I awoke early the next morning, slowly and after considerable rolling around and contemplating the eternal early morning question of "Who am I and what am I supposed to be doing?" I use early in the relative sense, relative that is to when one actually went to bed and how much sleep one required. I believe it was actually nearing nine o'clock, and since it eventually occurred to me that I was to start work this morning, I managed to get out of bed and get myself reassembled in a somewhat orderly manner.
On the way out the door I paused by the discom. There was a slip of paper sticking out of the hardcopy slot, so I pulled it out and, with considerable difficulty, focused my eyes on it. It was a funds transfer receipt. A dining and entertainment establishment called "Another Cheap Dive" had effected a transfer of one hundred and thirty-five furts, sixty rappen, for "comestibles, beverages and service," transaction completed at 2:31 AM, this present morning. I made a mental note to investigate what that was about. As with most mental notes, it was of course relegated to the mental wastebasket shortly thereafter.
So I was off to work. Out the door, down to the corner, and on to the slidewalk. One of the advantages of the modestly upper scale neighborhood where I then lived was the proximity to a number of public slidewalks. Once one became familiar with the network of moving belts getting from one part of the city to another was simply a matter of hopping on and off at the right spots and connecting the spots with a few blocks of brisk walking.
After retracing my steps of the previous evening, I located the building I had inspected the evening before. I entered the now bustling lobby and presented myself before a directory podium in the center of the lobby.
"What is your destination, please?" a synthesized voice asked, as I triggered the podium's motion detector.
"Resource Optimization," I announced. The voice returned with "That will be Suite 12, on the fourth floor. Please take elevator five." To my left an elevator door opened and a large number five set into the wall above it began to flash. I entered the indicated elevator and shortly found myself deposited on the fourth floor. So far, so good.
The entrance to Suite 12 was as uninformative as the directory on the exterior of the building. A door of brightly finished hardwood with a simply but nicely executed brass plaque bearing the name, and nothing more. It appeared they felt that, in their line of work, the name was explanation enough. Promising, very promising. A secure, well-established firm has definite advantages as an employer. With one of these upstarts that only opened its door yesterday, can one be at all certain they'll open the door again tomorrow? I entered, hearing, mentally of course, an appropriate fanfare for a historic occasion.
The outer office was impressive, as outer offices go. Nicely done wood and plaster, decorative plants and touches of polished stone facing for accents, tastefully subdued but rich feeling carpet underfoot. And a human receptionist at a central, semi-circular desk. Very tacky, I say, for a firm to have a servot, however well programmed, to greet visitors at their most important offices.
"D. Malvern to see M. Beeson," I said in a business-like but still pleasant voice. She toggled a few keys and glanced at a display screen unobtrusively built into the desktop.
"Ah, Mr. Malvern. Yes," she returned in a pleasant voice. Then she appended a slightly tart, "You're rather late."
I was uncertain as to whether the tone of her voice indicated concern or peevishness. She spoke into an artfully concealed microphone. The desk obviously harbored some fairly clever acoustical devices; while she was obviously speaking, all I could hear on my side of the desk was a low, indecipherable murmur.
"Miss Beeson will be out in a moment, Mr. Malvern," she said.
I thought to engage her in a bit of conversation, perhaps find out a bit of the unofficial story of R.O. Inc., but hadn't the chance. A sliding door whooshed back into its pocket, and M. Beeson strode through with a stride that was in the habit of annihilating distance. She was taller than average, a severe, blonde woman of middling age who would have been quite attractive to someone who was attracted to the goal-obsessed. To someone who was suddenly concerned with the fear of being trampled, her physical attributes were of secondary consideration to her stopping ability.
"Mr. Malvern?" she asked, in a deep soprano. Pure business, no detectable sociability.
"Yes. Very pleased to..."
"You're late. You should have been out at The Site an hour ago. Come along."
Off we went through the door she had entered by, and down a nearly sterile hallway. The off-white walls were sparsely decorated with a handful of pleasant but common paintings and photographs. The doors to the offices on either side bore names and titles that were generic to any business, directors of various planning operations, personnel operations, financial operations, operating operations. At one open door in the domain of the personnel persons we turned in and M. Beeson halted before a desk manned by a rather more attractive young woman.
