in the local coffee houses with unemployed philosophy majors. Twenty years later, another twenty short of retirement, he wondered what had happened to them all.

After the ley lines were reset, Marco spent the next two hours re-tuning the servo drives: tight enough to follow the factory's vegetable-brain commands, but loose enough not to overreact to the psychic interference brought on by lunar cycles, Jupiter's orbit, or the solstices. He shouted down to the lead operator, who started the production organ back up. The motors whined to life, shafts turned, and soon the humming of production resumed. His mind felt fried, but he held a glow in his heart. Tuning servos was something only a handful of people in the world could do, and he did it well.

On his way out, he saw Yolanda standing in bay's main orifice. It wasn't often the boss left her office to come to the production organs, unless she was navigating a shortcut between meeting rooms.

“Got a minute?” she said.


She sealed the office flap behind them.

“Marco, I need to talk to you about Bay 11,” she said. She clasped her hands in front of her like she was praying for something.

“Look,” Marco said, “I'm sorry about the delay this morning. I got everything up and running as fast as I could.”

“It's not that,” she said, then paused, clasping and rubbing her hands as she seemed to search for words. This was it, Marco thought, they were going to pass him over for promotion again, even though he knew more about how the old beast was put together than anyone else. Martins would be the new department head, he just knew it. Sharp kid, but she never listened to him in the technical meetings. Doomed to repeat the same mistakes he and others made over the past twenty years.

“I've told those thaumaturgical jockeys that they can't just put their ley lines where they want, or summon any old efritt to do the lube lines. The kids coming out of college these days just don't pay attention to details.”

“No Marco,” she said, “I'm not even supposed to say anything until the official announcement, but I felt you of all people should know. It's about your position.”

His heart sank. He wasn't getting the promotion. Best to put a good face on it, he thought. He had outlasted two department heads before this, he could outlast one more.

“Martin's going to be the new department head? I won't say I'm not disappointed for my own sake, but she's a good choice.”

“You misunderstand me, Marco. The company has decided to retire the factory.”

“Excuse me?”

“We're opening a duplicate plant next month, and won't need the extra capacity from the old beast.”

“But it takes mega-billions to grow a new plant. I didn't hear about any appropriations for developing a new facility.”

“We aren't buying new, we're copying the existing design.”

“The genomancers' IP lawyers will sue us into oblivion for copyright infringement.”

“There's a loophole. It's been a corporate secret, but they had the old beast cloned when it got injured. If we replace one-for-one, we're in the clear. The old beast's clone has been aging off-site and is now ready for business. We'll be moving all staff over, except for those functions no longer needed.”

Marco sat there stunned, like she had just driven a skewer through his stomach.

“Let me guess: there isn't a desk for the industrial cyberneticist keeping this old plant alive.”

“I'm sorry Marco.”

They must have planned this before he had been hired, a twenty year secret. And they say corporations never take the long view.


Marco ran to the station, using his twenty-year service plaque as an umbrella. He missed the 5:05 millipede by a good ten minutes. Now he was not only out of breath for nothing, his stomach threatened to puke up the every piece of retirement cake he had eaten out of spite. He found a bench and watched the traffic go by, people in their velocipedes with shiny carapaces, others in methane-powered autos. Thank god he hadn't bought a new fartermobile last year; he couldn't keep up those kind of payments anymore.

What the hell would he do now? Retrain? He didn't have the wherewithal to go back to school, trying to re-learn the math he had forgotten, keep up with kids who could (in theory) study far harder, and listen to professors who didn't know the first thing about application. He had already been through that wringer once, somehow managing to graduate. He suspected he would have flunked out if the program hadn't dying anyway. Why protect a reputation?

He was a museum piece.

He wondered if the museums were hiring.


The curator's office reminded Marco of his college advisor's: Cheap extruded workshelves filled with books and obsolete tablets, carpeting worn flat between the door and the desk, a chipped coffee mug with a faded museum logo on the side. In fact, save that it was populated by quasi-live furniture, Gonzo's office was like stepping back into the pre-rift age.

Marco shook the Gonzo's hand, and sat back into a short-furred lumbar.

“Sorry,” Gonzo said, “the chair's a bit lumpy and only massages for a few minutes. I've overfed them, I'm afraid.”

“Perfectly fine,” Marco said, “My back could do with a bit of sitting straight anyway.”

“Quite, quite.” Gonzo tapped at his chin, a mannerism taking Marco back to their college days.

