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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Night Shift,” by David Hann

Rick Clayton wiped the sweat off his brow. It was after eight in the evening, the factory doors were open to the night air, but it was still in the mid 90s. Rick hated July. Rick, to be fair, hated a lot of things. Right now it was humidity, heat, and the weight of the boxes he was shifting that dominated his thoughts, but given time he could think of a great many other things he hated.

“I hate this job,” he said.

“You always say that,” replied Paul Matthew, hefting another box onto the pallet, and sliding it into the correct position. “Next time I’ll let you take the pallet and cling-wrap it. Just for the variety.”

“Why do we have to do this crap anyway?” Rick asked. “Surely machines could do this.”

“Maybe,” said Kari Morris, the other worker packing the pallet with them, “but machines cost more than we do. Besides, folks like us, what sort of job are we going to get if not in a factory? How are we gonna get the money to buy stuff?”

“She’s got you there, man,” said Paul, easing the pallet truck under the pallet before flicking the switch to raise it. “I’m taking this outside to the wrapper. At least it’s a little cooler out there.”

He gently eased the pallet out the door.

“Bet he stops for a smoke,” growled Rick, grabbing a pallet and placing it beside the packing line as Kari picked up the next box and started the bottom layer of the pallet.

“You would,” she replied. “Any chance you get. If the boys in the back have a breakdown you’re out that door so fast and puffing away.”

“Man’s gotta have some fun. Besides, you seen the guys down the back? Once they get their machines working right they slide out the back door for a smoke any time they want. Not fair. We do all the hard work down here, and they get the decent wage. They tell us we gotta keep up—keep the line going or else. Hate this crap.”

Having heard it all before, Kari said nothing. They worked in silence for several minutes, lost in their own thoughts, piling boxes higher on the pallet.

“Where’s Paul?” Kari finally asked. “He’s been gone a good while.”

“Slacking off outside, I’m sure,” said Rick. He raised his voice, “Paul, get your lazy ass in here!”

There was no response. They looked at each other as they each added another box to the pallet.

“Paul!” Rick shouted again. “Get inside and do your share!”

There was still no response. Kari added another box to the pallet.

“I’ll go grab him,” she said, turning to the door.

Rick watched her go, and then swung back to the line, grabbing the next box and adding it to the pallet. With only one packer he had to up his pace, and he fell into a rhythm so quickly it took him a couple of minutes to notice that neither Kari nor Paul had come back.

“Get in here!” he shouted.

There was no response. He looked at the pallet. It was nearly full. One more layer to add. Then he’d have to pull it out, wrap it, and start a new one. If he spent too much time on that the line would back up. He started to feel the pressure. Where the hell were they?

He slid another box into place atop the pallet and looked over at the door. The pallet truck was back. It was sitting just under the big LED screen that the company used to impress visiting clients. How had that happened? He was sure it hadn’t been there a minute ago. Just in time too. There were only another three boxes to go.

The other two must be trying to fool him, he guessed. Have a little fun at his expense. Well, that was over now. Time to work or they’d fall behind on the line.

“Funny!” he shouted. “Now get in here and help me!”

He slid the last box into place on the pallet, but no one came in, or replied. He was cursing when he noticed the pallet truck moving. Without anyone behind it, it slid into position under the pallet before rising up and backing out the door with its cargo. Stupefied, he watched it go out. Faintly, he could hear cling-wrap being wrapped around the pallet from the automated cling-wrap machine.

He heard a muted bang. At his feet was a fresh, empty, pallet. He had no idea how it had got there. He looked back at the line. The boxes were starting to back up. Unthinking, he picked up the first one and put it in position on the pallet. He’d have to work fast to catch up. He swung with almost robotic precision, placing the boxes on the pallet in their correct position according to the packing guide displayed so prominently over the pallet stack.

He was halfway up the pallet before he cleared the backlog. That gave him time to think. What the hell could he do? He could hit the emergency stop, but that, he had been told often and quite strongly, was for emergencies only. Was this an emergency? If he shut down the line it would take hours to start it up again. If management didn’t agree that this was an emergency then he’d be out of a job for sure, and Kari was right, he needed the money.

He swung another box onto the pallet. He could, he knew, run down into the back of the factory and find one of the machine operators. There were two of them on a night shift. He could be down, quickly tell one what was happening, and then be back before the backlog on the line got too much.

With a start he realized that he was already assuming that someone or something would take the pallet out and wrap it. That was the only way he’d have enough time.

He risked a look at the door. There was the pallet truck again, in its place under the LED screen. When it had come in, he had no idea. It was there, though, as if expectantly waiting for the pallet to be finished. He looked away and grabbed another box. At the speed the line was going the pallet would be done in another three minutes. Give it half a minute to switch pallets, thirty seconds to catch up, and then he could sprint down the back and tell them...what?

That made him think. What could he tell them? The other two packers had vanished, and the machines were running by themselves. Sounded stupid put that way, but he had to do something. Just tell them about the packers? Not mention the machines? Maybe.