"This is Mr. Malvern, whom we've been expecting."
I thought I detected just a trace of reproach in her tone.
"Ah, yes. I have your packet right here," she said. She glanced at the clock on the wall. "You're late."
She handed a large manila envelope to M. Beeson, who, in turn, handed it to me.
"The usual personnel forms and information sheets," she said. "Complete them when you have time. Send them up to the main office through the inter-office mail. The forms, that is. I suggest you study the information sheets thoroughly. As a matter of routine, personnel would orientate you, but there won't be time today, since you're late."
And she was off again. I suspect that if I'd blinked she would have been out of sight and I'd have been left to wander. Fortunately we didn't have much farther to go. A few doors down we turned in at the home of "Coordinator - Site Operations." Seated at a desk, just inside the door, nursing a cup of coffee and perusing with little apparent interest a stack of reports sat a youngish looking fellow. On M. Beeson's arrival he carefully placed the coffee on the desk and stood up.
"Donald, this is Mr. Malvern," M. Beeson said. "I suggest you hurry him along to The Site. George will be getting anxious." He extended his hand. I proffered mine and we shook. It was the first friendly gesture I'd encountered here at Resource Optimization.
"You're late," Donald said. "We should have been at the site two hours ago."
M. Beeson had already disappeared. Donald turned and opened the narrow door of a closet set in the wall behind his desk. He removed a pair of long, white coats. One of these he handed to me.
"They really don't serve any useful purpose other than as a sort of uniform," he said, putting on the other coat. "Still, higher management wants us to wear them whenever we're out at The Site. Image thing, you know."
He bent over his desk and toggled a switch.
"Breford here. Going to The Site. Flag a car, please." He straightened up and stepped towards the door. "Follow me, if you will," he tossed back over his shoulder.
Down another hall we went, then into an elevator, a quite rapid one. My stomach indicated that it was also a multi-directional one at that, making some significant lateral jogs on the way down. When it eased smoothly but rapidly to a stop, I strongly suspected that we were well below and off to one side of the building. One glance around upon stepping out confirmed the suspicion. We had been deposited at a node of a semi-private transit system, the sort available only to subscribing companies and individuals with sufficient resources to indulge their desires to avoid the unwashed masses on the slidewalks. Within moments of our arrival a bulbous plastic and aluminum car slid noiselessly up to the dock and split open like a giant, man-eating clam. We entered and were engulfed, then whisked out of the station and down a softly lit tube.
As we moved down the tube, the scenery consisting of dull walls broken periodically by switching points and stations, Donald maintained the same stolid silence he'd kept since we left his office. I thought I'd try to maintain a cheery banter.
"So, we're off to The Site," I said.
"Yes," he said.
I waited ten seconds or so. Then another twenty.
"Ah, where would The Site be located?"
"Ilnesprol," came the reply.
Not surprising. Ilnesprol is an industrial suburb of Ilnestrom, tucked away in a valley to the northwest, behind a nicely wooded ridge that hides all views of the complex from The City. By and large it's a city of machines. Only the relative handful of people who are needed to supervise the thousands of autonomous fabricating machines ever bother to go there.
Not that it's a particularly unpleasant place. I'd been there on a school trip many years previously. It's a standard destination for students of a given age. In some respects, Ilnesprol is actually rather bucolic. Most of the buildings are low, simple, and inexpensively constructed. Many of them are only the uppermost stories of structures sunk well down into bedrock or tunneled laterally into the valley slopes, such designs being much preferred by those operations concerned with maintaining steady temperatures and humidity. Power comes through hidden, underground superconducting cables. Roadways are largely the orderly province of robolorries, shuttling to and fro as their routing controllers dictate.
All in all, it's quite a tidy place, a place of efficiency and productivity, but as boring as a sheep meadow studded with gray, weathered rocks and traversed by woolly creatures with little more intellect than the rocks. The paucity of human inhabitants means that facilities for their use are equally rare. Certainly every factory that requires any significant human presence is equipped with commissary servots. But a cup of coffee and a butterhorn from a self-propelled combination coffeepot and fridge is not quite the same thing as a similar meal at a quaint little place on the corner, with human waiters, the banter of the other customers in the ear and the passing crowd in view. Ilnesprol is a model of efficiency, but it is a place to visit once and say you've seen it, not a place where one would want to spend significant amounts of time.