Gonzo had been one of those types good at a bit of everything, who studied a bit of everything, and only settled on engineering because his parents wouldn't pay for his schooling if he didn't get a degree in some field, any field. He would never study, rarely go to class, and still pull off Cs and the occasional B. He had the intuitive gifts of a genius, but the attention span and drive of a fat magpie. They had graduated together, Marco beating down the doors of anyone who still needed engineers, while Marco never expressed interest in using his degree. So of course Gonzo was hired right out of school by the museum and had never left.

“I need a job,” Marco said, “and I thought the museum of science and industry could use me.”

“Mm, so you said in your cover letter,” Gonzo shuffled through several piles of paper until he pulled out what he was looking for. “I must say,” he said, scanning the page, ”that you are certainly the most qualified industrial cyberneticist to ever apply, and the museum sure could use your skills.”

There was a catch in his voice that set off bells in Marco's head. “I sense a 'but,' in this.”

Gonzo gave him a sour smile. “Sharp as always, Marco. The fact is, mine is the only funded position in the technical department.”

“But you have a crew of seven techs.”

“I do, but they're enthusiasts, Marco. Weekend warriors with day jobs, or retirees. They work for the museum for free admission and a chance to touch the exhibits. None of them are paid; some of them are even our largest benefactors.”

“So they're rich amateurs. I'm a professional. I can handle anything they could, and you wouldn't have to wait for the weekend or after hours to get things done. That's got to be worth something to you.”

“True,” Gonzo said, “But I don't have the budget to hire you.” He spread his hands. “I'm sorry, Marco, I wish I could. The best I can do is bringing you in as a consultant when there's a problem neither the volunteers nor I can solve.”

“How often would you need me?”

“Maybe once every three years or so.”

“I can't believe your equipment is that reliable.”

Gonzo laughed, “The demonstration exhibits are simple, Marco! Mostly wires, lights, and a couple of moving parts. We don't use anything all that advanced; anything beyond the basics would be lost on the visitors.”

Marco slumped into the chair, which groaned under his weight. He absently smacked at it to shut it up. If there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was surly furniture.

“Don't feel bad, Marco, I always admired you. You were living the dream while the rest of us had to move on and find something else.”

“You never wanted a job in industry.”

“I loved studying engineering as much as any other subject, but I knew I couldn't be happy doing the real work. I prefer the life of a romantic dilettante.” Gonzo inclined his head with a small smile.

Marco laughed and shook his head.“You got any leads for me?”

“You could try the zoo. One of my colleagues mentioned that she can never find anyone that truly understands their power grid.”

“I'm a cyberneticist, not a power guy.”

“I doubt they'd see the distinction. You're an electrical engineer, whatever the flavor.”

“I hate animals.”

“I don't think they'd make you clean the cages.”

“I'll think about it,” Marco said. He rose and shook Gonzo's hand.

“Best of luck,” the curator said.


The zoo hadn't wanted him full-time either. Like the museum, they relied on volunteers and could only offer him a consultant's job when something popped up they couldn't handle. How often would that be? Oh, once a year on average. Marco thanked her and left his contact information. Could he just consult for a living? He had a niche, sure, but only a handful of potential clients. He'd probably starve while waiting for the call.

He could become a professional bum, just wander around the city begging for change in the parks and sleeping under the pachyderm recyclers. Sure the smell wouldn't be great, but the beasts would keep him warm all winter long. No, that wouldn't do. He put his mug under the coffee extruder and absently scratched the unit behind the ears while it worked.


For all the years he had maintained machinery, Marco decided it was time to build something. He took the stairs to his apartment's basement and rummaged in his storage pod. Under the crates of old books and magazine readers, past a bag of phones, wedged between a toaster and a buggy whip, he found the crate he was looking for. The plastic sides had become spotted and fuzzy from mildew, but hopefully the contents were still dry. He pulled the bin out into the hallway and ripped the cover off.

He pulled out a metal cylinder like a baby from the crib, albeit one trailing grimy wires, hoses, and plugs like entrails. He turned it about, inspecting the copper coils for the tell-tale green flakes of oxide, bending the wires to check for cracked insulation, and turning the motor shaft by hand, feeling the shaft grab as it rotated past the internal magnets. It needed work, but the unit was still in decent shape.

In his apartment, he spread the wires and tubes across the floor in an arrangement familiar to long-dead electricians and equipment mongers. The arcane tools of his trade: screwdriver, pliers, and multimeter aided him in bringing life back into his creation. After three days of sequestering himself, pouring over his hand-revised schematics, and scavenging long-obsolete parts, he was ready to test the unit. All he needed was power.

Our story continues next week. 

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