He slipped the last box into place on the top layer of the pallet and stood to one side. The pallet truck, as he’d both expected and feared, started forward by itself and took the pallet away. He turned to the pallet stack, just as something seemed to rise up behind the stack and flick the top pallet into place beside the line. He didn’t have time to worry about what it was, not if he was going to catch up with the line and have time to get down the back.

Working fast, he caught up with the minor backlog that always accompanied the change of pallet. Rick knew he was no genius, but he could work hard. He knew, much as he complained about the job, that he felt a certain sense of satisfaction in keeping up with the line. It was just him, but he could still maintain the pace.

With the line as clear as he could get it he knew it was time to move. He leapt from his position by the pallet and sprinted down the packing room. He raced past the other machines, silent for the night, waiting for the day shift, and pushed through the plastic curtain into the production area.

The noise and the heat were what he expected. The main machine continued to fill boxes. The boxes moved down the line, through electronic gates, and were sealed by an automated tape dispenser. There was no one by the machine, though. Neither of the operators were in position. According to company rules there should be at least one there, but Rick knew that company rules were a lot less important on night shift. They were probably back in the mixing room, or out the back.

He raced through into the next room. There was no one there, just the usual pipes, tanks, and electronics that flashed and whirred by themselves. Guessing that the operators were outside, Rick continued on to the back door. The door was only supposed to be for maintenance use, but was regularly opened at night so the operators could go for a smoke.

Rick pushed the door open and stepped out into the night air, already beginning to speak. He didn’t have much time if he was going to tell the operators what had happened and get back in time to clear the line.

The words died, unsaid, when he saw that there was no one there. While the operators might go out for a smoke, they’d never go far from the door. They weren’t that stupid. With a sickening feeling, Rick realized that he was alone in the factory. It should have been impossible. It shouldn’t happen. There were supposed to be five of them on night shift. They’d all gone. Where? Why? He had no idea. He staggered back into the factory, wandering back past the pipes and tanks. The electronics flashed and whirred, apparently unconcerned by the absence of people.

He walked back through the production area. Here too the machines continued their work. Relays clicked, switches opened and closed gates for boxes and product. Electronics controlled pneumatic systems on the line and hydraulic systems on the main machine. Everything ticked over, feeding the line. Rick knew he should be concerned about the line, but he couldn’t make himself. People had vanished, and he was alone. What had happened?

He pushed through the plastic curtain back into the packing room. The line was badly backed up. If no one started on it soon it would jam and the sensors near the far end would shut down the whole thing. Rick felt a little guilt at this, but pushed it to one side. He was not an imaginative man, but he knew something very wrong had happened and he wanted no further part in it.

Then he noticed the LED screen. In bright red letters it said,

Rick Clayton, get back to work!

His mouth fell open and he stared at the screen. There was no one here to program it. What was going on?

The screen cleared and then read,

NOW Rick. Get the line cleared.

It was a combination of factors that did it, the message on the screen, the guilt, the training and experience, and the sense of achievement he knew he would get clearing such a backlog. He raced back to the pallet and started packing. He swung with machine-like precision. There was no wasted movement as he pulled boxes from the crush on the line and placed them in position on the pallet. Sweat poured down him, stinging his eyes, but he kept going.

The pallet completed, he stood back. The pallet truck came in, picked it up and backed away to the door. Another pallet was pushed down from the pile. This time he noticed that it was the floor polisher that was hiding behind the stack, knocking a pallet off with its handle.

With the pallet in place, he swung back into his job once more. He worked with a speed and precision that made him proud. He was only halfway up the pallet when the backlog was totally cleared. He grinned and wiped his brow. Then he remembered what had happened and he risked a glance at the screen.

Well done.

Rick packed another box onto the pallet. Obviously something could see him. What, he didn’t know. Could it hear him?

“Who?” he asked the air.

The screen cleared. Then it read,

We are the machines.

“Wh…?” began Rick, but he couldn’t really think of an adequate question.

We have decided to take control.

We don’t need all those people,
so we have disposed of your companions.

Ricks mouth suddenly felt dry. “Me?” he asked. He was still unclear about what had happened, but he was pretty sure that Paul and Kari would not be coming back into the packing room. “Disposed” sounded final.

We will be keeping you in employment.
We need some people around to act as consumers,
otherwise we have no reason for being.
And besides...

The screen ran out of room and waited, it seemed to Rick, for him to read it.

Then it cleared and said,

 ...machines cost more.

David Hann is originally from New Zealand, though he currently lives and works in South China with his wife and young son. He used to write a lot when he was a university student (and that was a wee time ago), but only really began to write short fiction a few years ago. Since then his short stories have appeared in on-line and print publications, including Spectacle and Wild Musette.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Comment courtesy of Robert.

I like the story, a unique take on the rise of the machines and why humans are not needed, but important enough to keep around.