The car emerged from its tube on the edge of Ilnesprol, shooting out of a tunnel entrance in the side of the ridge and down through a small clump of trees to latch onto one of the automated roadways. It slipped neatly between two large freight carters, which neatly blocked the view to front and rear, so that all I could see of the place was a large metal door to the front, a large metal grill to the rear and pastel colors zipping by, interspersed with green swathes. My first view of "The Site" was a pale yellow wall with a rectangular port for the shuttle as the vehicle slid sharply out from behind its gargantuan escorts and parked alongside a loading dock.
"The Site," Donald said, stepping out onto the dock.
"Yes, most impressive," I said, following him. I still hadn't the faintest idea what business was transacted at The Site.
He led the way through a metal door and up a flight of non-descript, factory style aluminum stairs. Still no indication of what was going on, no sign of other employees. I thought I detected low, rumbling sounds, as of ponderous masses of machinery in motion, punctuated by odd rattling, clanging sounds.
The top of the stairs emptied into a short hallway decorated in industrial chic, all scuffed paint, scratched plastics and once upon a time polished metal fixtures. Several doors led off to either side, to closets or offices or what-not. A wall-mounted food service machine dripped coffee onto the linoleum on one side. The hallway ended at a metal door marked, simply, "Operations."
True to its word, upon opening the door we found ourselves in a sort of combined observation deck and control room. A fellow in the official Resource Optimization knee-length white coat stood with his back to us, looking out through a wide, slanted window at the far side of the room. Similar windows lined the room to either side. He turned upon hearing us approach.
"Hello, George," said Donald. "I've brought your understudy, Mr. Malvern. Dennis, was it?"
"Dunstan, actually. I'm late." I thought I'd seize the initiative, in the tradition of Uncle Grump. "Sorry about that."
"Late? Oh, I suppose you are a bit. Been so busy here I hadn't noticed."
"I'll leave Mr. Malvern in your care, George, and be on my way back to the office."
And with that Donald was gone. Rather gave one the impression that "The Site" was not a popular place for workers from the head office to hang about.
"Well, this is what we at Resource Optimization refer to as The Site," George said.
"So I gathered," I said. "Though in my brief employ no one has as yet informed me just what it is we do here."
"Oh?" George said, capturing the essence of surprise in that one syllable when he combined it with the look on his face. "How odd! Well, I suppose they thought you'd be well aware of our operations. We're an industry leader. Just look out here and you'll see the largest and most efficient device of its kind on Eastcon. And we've a dozen more as well, some nearly as large, at other locations in the major urban centers of the planet."
I went to the observation window and looked out.
"Oh," I said, gazing down at the largest mass of refuse I had ever seen, all of it slowly moving while dozens, perhaps hundreds of mechanical arms picked it over. "A garbage recycler," I said, pondering at some length the possible irony in Uncle Grump's selection of a career for me.
"Yes," said George in a flat and uninterested tone. "The name, I would think, is quite self-explanatory. All materials end up as what you indelicately refer to as garbage at some point in the consumption cycle. We prefer to consider refuse an under-utilized resource, or perhaps more appropriately, a resource waiting to be put to a better use. At The Site we optimize their potential by differentiating the components of the so-called garbage stream and shunting them off to appropriate facilities to re-enter the usage cycle. This of course is the primary extraction phase. Once the easily identifiable and recoverable material has been removed the remainder will be pulverized and subjected to various other recovery techniques. At the end of the stream, only about fifteen percent of the original mass will remain, to be sent to the plasma furnace or be disposed of by composting, as appropriate."
He stepped over to the broad window to stand next to me. Below us, spreading a good fifty meters from left to right and not less than two hundred fifty meters fore and aft, stretched a conveyor belt grunting along at a good walking pace under an immense load of post-industrial detritus. Jumbled as it was, most was indistinguishable beyond certain loose categories, packing and crating materials or demolished household goods, for example. Here and there the odd bit of a newly deceased chair or defunct machinery stuck out of the roiling mass. The sight of all the spindly, overhead spider arms in rapid motion, plucking items from the chaos and flinging them into bins, was mesmerizing.
"What an incredible amount of garbage!" I said, quite amazed at the sight.
"I suppose, like most people you thought it merely disappeared. Down the garbage chute and into oblivion. Just like that. Gone!"
He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. George had the tone of one of those people who take their employment seriously, and find it utterly amazing that others don't quite see the attraction in it.
"I must confess," I said, "that it has not been one of the overriding concerns of my life. As you say, open the hatch, pop it in and, if it isn't entirely gone at least it's someone else's concern."
"Well, it's your concern now, Dennis."
"Dunstan, please." I said, though I'm certain he didn't hear me. He was gazing over the rolling, multi-hued river of discards with the intensity of someone about to give a speech. And so he did.
"This is vital work we do here, Dennis. Do you have any idea how many cultures choked to death on their own waste? And how many civilizations died for want of raw materials?"
I shook my head, indicating the negative. That was another concept I hadn't spent much time worrying about.
"Countless! That's how many! Countless! Civilization after civilization, rising only to drown and starve at the same time. It's all a circle, ying and yang, and the fools couldn't see it. They were up to their necks in what they called trash while they searched frantically for more resources to convert into more trash. And without operations like Resource Optimization we'd be in the same boat, Dennis. Glutted and starving at the same time."
He paused. Took a few breaths. His demeanor returned to its former calm, somewhat detached state.
"Your job here is quite straight forward really," he said in a flat, pedantic voice. "From the control pod here you can see virtually the entire belt. Remote cameras can be focused anywhere on the belt for closer inspection. A variety of sensors positioned at intervals along the belt will alert you to any situation that requires human intervention. Likewise, sensors attached to the selector arms will alert you to difficulties with any of the selectors."
"And how often does a difficulty occur?"
"Well, by definition, a non-pre-defined, non-self-correctable processing interrupt occurrence is something that happens at unpredictable intervals. After all, if a particular species of interrupt occurred with some regularity we would be able to program for it, and then it wouldn't be a problem and neither of us would have to be here to deal with it, would we?"
"Yes, yes. But in an average, say, month, how often might such a thing occur?"
George screwed up his face and thought. At first the facial contortions gave me the impression that he was about to lambaste me for implying that his system was not fully competent to handle its work. But, from what I'd seen of him so far, I decided that he was most likely tallying up every stoppage in the recorded history of the system, and working out the average to several decimal places.
"I believe it comes out to about four times a week or so. Perhaps four point five. Mostly stoppages are of an insignificant nature, easily cleared. Be that as it may, your task is to intervene as appropriate to insure the operational integrity of the system and the maximum throughput of materiel."
"And just how do I intervene," I asked. The thought had suddenly occurred to me that intervention might be a polite way of describing climbing down a wobbly ladder, slogging through the mire, and shoveling a mass of indescribable filth away from a selector arm assembly. George led me back to the central console, pulled open a drawer and removed a very thick, very dog-eared volume. He dropped it on the desktop next to the terminal. This surprised me. With the impressive level of automation one would have expected Resource Optimization to have something a bit more sophisticated than ink on paper.
"From here you can direct video monitors on the area of the occurrence and take direct control of any selector arms necessary. The selectors all have overlapping ranges, so that you can actually use them to perform minor repairs on each other, remove jammed debris, what have you. I would suggest that you start off by studying this manual, which contains the command language for the system, as well as examples of how to handle interrupt occurrences. There is an online tutorial land help facility if you prefer that, but I've always found that nothing impresses a subject on the mind like digging it out of a hardcopy. You pick up so much more information in the course of paging through to your topic than you do by punching it up on the screen.
"You'll find the system is quite versatile. Actually, when the material load is light, we've been known to indulge in a bit of horseplay with the selector arms. It's a good way to develop a feel for controlling the system. And it's quite fun, really."
Yes, and when I have a moment or two to spare, I like to dabble in a bit of level-fifteen Segeyevan calculus. But at least there would be something to do besides watch the garbage river flow by. George spent about another five minutes describing the operations. And that concluded my orientation as a garbage recycling technician. I seated myself behind the console and flipped open the manual.
George went on about whatever it was he concerned himself. I had the distinct impression he was rather more comfortable with the machinery than with people. Certainly this was an advantage for someone working in Ilnesprol, where machines were much more common than people. We passed what little remained of the morning in this way, my thumbing through the manual, George essentially ignoring my presence, other than to answer the odd question about what the writers of the manuals really meant or where to find lunch.
As to the latter, as well as I could determine, there were no establishments within the immediate area that actually served something that could be described as food. George made several suggestions, but not surprisingly the product they offered would more properly classify them as refueling stations than restaurants. I resolved to forgo the noon meal, reward myself in the evening and make better arrangements on the morrow.
Early in the post-lunch hours George approached me.
"I've had a call from the Rosenlund Site. I've got to go there immediately. You'll be in charge here, but as you've no doubt noticed, that entails very little more than what you've done already. If the console should issue a series of beeps, check the message on the console and respond appropriately. When in doubt refer to the manual. As a last resort, punch up the Central Assistance number. At 1700 hours set the system on unattended and depart if you wish."
The last bit of phrasing, a slip of the tongue no doubt, confirmed a suspicion that had been growing in the back of my mind. George had obviously been sequestered with his beloved system for much too long. A question entered my mind. I realized I still had the stack of forms to fill out and return via inter-office mail.
"Oh, George. How do I go about sending forms by interoffice mail?"
"You'll find pre-addressed envelopes in the desk over there. Just indicate the department you want, toss it in the box there, above the paper recycling slot."
He departed without further comment and I went back to drowsily perusing the manuals. I had a very pleasant nap for a while, and then, feeling ready for some excitement, I took George's advice about exercising the system. The command language was a derivative of the well known and widely used Basic Operations Language / Olmstad Extensions. Virtually every school I'd attended utilized one or another variant of good old BOL/OX, and I'd used enough of them that getting a feel for this system posed no great problem.
I issued a system status report request, to limber up the old fingers, and after the third attempt, what with typographical and syntactical errors and all, determined that the system was running at 65% of capacity. That seemed to indicate that I could safely experiment without noticeably affecting production. So I ventured forth.
First, controlling an individual selector arm assembly. I picked one, identified by a small placard as 28-115, that I had a clear view of and thus could observe the results of my commands. It was frustrating at first, the arm swinging widely, overshooting first and then undershooting the particular bit of bric-a-brac I aimed for. But soon I began to get the hang of it. George was right about the flexibility of the system. I advanced from issuing direct commands to writing routines to control the selectors. Good old selector 28-115 was before long flipping bits of trash with much more style. Cast-off bits of this and that were describing lovely arcs across the moving belt.
Soon that grew old. I looked for more challenging games. A broken table leg appeared in the detritus. I snatched it with selector 23-68. More bits of this and that became extemporaneous balls and for a while I had a game of bat and ball going. When more suitable bats appeared I varied the game into a round robin sort of thing.28-115 would toss the thingee to 23-68, which would bat it over to 25-12. In turn, the item would rebound off assorted makeshift bats until 28-115 caught it in mid air and sent it off to the appropriate bin.
I experimented with a number of variations on this game, invented a few more, sword fights between selectors and what-not. My masterpiece was something I termed anti-missile defense. It started with tossing a bit of bric-a-brac into the air and then knocking it down with another bit thrown by another selector. From this humble beginning, I programmed increasingly difficult interception tasks. Increasing the number of attacking selector arms, I programmed my defenders to down or deflect ever larger swarms of incoming projectiles. When I had the program down pat, one hundred percent bomb-proof, as it were, I made it more exciting by making the control room the ground zero of the incoming missiles. It was quite thrilling to stand there, watching the bits of assorted offal arcing towards me, only to be knocked off course by other bits of trash before they could impact. George was right, after all. The system could be fun.Go to Chapter 4